October 5, 2015

How To Prevent A School Shooter

Imagine you are an 8-year old student in elementary school. Your teacher tells you, "Today, we are having a lockdown drill." She talks in cryptic language explaining that if something bad happens at school, she wants everyone to be safe. You practice hiding in the closet with all of the other students and you sit "criss-cross applesauce" while the teacher bars the door. Or maybe you have a special cabinet to hide in. One of my friends told me how proud her daughter was about her hiding space in a cabinet for lockdown. This scenario plays out every day in our schools.

But what are we really teaching our community? We are teaching parents, teachers, and students to live in constant fear for their lives because "the shooter" is coming. Not since the Cold War have we surrounded our children in such an environment of reactive fear where they literally hide in the closet. "Duck and cover" used to be the rallying cry from Bert the Turtle for students to dive under their desks because Russia could drop an atomic bomb on the United States any minute.

School shootings are serious and complex issues. There is no single key that can unlock a solution for our communities. (Can we collectively be done with "silver bullets" please?) As a founder of a K-12 school myself and a consultant in Nonviolence Leadership, I have some perspectives that could be helpful as schools and communities wrestle with how to address the potential threat of violence.

Build a Strong Community Around Caring and Love
Let's back up, long before a shooter shows up anywhere, and ask, how is our community caring for each other? How are we taking time to validate the inherent worth and dignity of every person in our learning community? So often, we get caught up in our day-to-day jobs as teachers, parents and administrators that we forget about how important relationships are to our community. Strong communities are built upon trust, caring and love. These interpersonal relationships are your community safety net when issues come up and they take significant time and attention. It's much like fundraising in the nonprofit world. The wisdom of fundraising says, "If you are going to ask for money one month each year, you must spend the other 11 months building relationships." The same thing is true for community building. Invest time every day in building strong, caring relationships that will support the community in times of crisis. This strategy is not about "shooter management." It is about "shooter prevention" long before anyone picks up a gun.

Open Communication Lines
Martin Luther King, Jr. said that "A riot is the language of the unheard." I would say the same thing in this context, that school shootings are the language of the unheard. Many times, school shooters are also students. So let us be intentional that our schools can be "communities that hear." Consider how your school community can open lines of communication. Let's allow students to talk and allow them to feel.  Let's allow students to discuss what's going on in our world without having to have a test, a homework assignment, a grade or a learning outcome.  You can't measure caring with a rubrik and you won't test your way to a safer school. We spend weeks preparing every student to take standardized tests. Shouldn't we give the same attention to validating the humanity and feelings of each student? Even better, can we focus our time on building a loving community INSTEAD of testing? How many shootings could we prevent if students in despair felt their school was a place of caring rather than cold indifference? It is very difficult to validate the feelings of students when our predominant message is "don't talk" and our schedule shuffles us from room to room every 50 minutes. Where is the time for a student-in-need to talk, to feel, to grieve, to heal, or to feel support from their peers and community?  If we do not make time for this important work, we will continue to hear the tragic "language of the unheard."

Arm Teachers with Empathy, Not Guns
Two years ago, Antoinette Tuff stopped a school shooter who carried an AK-47 and 500 rounds of ammunition in my home town of Decatur, Georgia. She didn't use a gun. She used much more powerful weapons: listening, empathy and love. No one was hurt. No one was killed, not even the perpetrator.  She is a living example of the power of love, empathy and nonviolence.

What if we trained every teacher in empathic communication or Nonviolent Communication (NVC)? What if instead of lockdown drills, we had empathy drills? Instead of teaching students to hide in a closet, what if we taught our students and teachers to reach out to each other, every day, and help each other when people are sad or hurting? What if instead of living in reactive fear of death, that we engaged in the pro-active, life-affirming love of building a caring community? A school shooter may never happen, but community building can most certainly happen every day.

The issues of school shootings are as complex as the solutions. Building a loving, caring community is an important solution that can catch students in despair and bring them back into the community long before they decide to pick up a gun. However, the question remains for every community in America:

Will we literally hide in the closet in reactive fear of the unknown or will we create courageous communities of love that listen and value the inherent worth of every person? 

Antoinette Tuff was a single person who stopped a tragedy with love. Imagine a whole school of people like Antoinette. We would never hide in the closet again.

Dave Soleil, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is a founder of the K-12 Sudbury School of Atlanta, a consultant in Nonviolence Leadership and the former Chair of the Leadership Education group for the International Leadership Association. Follow him on Twitter @davesoleil.


  1. Well written. I do not believe that more regulations and/or mental health care will
    solve this crisis alone (although I am not counting them out as part of the solution.)

    Rather, this is a crisis of kindness, social connection, manners and treating each other as we would want to be treated. Caring for the 'least among us' before hurt individuals emotions boil over from isolation, bullying, lack of basic health/mental care and personal dignity.