Why schools must be extra vigilant during April

Media sensationalism of school massacres drives increased risk of copycat killings

April has become one of the deadliest months for school massacres and homegrown terrorist activities in the U.S. We’ve seen it before with tragic events that seared the names of these campuses into our minds:

  • Virginia Tech, 33 deaths and 23 injured (April 16, 2007)
  • Columbine High School, 15 deaths and 21 injured. (April 20, 1999)
  • Oikos University, 7 deaths and 3 injured (April 2, 2012)

Than add to that:

  • Oklahoma City Federal Building Bombing, 149 deaths and 680 injured (April 19, 1995)
  • Waco siege, 78 deaths (April 19, 1993)

When it comes to publicizing mass, serial, or spree violence the fear of copycat behavior is always a grave concern.  Is it possible that one maladjusted, mentally ill, violent, or suicidal teenager will read about these events and think this might be a useful solution to his life problems?  Will that same child see the accompanying publicity and discussions from the usual collection of school, violence or mental health experts as something enviable and worth repeating on an even grander scale? If killing 15 people on a campus in Colorado will get the perpetrators on the covers of national magazines, is it possible another teen will realize he has to hurt even more people to both qualify for immortality and become the new yardstick for which future incidents will be measured?

School administrators, public officials and the general public need to be extra vigilant during this month. While attacks on campuses have garnered the most attention, we have to be ready to protect people in virtually every part of our society.

A gunman who killed two people at a Maryland mall in early March was believed to have a fixation with the Columbine shooting. He even dressed like one of the shooters and timed his attack to occur about the same time as the shooting in Columbine.

The media drives much of the frenzy. The 24-hour news cycles of many of today’s media outlets crave news to the point that anniversaries of tragic events result in lengthy reports of the original coverage. Ideally, the media would provide a short, dignified report on the anniversary. But in the news business, good photos and video are too hard to pass up using again and again.

Social media – including Facebook, Twitter and blog sites – are full of posts reminding the more impressionable among us of the planning these young men put into their deeds.

It’s become virtually impossible to ratchet down the sensationalism, the horror and the tragedy of these events. Our society will be living with the Murrah Federal Building, Columbine and Virginia Tech tragedies as long as there are people alive to remember them.

That leaves us with only one realistic choice; prepare for the worst.

Whether we are talking about schools or other areas where large numbers of people congregate, we have to get past the idea that “it can’t happen here.” It can and it may.

If we don’t act, our concern is that we will see the copycat individuals who are trying to make history at the expense of others. What can schools realistically do? Honestly, probably not a lot between now and the end of the month. But they can begin to prepare for that next terrible event. Here are a few pointers schools should implement as quickly as possible:

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