School Violence? Just S.T.O.P. It!

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STOP IT!  Just stop it.

For the love of God, and the love of our children, please – S.T.O.P. it.

(I’ll explain the acronym a little later, after my rant.)

Stop arguing, finger-pointing, and blaming.  Stop looking for simple, single-minded solutions to a complex problem.  Stop getting caught in the tragic mind-traps of “either-or” thinking.  “All-or-none” thinking.  “You vs Me / Us vs Them” thinking.

“Guns don’t kill people, people kill people.  In fact, only crazy, evil monsters kill people. (They’re not like us.)”

“Its a gun problem.”  “No, it’s a mental health problem.” “No, it’s a systemic breakdown of law and order; no, it’s lack of compassionate care; no, it’s social inequities and injustices…”  Fill-in-the-blank with your pet grievance.  With your “If they would only just do this one thing, it would solve the g-damn problem once and for all.”

Yeah, that makes sense.  That’s helpful.

Can we possibly approach the horrible tragedies of school violence – especially mass shootings – with some measure of maturity?  Can we, the grown-ups of society – the caretakers of our children – put on our big-boy/girl pants and just S.T.O.P. and think for a minute?

What if…?  What if we had the integrity (and guts) to do what’s right to protect our children, not what’s right to protect our power or pocketbooks?

What if we (a) applied some thoughtful, rational planning, (b) informed by a deep compassion for one another, and (c) had the will to follow-through with accountable actions?

BUT, you might say, how can we possibly do that when we’re all so stressed and scared and angry?  How can we come together to collaborate on meaningful change when we’re so busy vilifying and blaming, fearing and hating, one another?

Admittedly, it’s not easy.  But it is doable.  First, let’s understand what’s going on here at a very basic level.

When we’re overwhelmed with stress, part of our nervous system automatically kicks into survival mode to protect us from imminent harm.  You’ve probably heard of the automatic stress reaction known as “Fight or Flight.”  We jump into action, primed to either fight or flee (argue or avoid!) when the going gets tough.

This is a hard-wired survival mechanism embedded deep in the primitive part of our brains.  It’s designed to lead us to immediate, emotional reactions in the face of overwhelming threats – real or imagined.

If we perceive something is overly upsetting – threatening our physical safety or our psychological sense of security – we get tunnel vision.  We lose perspective.  We get reactive.  We lose our rational capacities.  We just act, without thinking.

In other words, when under duress, we’re going to be far more likely to EMOTIONALLY REACT, rather than THOUGHTFULLY RESPOND.

This is an important part of the human nervous system.  It’s vital, literally, in the face of immediate life-and-death situations.

In an actual school shooting situation, we need to react quickly.  But hopefully, we’ve done some careful thinking ahead of time.

Hopefully, we’ve prepared and trained to react more effectively.  (Remember, especially in times of crisis, “We don’t rise to the level of our expectations; we fall to the level of our training.“)

Hopefully, we’ll have thought so carefully, and acted so faithfully, that we actually prevent more of these atrocities from happening in the first place.

Perhaps you’ll agree: our reactive, stressed brains are not helping us respond effectively to this horribly difficult problem of school violence (or mass shootings in general).

So, what would help?

Here’s one suggestion, borrowed from many years of teaching this mindfulness practice to kids, parents, and teachers.  I’m praying that it can be put to good use by our community leaders and legislators, too.

Just S.T.O.P. it!

S = Stop.  Literally, push the pause button on your life.  Stop moving.  Stop talking. Definitely stop scrolling. Step away, and take some Space.  Take a “Time Out” to regroup.  Even for just a minute.  Pause.

T = Take a breath (or two or three).  Really, the only way you’re going to quiet your “Fight or Flight” nervous system is to calm the body.  The simplest and most effective way to do this is to slow your breathing down. Shh…

Really, right now.  Try it.  Just take a few slow, quiet, belly breaths.    Not heaving your shoulders up and down. Not gasping or huffing and puffing.  Just quietly settle, and let your body breathe itself, as if you were a baby sleeping.  Pause. Breath in… Pause. Breath out…  Repeat.

O = Observe and Open (your heart and mind).  Step out of that stressed-out tunnel-vision thinking.  Drop the pre-conceived notions, the assumptions and biases, as best you can right now.  Zoom out and observe the situation from a bird’s eye view.  Even better, from a God’s eye view.  Look at the big picture for a moment.

