On February 19, 1997, 16-year-old Evan Ramsey entered his high school in quiet Bethel, Alaska and used a shotgun to fire on fellow students. He killed one student and the principal and injured two additional students. According to his friends, Ramsey complained of being harassed and teased by other students, even to the extent of only addressing him as “”Screech””, a character from the TV series Saved by the Bell. After the attack, Ramsey alleged the student he killed was one of his tormentors. At some point prior to his attack, the Ramsey asked the principal and dean of students for help with the bullying he was experiencing. Though the situation seemed to improve, it was only temporarily. The teasing and bullying soon resumed. Ramsey asked the principal for help a second time, but this time he was told to ignore the bullies. He tried but felt like the victimization worsened. Feelings of hopeless dominated his life. In addition to being harassed by peers, Ramsey had a long history of abuse. His mother lived with a series of violent men who abused Ramsey and his brothers. He also was physically and sexually abused by an older boy in one of the foster homes he was placed. After his attack, Ramsey explained he felt as though he had asked the “proper people” for assistance, but he was denied help. He felt he had no other option but to bring a gun to school. His initial plan was to scare his tormentors and get them to leave him alone, but when some friends learned of the plan, they told him that he had to use the weapon to shoot people or the bullying would continue. Ramsey decided he would have to fire the weapon at people in order to end his torment. (NTAC, 2018)
In the wake of this tragic incident, we should be asking how we can prevent this from happening again. Unfortunately, no simple answer exists. It is necessary to use a multi-faceted approach that includes students, parents, school officials, police, and the community.
First, I will discuss how community stakeholders can work together to create a safe school culture that prevents bullying and violence on their school campuses. Second, I will explore how a school police/School Resource Officer (SRO) relationship with the school and parents could have helped to mitigate these incidents of bullying.
The question How do we prevent bullying at our school? Is a subset of a much larger question: How do we prevent violence on our campuses? One of the key findings in the U.S. Secret Service and Department of Education’s (2002) study on preventing school shootings was the need to create a connected and safe school climate. Ramsey’s act of violence displayed two key pathway warning behaviors for intended violence: (a) leakage, and (b) last resort warning behavior. Leakage is the most common behavior seen when a person is on a pathway to intended violence. The person will tell a third party (not the target) of the intention to commit violence. Ramsey had been sharing this information in his writings and with friends—who kept it to themselves, and in one instance encouraged him to escalate his plan to be more deadly.
Last resort warning behavior is seen in the form of increasing desperation or distress in both words and actions. The victim has exhausted all nonviolent means to remedy the problem. He feels trapped; violence is only remaining option. In the victim’s mind, violence is justified because all nonviolent means have failed to resolve the predicament. Ramsey felt that his only option—the only way to stop the pain—was to commit a lethal act of violence and then die in the process.
After the attack, investigators found a note written by Ramsey, a legacy token, meant to explain the underlying reasons for his shooting:
“Every body!! I feel rejected, rejected, not so much alone, but rejected. I feel this way because the day-to-day treatment I get usually it’s positive but the negative is like a cut, it doesn’t go away really fast. I figure by the time you guys are reading this I’ll probably have done what I told EVERYONE I was going to do. Just hope 12 gauges don’t kick too hard but I do hope the shells hit more than 1 person because I am angry at more than 1 person. One of the Big [expletive] is Mr. Ron Edwards, he should be there, I was told this will be his Last year, but I know it WILL BE HIS LAST YEAR. The main reason that I did this is because I’m sick and tired of being treated this way everyday . . . By the way every one always told me “Don’t Judge A Book By It’s Cover.’’ This saying is true because I was told that my teachers say that “He’s Such A Good Kid.’’ But they Say that About everyone. I don’t think I’m a good-Hearted person. LIFE SUCKS in its own way, so I killed a little and killed myself. Jail isn’t and wasn’t for me, ever.”
Last resort warning behavior is directly connected to the victim’s feeling of having exhausted all possible resources to stop the pain. School districts can make a difference in every student’s life. Students should never feel that they have reached the last rung of the ladder, with no place to go but violence. Intervention resources should be provided by the school and the school police officer.
