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Eye on Psi Chi: Spring/Summer 2013
School Shootings:
Prevention and Intervention

With Dr. Melisa Reeves
Bradley Cannon, University of Tennessee at Chattanooga

 

Even if you haven’t heard of Dr. Melissa Reeves, you probably heard about her work on the news. Dr. Reeves is a coauthor of the NASP PREPaRE School Crisis Prevention and Intervention curriculum. She travels nationally and internationally, training professionals on school crisis prevention and intervention, threat and suicide assessment, the impact of trauma and PTSD on academic achievement, and establishing a response to the intervention model. Today she provides her expert, inside opinion on the recent school shootings, the media’s perception of these shootings, and what signs to look for to better predict a future crisis in your own school.

How did you become 
interested in psychology?

In high school, I volunteered in a classroom for students with developmental disabilities, and it was through that experience that I developed the love for special education, helping others, and becoming intrigued with how the human brain works.

Who is your mentor?
I have had a lot of them along the way, but I would probably have to say that my biggest mentor is Dr. Patty Meek, a school psychologist and learning disabilities teacher. She always emphasized that no matter what
 we do, it must always be what is best for the child or adolescent. That has always resonated at the forefront of my decisions.

What has been the most beneficial
 project you have taken part in?

For me, being one of the coauthors or the NASP PREPaRE Crisis Prevention and Intervention Curriculum. I was asked to be involved with it by the National Association of School Psychologists, and it basically was to volunteer my time and expertise in writing this curriculum. It is the first curriculum written by school-based professionals for school-based professionals, which covers crisis prevention all the way through response. It has now been presented in all 50 states and also internationally. It just continues to grow, which has been so fun to see.

What is the difference between prevention and intervention in this curriculum?

Most people affiliate the PREPaRE program with what we do when there is a big school shooting; but really the program starts with focusing on the importance of general prevention, such as bullying, violence, and suicide prevention to build a positive school climate and caring school cultures. That
 way, the students feel like they are accepted, included, and can be successful academically, socially, and emotionally. The curriculum covers anything from a car or bus accident to death from an unexpected, sudden illness or an expected, long-term illness. It reaches all the way through to some of the larger scale violence events.

As for the difference between prevention and intervention, we look at it as a cyclical system—meaning that good prevention programs help mitigate traumatic impact and that good response and recovery intervention efforts build future resilience. In effect, hopefully we will not have to face the same thing again, but if we do, then we are better prepared.

What do the media need to do or
 say in the case of these tragedies?

From a media perspective, I think we need to stop providing 24/7 hour coverage of these incidences. There is a delicate balance of how much the public needs to know because the incessant news stories that go on can actually be traumatizing to individuals. Also, there are reports that some of the shooters’ violent tendencies are encouraged by media reports and news coverage of prior shootings. Specific data on that is hard to come by as some of the perpetrators have committed suicide, but certainly it is a concern when there is incessant media coverage.

On an individual level, we need to protect ourselves from this incessant media coverage so we’re not traumatized. Honestly, some of that is just turning off media and internet coverage. Parent monitoring is a huge component to decreasing traumatic exposure, especially in children and adolescents who may not have the self-monitoring skills to know when to shut it off.

Between psychological and physical safety, which do we most overlook?

It’s a balance of both: either one without
the other and we have gaps in our safety. Physical safety is important, but we do not want to overreact and send the message that schools are fortresses or spend a lot of money on resources that may not be necessary. School shootings are very rare. To even that out, we also need to address psychological safety by talking to students about how it is okay to "break the code of silence” if they hear something of concern. It is really important for schools to have a confidential reporting system in place, so that students are open and willing to share concerning information with adults to take action and get help. The positive relationship between the adults and students at school is the most critical factor to school safety initiatives.

Who is the most susceptible to
take part in a shooting?
This is challenging. When it comes to school shootings in general, there is no one particular profile. Some risk factors or early warning signs include: whether any direct or indirect threats are made; if an individual expresses
a negative view of the world, of others, or
of institutions; if they project anger and blame through an "us vs. them” mentality;
 if they practice behaviors for violence, such as violent writings, internet postings, and
an obsession with violent video games; and/ or if they try to buy ammunition or guns or ask around as to how they can get weapons; these are all red flags and warning signs.