What do you notice…?

You might observe that public schools are under-resourced – in terms of mental health prevention and intervention programs.  In terms of properly maintained building security systems  and properly trained security guards/resource officers.  In terms of evidence-based policies and procedures.  In terms of ongoing training and support to practice those policies more effectively.

You may notice that schools can only do better with the consent – and dollars – of school boards and local tax paying citizens, as well as state and federal legislatures.

You might observe that no teacher or administrator or law enforcement officer ever goes to work in the morning intending to screw up or expecting to be in a violent crisis situation.  You might notice that people such as yourself are often distracted by multiple demands, are often feeling stressed and pressured, are often overwhelmed and exhausted.  Are likely to make mistakes.  Are not necessarily bad people.

You might observe that people commit violence when they feel threatened.  When they feel disrespected, dismissed, alienated, aggrieved, angered.  You might notice that they’re often in full-tilt “Fight or Flight” mode, like a cornered animal.  They are desperate and disillusioned, filled with wrath and hate and vengeance.  They may be filled with fear and despair.  They may even be delusional.

We might say they are not in their right mind.

More accurately, they’re in the parts of their mind that are the most primitive (parts we ALL have).  They are emotionally – either impulsively or compulsively – reacting. They’re blinded with a narrow-mindedness that doesn’t allow them to see, or value, other smarter, safer alternatives to resolving their conflicts.  They’ve lost touch with their higher thinking and their better selves.  Perhaps they’ve lost all hope.

Let me be very clear here: an explanation is not an excuse.  We are all accountable for our actions.  Here we’re simply Observing, without judgment, what may be contributing to the problem.

You may observe that many perpetrators of mass violence have a history of traumatic stress, what we call Adverse Childhood Experiences, or ACES.  You may also notice that many people have ACES, and don’t act out violently.

You may observe that kids (and adults) are increasingly addicted to their digital devices.  You may notice that attention spans are shrinking.  So is eye-contact, social relating and empathy, frustration tolerance, delay of gratification, persistence and patience.  The amount of hours on screens has skyrocketed.

You may observe that the content and quality of that time on screens is often toxic. Repeated exposure to graphic violence, sex, hate speech, threats, put downs, social comparisons, conspiracy theories, and more – is seriously eroding our kids’ social-emotional intelligence and well-being.

You may notice that there is growing evidence of the purposeful corporate manipulation of online content (games, videos, social media) to amplify topics that are more emotionally provocative and reactive.  This increases eyeballs on the screen, which increases dollars in the advertisers and investors pockets.

You might notice that this growing pattern of daily screen habits seems to be affecting youth and young adult’s distress tolerance, resilience, and critical reasoning skills, as well as their sense of self-worth.

You may notice that, on the whole, older adults have better insight, judgment, and impulse control than teenagers and young adults.  This is due, in part, to the maturation of the pre-frontal cortex – the part of the brain responsible for judgment and impulse control – which doesn’t come fully online until around age 25.

NOTE: That’s why you can’t rent a car or lower your car insurance until age 25 – because the actuarial tables indicate that car safety improves around that age. (Hmmm, implications for gun safety, maybe…?)

You may or may not know that there are evidence-based risk assessment protocols that can help improve the odds of school safety for our children.  And there are protective factors too, that when implemented systemically, can decrease the odds of social alienation, emotional dysregulation, and violent behaviors.

You might observe that there are no guarantees.  Which is not a signal to give up caring or advocating.  It’s just being realistic.  Predicting violence, or any other human behavior, is an imperfect science.  It is humbling.  We can never guarantee our children’s safety – or our own, for that matter.  But we can improve the odds.

You may observe that safety protocols that are focused on reducing the risk of suicide or homicide – in both mental health and law enforcement – always include assessing a person’s access to lethal means of doing harm.  That is, it is always useful to know what access a person has to what kind of guns and ammunition (amongst other things).  And it’s standard practice to limit an at-risk person’s access to guns in order to reduce the likelihood of harm to self or others.

You may notice that it’s far more difficult to commit mass murders with a hunting rifle or handgun, than it is with a semi-automatic machine gun.