Assess the School’s Culture
The first step in creating a safe school climate is to assess the school’s culture of bullying and violence. No school administrator, teacher, or parent wants to believe that his or her school is not a safe place. It is incumbent on all stakeholders, such as parents, teachers, school administrators, school board members, and local police/school police/SRO to take a step back and carefully assess the school’s culture, perhaps asking difficult questions for the first time. This can be done in various ways: focus groups, anonymous surveys of students, face-to-face interviews, and after-action interviews to address critical incidents. Stakeholders should look internally at the process by which bullying or other violent incidents are handled and assess their staff’s readiness to respond to indicators of bullying or violent warning behaviors. The data from these assessments should be shared, and feedback given to all affected parties. Sharing this information with all stakeholders will help to build the necessary foundation for a climate of safety, empowerment of students, and connection of parents to the school community.
Assess Students’ Perceptions
As a school safety expert, I have consulted with school districts throughout the United States. One of the most common questions that school officials ask me is, How can we change our school’s culture and our students’ perceptions of violence and bullying? Shaping a safe school culture starts with a clear mission statement that is shared with students, parents, teachers, and school officials. A safe school mission statement may look something like this: This school is a safe place dedicated to teaching and mentoring students to be healthy productive citizens. To that end, our school is a bully-free zone. Violence of any kind, in word or deed, is not acceptable or tolerated. The school must then create systems to foster that mission.
Evan Ramsey’s plan to bring a shotgun to school was far from a secret. He enlisted two other boys. Both were later charged in juvenile court as being accessories. One of the boys showed Ramsey how to fire the gun. Other students were told too. Nearly 20 students knew something big was going to happen on the morning or February 19th. They congregated on the second-floor library balcony which looked down on the school’s central common area. One student even brought a camera to record what Ramsey was going to do. One girl, learning about the pending attack, made Ramsey promise not to follow through.
Schools must work to change students’ perception that telling an adult about witnessing bullying or other concerning behavior is “snitching.” The Safe School Initiative (2002) study found that most school shooters had shared their plan to commit violence with other students; however, very few of the students who knew about these plans told parents or school officials before the violence occurred. One of the primary obstacles that keep students from reaching out to school staff and reporting violence and other safety issues is the physical act of walking into the principal’s office and reporting a bullying incident face-to-face. It is emotionally taxing and even frightening to many students. The physical act of standing in the principal’s office reinforces the student’s feeling that he or she is “tattling” or “snitching.” Schools that use anonymous or confidential reporting programs see a much higher degree of student engagement than schools that do not offer this anonymity. As a school behavioral threat assessor, I have seen great success at schools that use a dedicated telephone number for students to text their concerns about campus safety. Ideally, the number is monitored by a school administrator, School Resource Officer, and school counselor. The “tip-line” phone number should be published on posters in every classroom and the common areas of the school. The impersonal nature of texting a concern or reporting bullying is a significantly lower psychological hurdle for students to manage than walking into the school’s front office.
Utilize Students as Change Agents
Schools should facilitate student engagement through student anti-bullying/violence clubs. Peer-to-peer interaction through school-wide anti-bullying assemblies, club meetings, and lunchtime rallies can create a grassroots approach to a safe school culture. When students take up a cause, especially when it benefits other students, they send a powerful and creative message that can change a school from the inside out. Student engagement that includes all students, not just a select few who occupy student body leadership roles, is a crucial component to a safe school climate and must be included in a school’s safety plan.
Train School Staff
Teachers and other school staff must be trained to identify bullying behavior and warning behaviors that indicate a student is on a pathway to violence. School staff should be given clear guidelines on how to report and document incidents of bullying, violence, and other behaviors of concern. The school district should include clear language in the staff policy manual and student handbook that states that any acts of bullying or violence witnessed by a school staff member SHALL be reported to the designated school administrator.
Partner with Local Police
By law, every school must have a safety action plan and must practice at least two fire evacuation drills every school year. However, most schools do not have a threat assessment protocol or a dedicated threat assessment team. Most school districts do not have mandated lockdown drills. In the past 50 years, not one student has died in a school building fire. Conversely, since the 2013 Sandy Hook School massacre, there have been more than 200 school shootings that have resulted in more than 60 deaths and many more injuries.
School districts must take school violence seriously. If the Sandy Hook massacre taught us anything, it showed us school violence can happen anywhere. In addition to training school staff to recognize indicators of bullying or intended violence, school districts should work in conjunction with their local policing agency to establish a threat assessment team and protocol to investigate threats and behaviors of concern. School districts and police departments should also invest in a School Resource Officer program.
