Preventing Youth Homicide And Suicide In American Schools

By: Michael Conner, Psy.D,   Mentor Research Institute
Revised: May 21, 2014

Can homicidal and suicidal behavior be prevented in American Schools?  Can suicidal and homicidal acts be predicted, and if so, can it be prevented?  Answers to these questions are increasingly on the mind of Americans.  Family and communities read about tragedies in the newspaper, in magazines, and they watch the television in horror and disbelief.  What can be done?  What is being done?  Will it work?  Are we facing an epidemic of national proportions? 

The recent tragedy in Littleton is part of a growing trend.   Schools are full of abusive experiences and bullies.  Those who are abused, humiliated or bullied are retaliating.  Violence and abuse in American schools have reached epidemic proportion.  Thankfully, homicide and suicide has not reached epidemic proportions.  Still, the risk of homicidal and suicidal behavior is higher in American Schools than ever before.  While I believe there is hope, I also fear that  the greatest risk Americans face may be that we will end up developing and implementing solutions that make sense but won't  work. 

There are three critical issues:

Prevention.  Programs that reduce the risk of homicide and suicide in American Schools.

Risk Assessment.  Programs that recognize and evaluate the risk of violence and suicide.

Intervention.   Programs that deal directly with an immediate danger.

While the crisis in American Schools may be the result of problems in our society and our health care, it will take decades to change American society and to address issues that theoretically contribute to violent and suicidal behavior in schools.  We do not know enough to even suggest what must be changed in American Culture.  Until we can make strategic changes in our society, we need to focus on developing competent emergency and crisis intervention procedures to deal with violent and suicidal behavior in American Schools.  The stage for homicide and suicide in American Schools is already set.  The risk is everywhere.   We can't simply make it go away.  It took over a decade for Americans to surface this tragic realization - - "Something has gone terribly wrong".  The necessary response is to develop risk assessment and intervention programs until we can implement prevention programs.  

Questions That Identify A Solution

The answers to the problems we are facing in American Schools are not complicated.  The solutions become complicated when we ask the wrong questions?  I have been studying and dealing with these problem for years - not theoretically, but as a matter of practice.  In my experience, the questions we must ask are those which are based on practical clinical experience dealing with these problems.  These questions are admittedly difficult to embrace but present the best possible solution.

Why do children become violent or suicidal?

Who is responsible to prevent violence and homicide in our schools?  

  • The School Principal.  A School Principal takes charge and assumes responsibility for your child when your child enters the principal's school.  It is his or her responsibility to work with parents and any resource necessary to deal with matters that threaten the health and safety of his or her students.

How can Principals prevent suicidal and homicidal behavior in their schools?

  • Develop an internal policy and procedure (informal and formal) that both trains and requires school employees to respond to critical and contributing risk factors that are identified and reported in the school or classroom.

Who are the key people that are potentially involved in identifying and preventing violence, suicide and homicide in our schools?

  • Students
  • Family
  • Teachers
  • School Counselors
  • School Principals
  • Law Enforcement
  • District Attorneys
  • Legislators
  • Crisis Intervention Mental Health Professionals

How do serious and critical risk factors go unchecked?

  • Students are disempowered, are not assertive or perpetuate denial that a problem exists.
  • Families are not aware of or do not have access to competent mental health services.
  • Teachers are not trained to recognize and respond to a significant risk.
  • School Counselors are not trained to recognize and respond to a significant risk.
  • School Principals perpetuate formal and informal procedures for dealing with significant risk factors that end up being unresponsive, ineffective or increase the risk.
  • Law enforcement is not adequately trained to recognize and respond to this type of risk.
  • District attorneys do not have access to intervention resources or do not push for alternative interventions for youth at risk who become involved in the criminal justice system.
  • Legislators create or inadvertently maintain an environment in which school politics, priorities or preservation of community image interferes with good clinical judgement. (They also do not provide adequate legislation to insure that families in distress have access to competent mental health and family services.
  • Crisis Intervention mental health professionals are not trained, experienced in assessing, or empowered to adequately respond to the complexity of the problems that maintain or contribute to the level of risk associated with this type of problem.  Professionals who do not have experience actually dealing with these problems are mistakenly involved. 

What kind of process and experience is necessary to solve the problem?

