Not a day goes by, it seems, without hearing about someone opening fire at some event or institution. Whether we are talking about Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School of Parkland, Florida, which left 17 dead in February; Maryland Capital Gazette with five dead in June; or last Sunday’s Madden video game tournament in Jacksonville, Florida, on Aug. 26, that left three dead; it seems that American culture is robust with random outbursts of lethal gun violence. To worsen the tension, in cases such as the Isla Vista killings and even the Madden video game tournament, there were warnings of mental health issues and vocalizing of violent thoughts that clearly didn’t warrant enough caution for police or mental health experts to intervene in any significant way.
On the other end of that spectrum, vocalizing thoughts of violence, including mass shootings, is not all that rare. According to Educator’s School Safety Network, which started compiling threats of school violence in American schools because of Parkland, “There were at least 3,380 threats nationwide recorded in the 2017-2018 school year, a 62 percent increase from 2,085 threats in the 2016-2017 school year. The most common threats recorded in the 2017-2018 school year were shooting threats (38.8 percent of all threats), followed by generalized or unspecified threats of violence (35.8 percent) and bomb threats (22.5 percent).” For the last school year, approximately 1,318 threats were made about school shootings.
“While the method of delivery of threats was not always reported, when it was reported, social media was the most common source of threats, accounting for 39.2 percent of all threats in the 2017-2018 school year. This is relatively unchanged from 40 percent in the 2016-2017 school year. In 2017-2018, written threats were discovered within the school 20 percent of time, most commonly in the restroom. Verbal comments were the source of threats 12.7 percent of the time,” the network found.
From speaking with local law enforcement officials, it appears that people who talk about thoughts of school shootings are not that uncommon. In fact, sometimes such a revelation about a school shooting may be considered to be a way to vent anger or frustration and deemed nothing more than that. Sometimes confessions of such thoughts may gain more traction due to other factors, leading to a 5150 or 5585, a 72-hour involuntary mental health hold for adults or juveniles, respectively. At that point, firearms may be removed from residences. It is common practice for police to circulate within only their departments the information about the hold. The person is then evaluated again at the end of the hold as to whether the threat is deemed credible or not; and if not, the person is released, typically with a plan to follow up.
During the third week of August, the Santa Paula Police Department went beyond protocol and released identifying information on an individual who went through the standard process of dealing with violent thoughts, confiding in a therapist, being placed on a mental health hold and then being cleared by a mental health professional to be released to the public. The police flier that revealed the individual’s information went viral online, causing outrage among parents of Ventura Unified in particular who believed he was a credible threat despite an approved release. The details about the threat of a school shooting were vague, at best, leaving plenty of room for parents to conjure the worst of scenarios. There was even a call to allow for concealed-weapon permits. The flier was also posted at the local gun show. Fear sells guns, no doubt.
The reaction was visceral, which included demands that parents always be notified if a person reports having thoughts about a school shooting, particularly if that person is put on a mental health hold. What the scared parents failed to account for, however, is how common these thoughts and even threats are. And then there are a plethora of variables, from the officer who considers the thoughts to be actually a threat to the psych evaluator who may or may not agree. And not every professional involved in the mix agrees all the time. The unfortunate consequence of the public shaming of this particular individual is, who will now be honest about thoughts of violence if this is how it may play out? And who is to say what is the fundamental catalyst of violence? Again, the variables in predicting who is actually a threat remain wide-reaching.
In the end, we need to face the facts of serious pressure and stress in the classroom and how children and young adults handle that stress and how professionals and parents alike react to vocalized thoughts of violence. What we need is more communication and different ways to cope with our thoughts and stress rather than simply labeling a threat and making it someone else’s problem to deal with. How can we be a civil society and resist caring about those who are seeking help and instead condemn them for their honesty? Doesn’t it take a village to raise a child, after all?