The deadly shooting Monday in a one-room schoolhouse in a rural Pennsylvania Amish community was the third incident in less than a week in which U.S. schools were targeted by violence. The events have triggered alarm bells among millions of Americans seeking ways to prevent a recurrence of these fatal attacks.
In the most recent shooting, the gunman went to the Amish school with the intent to kill. The incident left five girls and the shooter dead.
Shortly before he killed himself, the 32-year old milk truck driver and father of three children told his wife that decades ago, he had molested young relatives and "had dreams of molesting again." Forensic psychiatrist Keith Aldo says mental health problems, especially among young people, too often go ignored and untreated. "Everybody in the class often knows who the troubled kids are. Parents know. Teachers know," he says. "And if anything we should know that there is a preventative bit of medicine, psychological medicine to be dispensed in our classrooms earlier than we have been doing."
Aldo urges parents and teachers to talk more openly about problems that could erupt into violence at school. He says unresolved issues can continue to haunt a child throughout life. "The more that you can express your feelings of fear, the more that you can talk about your reactions to terrible events, the less that those events are going to be toxic to you later on."
Aldo says airing such concerns helps build a stronger and safer community. Kenneth Trump, president of National School Safety and Security Services, agrees. He says the community must work at making schools safe places. "It happens by making sure that the first and best line of defense is a well-trained, highly alert school staff and student body who are aware of changes in behavior of other students as well as strangers who are walking around in parking lots and the hallways of our schools."
Trump urges that parents take a proactive stand with school administrators. "Make sure that they don't just have safety committees and crisis teams on paper," he says, "but they are actually training their staff, working with their police and public safety officials and mental health professionals and actually actively involved in dealing with school safety and not just having plans sitting on a shelf collecting dust."
The media must also shoulder responsibility for reporting events honestly, says Scott Libin, a faculty member of the Poynter Institute, which offers short courses for journalists on such subjects as ethics and leadership.
He says the public is best served when news operations dutifully report facts, not rumors, in an unfolding story. "We can certainly offer context, we can provide background. We can help viewers to understand the images they are seeing, but at the same time we have to be very conscious of the fact that the very presence of the media can affect outcomes. Helicopters hovering overhead can sometimes trigger tragic endings to events that might otherwise have happier outcomes."
Libin says wall-to-wall coverage of a crisis does not mean compromising the truth. "Being there does not mean that we make stuff up, or we guess about what is going on before we know."
So, in the Amish story, for example, Libin suggests reporters avoid speculation. "Things like an acknowledgment and explanation of the unique cultural and religious values that the Amish community has, followed by a suggestion that this incident has just shattered those beliefs and those values. I heard that this morning," he says. "On what grounds did anyone reach that conclusion? I hadn't heard anyone from the Amish community say, 'Our values and beliefs are shattered.' That may have seemed like an empathetic thing to say, but I think that it is an irresponsible thing to say.'"
Libin says an informed community is a healthier one that can better resolve its problems.
The Bush Administration announced Tuesday that it will convene soon a panel of national experts to discuss steps to curb school violence and to help communities deal with its aftermath.