The most common problem solving process is to gather experts from various disciplines together in order to discuss and develop a solution.  This approach is normally refereed to as an interdisciplinary approach.  Do interdisciplinary approaches work?  The answer is maybe.  An interdisciplinary approach may work, but only if a majority of experts involved in the process actually have prior direct experience dealing with all aspects of the problem.  The experts involved must have direct experience facing the problem and solving the problem.  It is crucial to involve people in the process who have actually identified, evaluated and resolved a crisis in a school setting that reached homicidal and suicidal proportions.  It is not enough to merely bring people together who have experience dealing with adolescents, have experience dealing with youth violence, or work with youth in the capacity of a police officer who works with schools.

A check list of experience for professionals who should be involved

The following is a check list of experience that is essential to appreciate and to understand exactly what is necessary and possible with regard to identifying, evaluating and preventing homicidal and suicidal behavior in American Schools.   Any experts involved should have work experience in as many of the following areas as possible.  It is not enough to be an expert in one area without having experience dealing with the problems.  There is no place for experts who have little or no real experience dealing with the  problem of violent and suicidal behavior in schools.  A blue ribbon panel of experts with no direct experience with this specific problem will probably fail.

  • Medical and Psychiatric Emergency Rooms
  • Psychiatric hospitals
  • Medical hospitals
  • Telephone crisis lines
  • Family and Primary medical care settings
  • Managed care mental health
  • Private practice mental health
  • Working with law enforcement in the streets
  • Employers facing the risk of workplace violence and suicide
  • Research in angry, aggressive, violent and suicidal behavior
  • School counseling
  • Teaching
  • School administration

How should the key people involved respond when there is a crisis? (Planned for May)

  • Students
  • Family
  • Teachers
  • School Counselors
  • School Principals
  • Law enforcement
  • District Attorneys
  • Legislators
  • Crisis Intervention Mental Health Professionals

What should happen when a weapon is found?

Here is a composite of what has happened and should have happened in schools that I have been called to consult with.  

  1. When anyone finds a weapon or suspects a student has a weapon.  You tell the Principal. 
  2. You call the police if you haven't already.  (See Use of Police and 911)
  3. You and police (if necessary) locate the student and properly search him or her for weapons.
  4. You keep the student in a secure area with supervision. 
  5. You find the teacher and his counselor. 
  6. You call the parents. 
  7. Then you ask yourself, the student's teacher and counselor some very common sense questions.  
  • Is or has the student been on a psychiatric mediation?
  • Is or has the student been in psychotherapy of counseling? 
  • Has the student ever made veiled, indirect or direct threats of suicide, violence or destructiveness?
  • Has this student been strange, weird or bizarre?
  • Does this student have any unusual obsessions?  
  • Has this student ever been violent, suicidal or destructive? 
  1. You ask the student, then you ask his parents and then you ask at least two other people who know him these same questions above.  [ I have found it helpful to enlist the views of peers - at least one girl and one boy who knows the teen in trouble. ]
  2. Don't be afraid of breaking confidentiality.  There has been a lot of talk about schools having it's hands tied by laws regarding confidentiality.  Confidentiality does not generally apply when professionals are responsibly gathering information which is necessary to evaluate a potential "danger to self or others".  A student at a school with a gun constitutes a potential psychiatric or medical emergency.  You can generally talk to anyone that has information pertaining to evaluating and managing those risks.  Use discretion
  3. If you found a gun and you get a yes answer to any of the above bulleted questions then the student needs a complete biological, psychological and social evaluation as well as 36 hours of observation in a psychiatric facility. 
  4. A crisis intervention must be initiated by a qualified emergency and crisis intervention professional.  The parents should be involved and a realistic plan must be developed. The plan must be monitored.  You don't simply discharge these kids back home where they may have problems, access to weapons or there may be an inappropriate response from the family. 
  5. Be sure that an effective referral is made (See Finding A Referral)
  6. The crisis intervention professional involved should be fully qualified with regard to all of the content provided in the link Violence, Homicide and Suicide In American Schools.
  7. If necessary, the student can be arrested  or appropriately charged for possession of weapons, brandishing or threatening assault, etc....  A police officer does not have to make an immediate arrest.   He or she should have the latitude to see that any student receives competent medical and psychiatric care or an evaluation prior to an arrest. Any evaluation of this nature should be thorough and involve interviews with multiple collateral sources of information including parents, relatives, teachers, counselors, therapists, physicians, family members and at least one reliable friend.