5 cries for help that often go unnoticed
Some people are born with the ability to "feel" people. I don't mean "feel" in the sense of feeling them in a physical way, but the ability to feel their presence, feel their energy, their moods, their thoughts. It's an incredible gift to be born with, but a daunting one at that. I have been educating kids age 12 to 18 since 2006. My passion in working with these amazing young people is getting to KNOW them, and I mean REALLY know them. There are many teachers who show up to work everyday, give their lesson on adding & subtracting fractions to their classes, and go home. I am not one of those teachers. I care very deeply for my students and can tell when they are happy, sad, angry, frustrated, annoyed, excited, withdrawn, depressed, anxious, etc., all without them actually saying any words to me. It's only been through tuning into body language, facial expressions, things students write on their papers, looks they give to other students, and all of the unspoken communication that goes on, that has given me insight into what may drive a student to want to commit a horrific act like a school shooting.
The FBI did a research study on school shooters and came up with myriad personality characteristics, traits, family characteristics, etc., that have been consistent among the school shooters we have all come to learn over the last two decades. The list below covers a few of these traits that I personally have seen and tuned into with a handful of students over the last 12 years.
1. Withdrawn Behavior - By the time a student is ready to put bullets into students he/she has been going to school with for some time, the level of pain and severity of wounds he/she has already experienced is at such a severe level that he/she has essentially given up in life. There is a feeling of hopelessness, and with that comes the side effect of withdrawing and not interacting with his/her peers. I had a student named Alex* one year who very rarely interacted with students in the class. When I spoke with Alex directly, he mentioned being bullied for an extensive period of time, where he never received any support or guidance, and had no one at home or school to point him in the right direction. The schools he went to did little-to-nothing when he reported being mistreated, so he essentially gave up. He didn't care to interact with anyone because in his mind, there was no point. No one cared and he knew it.
2. Consistently Depressed & "Sad" Looking - When a student physically appears sad or depressed, this is actually a time where a trusted adult can intervene and make a positive change. Oftentimes adults will slough off teenagers' sadness or depression as general moodiness. Of course teenagers CAN be moody, but there's a difference between moody and consistently sad/depressed. Let's take Alex for example. Alex was beyond the point of depression and experiencing sadness. He experienced that stage much sooner in his life than when I had him in my class, and he was constantly disappointed with the lack of help. He experienced sadness and depression along the way, but no one intervened. No one stepped in to say, "I care and I am here to help you." Bottom line here is, if you can visually see that a student is sad, ASK THEM WHY. TALK to your students, get to know them on a personal level so they know someone is on their side.
3. Oversized Clothing - I have spoken with countless young people who have been hurting, and resorting to things like cutting themselves to alleviate the pain. The natural tendency for these students after they have cut themselves, is to hide it, and the easiest way to do that is to wear oversized, baggy clothing. Another reason for wearing oversized clothing is because of the ability of oversized clothing to conceal other things like weapons. That being said, not every teenager who wears oversized clothing is self-harming and/or carrying weapons, but it is something to keep an eye on if combined with the other traits described here.
4. Excessively Picked On (aka Bullied) - As mentioned above, kids who feel the need to resort to drastic measures have a LONG history of being at the mercy of other people and injustice/unethical behavior. If you see a kid being picked on (and we all know this behavior is not right), DO SOMETHING, SAY SOMETHING, INTERVENE! The kid being picked on is hurting much more deeply than you probably can see on the surface, and sometimes he/she just needs to know that someone is on his/her side.
5. Fascination With Violence - I'd like to refer back to my student named Alex, as we met above. One spring day in class, a concerned student approached me and said that Alex was saying really "weird" things. Just before the passing period bell rang, he said in response to another student's question, "I'm just imagining what everyone in here would look like dead." The concerned student was really scared and rightfully so. Of course I checked in with Alex to see if he was okay, then followed the proper protocols moving forward, but the point is that Alex had shown a fascination with violence. He also drew pictures of guns on his homework, and described a project he was working on to me one day, where he was designing a mask and holster for his gun to carry under his trench coat. I was deeply concerned about Alex and made sure to check in with him as much as I could from that point on.
These five traits are only a few of the many contributing factors to school shooters' realities. Adolescents are at a very delicate time in their lives. They are becoming more independent, and thus "trying on" different personas, different friend groups, different likes/dislikes, etc. It is absolutely normal for teens to experience one or more of these traits at varying times throughout their teen years. However if you see a kid who seems to be experiencing ALL of these traits and for a prolonged period, strike up a conversation with him/her. Build a relationship, show you care. You never know, your actions may be the difference for him/her and associated peers and families for years to come.
*Student names have been changed for confidentiality purposes
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