For a determined would-be school shooter, there’s always a way – until we address the underlying causes

 Only a few days ago, I had the opportunity to plant a gun in a school.

The doors were unlocked. There was no security guard. No office staff was signing visitors in. No one was monitoring the surveillance cameras.

It was Saturday morning, and I was attending my son’s recreational basketball game at a local public middle school. The school was wide open. I could have easily walked in with a duffle bag slung over my shoulder, an AR-15 and ammo hidden inside. If I was a student, I could have stashed the weapon in my locker, but the heap of lost and found items would make a good hiding place too. And just that easily, I would have secreted away a weapon for easy access.

There’s always a way to get a weapon into a school. More than once I thought about this as I watched students at my daughter’s charter school pass through metal detectors. They pulled three-ring binders, laptops, cell phones – anything with metal – from their bookbags and passed them around the detector. But couldn’t a pistol be hidden in a binder and pass into the school undetected?

As controversy swirls around efforts to keep guns out of schools –school officers, armed teachers, wanding, metal detectors – we must remember these steps alone cannot protect against every determined and resourceful would-be school shooter. It’s not enough to try to stop violent plans already in the execution stage. Instead, we must understand what leads young people to act violently and implement comprehensive, proactive measures to address the underlying causes.

Dr. Terry Levy of Evergreen Psychotherapy Center co-authored “Kids Who Kill: Attachment Disorder, Antisocial Personality, and Violence” in the aftermath of the Columbine school shooting. In it, he pointed to evidence of the relationship between early childhood trauma and violence.

Research has shown elevated cortisol levels caused by early childhood trauma,  typically chronic abuse and neglect, can impact a young child’s brain development. As a result, they may struggle with emotional regulation, linking cause-and-effect, abstract thinking, and other high-level brain functions. Not all, but some of these children may become aggressive and violent.

The correlation between early childhood trauma and violence is frightening given the number of students at risk. According to the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Initiative at Johns Hopkins, almost half of all children have experienced at least one type of childhood trauma. As a result, a staggering number of students walk into our schools every day with a festering wound borne of childhood trauma. Most often, the wound is unrecognized and untreated. At best, we might slap on a band aid, but rarely do we treat the underlying trauma.

We’ve known about the link between childhood trauma and violence for 20 years, yet little has changed. Our society does not recognize the devastating impact of childhood trauma on it’s victims or the collateral damage on our community as a whole. We do not prioritize funding for research needed for prevention and meaningful treatments. And as a result, our communities continue to face acts of violence from young people.

Just last month we learned about four North Carolina (my home state) middle school students who were planning a Columbine style attack on their school. This was thwarted, but you can be sure many other future attacks will not be stopped in time. For a determined would-be school shooter, there’s always a way.

Childhood trauma is an epidemic in our society and without treatment, children will not heal and will have little hope for a happy and productive future. For some, their trauma wound will grow so unbearably painful they’ll lash out violently. No metal detector, locked door, gun sniffing dog, or wand will stop them.

School Shooters: What’s Their Path To Violence?

February 10, 20197:58 AM ETHeard on  All Things Considered

Many, though not all, of the perpetrators have experienced childhood traumas such as physical or emotional abuse, and unstable families, with violent, absent or alcoholic parents or siblings, for example. And most have experienced significant losses.


For example, the defendant in the case of the Parkland, Fla., shooting last year had lost his adopted mother to complications from the flu just a couple of months before the school attack. His adopted father had died when he was a little boy.

Read the full article here.

Don’t miss these posts:

My take on the Parkland Shooting, published by the Sun-Sentinel.

The Making of a Murder, published by The Chronicle of Social Change

Loss of Caleb, published by the Institute for Attachment and Child Development

I’ve tried the system, it doesn’t work

Read my original Op-ed on the Sun Sentinel website here.

When my son, Devon, was nine he pushed his four-year-old brother down the stairs. It was one big shove that launched Brandon through the air and left him sprawled on the tile floor below. At 10, he punched his teacher and several classmates. At 11, he attacked a woman and dislocated her thumb.

Told a man had fresh dental work, Devon (for the purposes of this oped, I’ll call him Devon) promptly slugged him in the jaw. He was 12. At 13, he punched a young girl in the back of the head, unprovoked, and used his pencil to stab classmates. He still does. At 14, he grabbed a woman’s breasts and genitals threatening to rape her; using a jagged piece of plastic he stabbed a man in the cornea. At 15, he bit a man, breaking the skin and drawing blood; he did $3000 worth of property damage in mere minutes.

Devon, now 16, has verbalized detailed plans to torch the group home he lives in. He routinely threatens to kill himself, me, his siblings, his teachers, and other students.

Nikolas Cruz, the Parkland high school shooter, is a troubled kid, too. While I don’t presume to know Nikolas’ history or diagnoses, Devon and Nikolas are both teenagers, adopted males with behavioral and mental health issues. I adopted Devon from foster care in Broward County when he was four. Like Nikolas, his disturbing record of deviant behavior telegraphs worse to come.

The media is calling the Parkland massacre “preventable” and pointing to missed warning signs. But, I’ve heeded the warning signs. Devon’s received comprehensive mental health services for years. Running the gamut — outpatient therapy, day treatment, therapeutic foster care, group homes, psychiatric residential facilities, mental health hospitalizations — he’s received thousands of hours of therapy. He’s been dealt diagnoses like a hand of Go Fish and is on a cocktail of anti-psychotic drugs.

All these mental health services, like water and sunshine, have unwittingly nurtured Devon’s proclivity for violence. He’s only gotten bigger, stronger, smarter, and more dangerous. I fear he could be the next teen paraded across the headlines in handcuffs.

When Republicans call for greater access to mental health services as a remedy to school shootings, they fail to recognize the mental health system has no meaningful solutions for violent kids like Devon and Nikolas.

Take a walk. Talk to staff. Hug your pillow. These are the coping skills therapists give angry teens to reel in their extreme emotions. The absurdity comes into focus when a teen like Nikolas opens fire on hundreds of innocent victims, taking 17 lives. Would tragedy have been averted if Nikolas knew to pull off his gas mask and take some deep breaths? To put down his AR-15 and hug his pillow?

Psychiatric treatment facilities are virtual incubators for violent kids. They focus on underlying mental health issues promising the negative behaviors will diminish. In these programs, Devon has no consequences for truancy, vandalism, criminal threats, and assault. Not even a time-out. Protected from criminal charges, he’s become desensitized to his own violence and indifferent to social boundaries. It’s normalized his violent responses to even the smallest triggers: waiting his turn, a snarky look from a peer, being served breakfast he doesn’t like.

It’s unlikely Nikolas’ trajectory would have changed even if he’d received the years of intensive mental health treatment Devon has. Mental health facilities are little more than holding pens for kids who are too dangerous to live at home.

I’ve tried the system. It doesn’t work.

Funding to offer these same ineffectual services to more would-be-shooters won’t stop tragedies like the Parkland shooting, especially since Trump nixed the Obama-era regulations making it easier, not harder, for mentally ill people to buy guns. I don’t pretend to know the answers, but I do know a bad idea when I see one: giving these kids access to guns. If we’re not going to do something as basic as keeping deadly weapons out of the hands of mentally disturbed teens, what mental health interventions can possibly keep us safe?

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