Violence in Schools– The role of the mental health professional

angryteenAll too frequently, there are reports of violence in schools. This week alone, a teacher was killed and two students injured, in Las Vegas. In Massachusetts, a teacher was killed, allegedly by a 14 year old student. In Washington State, an 11 year old boy brought a gun and knives to school. The level of violent acts is overwhelming and scary.
Mental health professionals are trained to assess dangerousness and with the increase in violent acts, we’re being called to do so this on a more regular basis. It’s tricky at best because behavior can be as unpredictable as the weather. I’ve been asked to complete assessments and render an opinion on children who were thought to at risk for violence. I used the standard means of, gathering past history, assessing current level of stress and agitation, determining intention, access to weapons and family history. There have been times when it became absolutely clear that there was high risk for dangerous behaviors, other times, not so much. I feel a tremendous sense of responsibility when conducting such assessments and almost always include a caveat, of “this is my best judgment based on information gathered today, but other influences could impact this determination at any time.”
I’d rather not be asked to assess for dangerousness. I’d much prefer to work with children and prevent conditions that contribute to things escalating to thoughts and acts of violence. Unfortunately, by the time that a potentially dangerous student gets referred to me, he or she is, entrenched in negative thoughts, overwhelmed by feelings of rejection, feels hopeless and victimized. Along with family dynamics, these experiences increase a child’s propensity toward violence or self-harm.
What helps?
• A positive, affirming relationship with a safe adult
• Involve parents in the assessment and treatment—it is important to assess if there are family dynamics contributing to child’s problems
• Recommend that parents remove guns and other weapons from the home
• Get child a psychiatric evaluation for depression or other condition. Medication might be indicated
• Refer for higher level of care if child is having active thoughts of violence to self or others
• Teach mindfulness or another form of relaxation—this helps with emotional and physical regulation.
• Get child connected with activities—this will help to foster a sense of self confidence and increase a child’s self-esteem.
• Teach social skills that include understanding and practicing empathy for others.
• Challenge negative and distorted thoughts. Help replace with more realistic and positive ones.

Always trust your gut. If you feel concerned about a child, act on it. You are responsible for protecting that child and perhaps the lives of others.