Another sign we have seen lately is that they are socially disconnected—or at least their perception is that they are not accepted by others. Some of them have stressors going on in their lives. To some extent there is a sense of hopelessness or helplessness and they do not see any other solution except
a violent ending. They also tend to be individuals with a history of mental health issues, and often people tried to get them help, but the mental health system and/or our laws made this difficult. For example, one of the challenges we have in this country is that we have often identified individuals we fear could be violent, but until they break the law, we cannot do anything because of civil and personal rights. We either have to wait for them to commit a crime, or we have to essentially prove that someone is mentally incompetent. This takes a lot of time and is not easy to do. If the person is a minor, parents have to provide permission for intervention.

Our mental health system makes it difficult when we see some of the warning signs to get help. Right now it has been brought to President Obama’s attention that we have a broken mental health system, and we need to find ways we can get help when we see some of these indicators. I have worked with parents who are very concerned for their children, but struggle to find mental health services. Either they do not have private insurance or the services that are covered
are not intensive enough to meet the needs of the child. Essentially, we have very few resources for kids or adults demonstrating serious health issues. I would say it is a crisis in our country.

At what age is it safe to begin telling children information about a crisis,
or does this vary?

What we advocate for in the PREPaRE curriculum is that you let the questions be the guide. If they ask questions, answer honestly; but don’t give them more information than they ask for, because this can lead to anxiety. If they don’t ask, then they might not be at a point developmentally where they want to discuss what is happening. Also, if they do ask, always bring the conversation back to proactive measures being taken by those at home and at school to ensure physical and psychological safety. You cannot promise that something bad will never happen in their school or home; but you can reinforce that the likelihood is very, very small.

If students are interested in your
 area of psychology, what classes will prepare them for this role?

It will be important for them to take a variety of different classes. My expertise area of school crisis prevention and intervention can overlap into forensic psychology, sociology courses such as deviancy, and also courses within the criminal justice field. For those interested also in school psychology, courses in human development, psychopathology, anything in the realm of behavior analysis, cognition, and also diversity are important. A good understanding of diversity is critical in working with the youth of today. In addition, when we talk about the violent perpetrators’ perceptions of the world, a lot of the times they are found to have a very limited repertoire of what they accept in regards to diversity.

What can we expect from you next?
Another project I am working on—other than PREPaRE—is for the Department of Defense schools (DoDEA–Department
of Defense Educational Activity). I am working with a team to provide safe 
schools resources, consultation, and staff development to DoDEA schools on military installations, both in the US and also internationally. We are helping them to refine, improve, or possibly implement new safety initiatives. We are linking our work
 to the concepts in the PREPaRE curriculum in hopes that we might be able to bring that training to all of our Department of Defense schools. That is a long-range goal but at this point we are working to help refine and develop their safety initiatives, which they take very seriously. It has been a great experience working with our military personnel and educators that serve our military families. They are a great group of professionals!


Dr. Melissa Reeves is a nationally certified school psychologist, licensed special education teacher, licensed professional counselor, and a coauthor of the NASP PREPaRE School Crisis Prevention and Intervention curriculum, the first nationally disseminated school crisis curriculum written by school professionals. She has conducted more than 150 workshops and presentations, and has testified at the invitation from U.S. Senator Mary Landrieu from Louisiana in front of the U.S. Senate Ad
Hoc Subcommittee for Disaster and Recovery regarding "Children and Disasters: A Progress Report on Addressing Needs.” She also works with schools on prevention and intervention programs and positive discipline measures to decrease behavioral incidences while increasing learning and academic achievement. Dr. Reeves is a coauthor of three books, has contributed to numerous book chapters and journal articles, and has won multiple awards, including the 2006 and 2011 National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) Presidential Award.

Copyright 1996 (Volume 1, Issue 1) by Psi Chi, the International Honor Society in Psychology

 

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