Partner with Parents
The police or school district should host “parent education nights” and discuss common safety issues that families are likely to face. Often done in conjunction with the Parent Teacher Association, parent education nights are an excellent opportunity to bring parents to the school and make them aware of relevant safety topics that affect their lives. Topics could include bullying, drug and alcohol use, Internet safety, and teen driving safety. Parents will learn how they can be partners with the school, keep their children safe, and have their questions answered. I have been teaching parent seminars on Internet safety and school violence prevention to parents for several years. Many parents are overwhelmed and are eagerly looking for resources to help their children.
Use Police Interventions and Investigations
Unfortunately, Ramsey’s story is not an unfamiliar one. Children who are victimized by classmates often remain silent, fearing that if they tell their parents or school administrator, the bullying will only continue and intensify, as it often does. If schools do not have clear rules and established protocols to deal with harassment and violence, they run the risk of having a “Ramsey” in their community. The presence of a School Resource Officer is invaluable in these situations. Schools and law enforcement have their own codified statues. For schools, it is the Educational Code; for law enforcement, it is the Penal Code. In the case of physical assault, school and police conduct separate but simultaneous investigations, governed by their respective policies and procedures. When I served as a School Resource Officer, my Principal routinely sat in on my interviews with students and took notes for his administrative investigation, and vice versa. There is no reason the police should wait for the school to complete its investigation. In fact, depending on what a school’s state law requires, school officials may be required to notify police when violence occurs on the campus. I tell parents and school administrators there is no downside to contacting law enforcement to seek advice or to look for additional resources.
The criminal investigation can be integral to helping children learn from their mistakes and move on to being healthy and productive individuals. The juvenile justice system does not exist to put children in jail and throw away the key. In most cases, a juvenile’s first brush with the law is a mandatory diversion program that includes psychological counseling, education classes, community service, restitution, and perhaps some ongoing monitoring. Most students who go through diversion programs never re-offend. Students are required to attend and complete the diversion program to avoid having their crime forwarded to juvenile court. The diversion program may be the first time a psychologist sees a student of concern. Students and other family members can be referred to other counseling programs, parenting classes, and welfare assistance programs, often at no cost.
Creating a safe school climate requires a multi-faceted approach. It begins with assessing a school’s current culture, understanding the perceptions and beliefs of students, creating programs that harness student’s desire to make a difference, training school staff to know what pathway warning behavior looks like, partner with police to enhance on-site safety, and finally engage and empower parents to better understand their children’s digital world and be a part of the school’s safety conversation. It doesn’t happen overnight. It has to be an intentional effort coming from all the school’s safety stakeholders.
The following are training programs we have created to teach school staff, students, and parents how to prevent violence in their school and cultivate a safe school climate.
Active Shooter Prevention and Response Training for school staff
Understanding and Preventing School Violence
Behavioral Threat Assessment and Management training
Parenting in the Digital World: Step-by-Step guide for Internet Safety
Cyber Safety for Students
National Threat Assessment Center (NTAC). (2018). Enhancing school safety using a threat assessment model: An operational guide for preventing targeted school violence. U.S. Secret Service, Department of Homeland Security.
Butler, K. (n.d.). You’re an upstander! Retrieved from http://www.thebullyproject.com/be_an_upstander
Pollack, B., Modzeleski, W., & Rooney, G. (2008). Prior knowledge of potential school-based violence: Information students learn may prevent a targeted attack. Washington, Dc: U.S. Department of Education and U.S. Secret Service.
Vossekuil, B., Fein, R., Reddy, M., Borum, R., & Modzeleski, W. (2002). The final report and findings of the Safe School Initiative: Implications for the prevention of school attacks in the United States. Washington, Dc: U.S. Department of Education, Office of Elementary and Secondary Education, Safe and Drug-Free Schools Program, and U.S. Secret Service, National Threat Assessment Center.
Fein, R., Vossekuil, B., Pollack, W., Borum, R., Modzeleski, W., & Reddy, M. (2002). Threat assessment in schools: A guide to managing threatening situations and to creating safe school climates. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, Office of Elementary and Secondary Education, Safe and Drug-Free Schools Program, and U.S. Secret Service, National Threat Assessment Center.