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Op-ed: More than thoughts and prayers

In the wake of another mass shooting, this time in Parkland, Florida, people are searching for answers. I’ve received calls and text messages from friends, students, coworkers, and family members who need an explanation about why a tragedy like this occurs and what can be done to prevent these types of attacks. As a researcher who studies mass and active shootings, I try to offer the best clarification that I can, but there are only so many answers that I can offer.

First, the media plays a significant role in the way that the public perceives these events. I’ve heard the phrase “second deadliest school shooting” used repeatedly to describe this attack in Florida. This needs to stop immediately. This serves little to no purpose in news reporting, but rather only sets a threshold or a goal for others who may be considering similar violence as an option. If notoriety and revenge are rewards for people who seek to harm others, such superlatives set a standard for achieving their goals. Many mass shooters in recent years have explicitly written or expressed their desire to cause the most deaths in history, and media coverage that announces rankings only creates competition among future shooters. This is not an award or a title to be won, and the media need to stop treating it as such.

Secondly, this incessant attention inevitably leads to copycat threats or even attacks. Two of my well-respected colleagues, Dr. Adam Lankford of The University of Alabama and Dr. Eric Madfis of The University of Washington Tacoma, recently circulated a petition among mass shooting researchers and published a paper that offered four simple suggestions for the media: 1.) Don’t name the perpetrator. 2.) Don’t use photos of likenesses of the perpetrator. 3.) Stop using the names, photos, or likenesses of past perpetrators. 4.) Report on everything about these crimes in as much detail as desired. By removing the reward of notoriety and fame from violent attacks, it may deter potential violent shooters from committing future horrors. They may still be angry or marginalized or violent, but such a change in media reporting might affect their thought processes or lessen their own personal benefit from such a public showing of violence. Would they still do it if they knew that no one would ever know their name?

A change in media reporting may also remove the level of stardom and almost cult-like following of other famous shooters. Clearly, names would likely still leak or be circulated, but if the media were to cease providing these shooters with free publicity, it may have a profound effect on future attacks. As Dr. Lankford notes, these efforts have been supported and affirmed by the FBI, the International Association of Chiefs of Police, and the International Police Association.

Thirdly, parents who are concerned about school safety can use this shock and fear to compel schools to create programs designed to encourage prosocial skills and foster a welcoming environment for all students. While some (but not all) evidence-based physical safety measures can be effective, there are other ways to engage in preventative, proactive programming designed to care for children and ensure that none fall through the cracks or toward a path of destruction. Programs like Sandy Hook Promise (links available online and on Facebook) provide families and schools with resources for easy program implementation such as “It Starts with Hello” or “Know the Signs.” School districts can also reach out to colleges, universities, and medical institutions to partner in planning these programs (and measuring their effectiveness), because this burden is not one for schools alone to bear; this is an active community effort.

Lastly, parents and concerned citizens can encourage schools to direct more funds to student services. The American School Counselor Association recommends a 250-to-1 student to counselor ratio, but many schools and districts far exceed that while others may not have any counselors at all. For school counselors to develop and maintain effective relationships with students and address problems efficiently (including the follow-up necessary to ensure that the issue is indeed resolved), they need the time and the opportunity to do so. Adding at least one additional counselor or school psychologist can alleviate the burden on many other school faculty members, allow them to focus on proactively creating relationships with students that may not have otherwise had them, and enhance the quality of the learning environment for all students. Research studies in criminology, psychology, and education have repeatedly found that strong social bonds between students and school personnel enhance protective factors and mitigate the risk of violence and delinquency.

While thoughts, prayers, and debates may keep people engaged in the discourse of mass violence, each new attack proves that more is required to prevent future tragedies. The media, parents, and community members need to take a moment to think about what actions they are willing to take to keep children alive at schools. If this were to happen, the headlines might start to change for the better. The debates and inaction about guns, background checks, and mental illness may continue, but these four steps can happen today, and they start with you.

Dr. Sarah E. Daly is an Assistant Professor of Criminology, Law, & Society at Saint Vincent College in Latrobe, PA. Prior to Saint Vincent, she worked as a high school teacher and school counselor in Camden County, New Jersey. She holds degrees from the University of Notre Dame, the University of Pennsylvania, and Rutgers University’s Newark and Camden campuses. Her primary areas of research involve school violence and active and mass shootings, and she teaches graduate and undergraduate courses in violence, research methodology, and race issues in the criminal justice system.

Photo: Joe Raedle Getty Images

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