You may observe that any talk about regulating gun access and usage in any way frequently elicits a strong visceral reaction in people, no matter their perspective on the subject.

You may notice that we haven’t yet figured out what to do about balancing responsible gun owners rights, and all American citizens’ rights to bear arms, with the repeating tragedies involving high-powered weapons.

You may or may not think it’s a good idea for us to figure out how to do so.  You might consider what it would be like if we did.  What if we could find more common ground, and less polarization, on the rights, responsibilities, and limitations of gun manufacturers, dealers, owners, and non-owners – for the greater benefit of all? For the greater benefit of defenseless kids in school?

You might notice an American political system that has largely lost its ability to balance competing interests and negotiate in good faith to reach some common-sense solutions that benefit the greater good, while still protecting the most vulnerable.

(Who gets to determine this “greater good” or “greater benefit for all”?  We do. Collectively.)

You might observe a growing disparity in wealth, and a greater consolidation of power into the hands of fewer men (and even fewer women).

You might observe a growing discontent in the greater population – a seething, simmering dissatisfaction with perceived wrongs.

And whichever wrongs are perceived, you may notice the growing belief that it’s okay to say or do anything to prove your righteousness – to prove you’re right, and they (whoever “they” are) are wrong.  “They” are the enemy.  “They” deserve to be conquered, punished, humiliated, or vanquished.

You may observe that public discourse has become, quite literally, a battleground of bullying and belligerence, rather than a forum for critical and constructive dialogue.

You might notice how such circular “Fight or Flight” reactivity amplifies the fear and anger in each of us, which amplifies the risk of violence.

Let me repeat that one.  You might notice how such circular “Fight or Flight” reactivity amplifies the fear and anger in each of us, which amplifies the risk of violence.

To start wrapping it up, you might observe that there is no one single factor that contributes to school violence.  But it’s not an endless list, either.  These are some of the major risk factors.

You might observe that you have other thoughts about school violence – what’s contributing to it, and what some possible solutions may be.  That’s fine.

You may notice that some of these observations I’ve put forth don’t ring true to you. That you disagree with some of them.  Which is fine.

The next question becomes, “What are you going to do with those different observations and opinions?”  How will you resolve that conflict?  First, within your own heart and mind?  Second, with me – or with any “other”?


P = Proceed.  Proceed with care.  Proceed with humility.  Proceed with mindful responses, not mindless reactions.  Such as…?

I strongly recommend practicing mindful, nonviolent communication as our best chance for curbing the escalating hostility and violence in our midst. (See Marshall Rosenberg or Oren Sofer.)

Proceed by connecting with your highest intentions. What do you hope to gain from this communication or interaction?  If you get quiet and listen to your heart, to your God, you’ll likely seek to find a way to get your needs (hopes and fears) met, while respecting and trying to best meet the needs of others at the same time.

You’ll be practicing generosity and gratitude, rather than greed and hatred.  – Any objections?!

If you notice your intention is to “win” – to crush, beat, overpower the other, then you’re already contributing to the cycle of violence.

However, if you follow the age-old wisdom of “Seek first to understand, then to be understood“, we’ll stand a lot better chance of moving in the direction of peace.

Of course, just understanding one another doesn’t automatically solve the problem. We need to Proceed to offer constructive suggestions, objectively weigh the pros and cons of each (as best we can), and select some that maximize gains while minimizing costs.

We need to accept that there is no perfect answer, but by harnessing our collective wisdom, we can do better.

Perhaps when we Stop, Take a Few Breaths, Observe more clearly, we’ll Proceed with greater compassion and wisdom to apply an integrated set of solutions that address this complex problem more effectively.

It’s long past the time that we should be finger-pointing and blaming.  I have a saying that I use in family therapy, “No one’s to blame; every one’s responsible.” We’re all responsible for being part of the problem, and part of the solution.

No more myopic “either-or” thinking.  No more “us vs them” thinking.  Beyond the cliche of it, we really are all in this together.  Now the only question is how we will choose to be in this together.  Fractiously fighting with or fleeing from one another? Or thoughtfully engaging and committing to collaborative solutions.

Let’s S.T.O.P. it, together.

We always have a choice.  Business as usual, or change.

We can proceed to “speak up and step up” to change things for the better.  Or not.

We can see the merit in improving the delivery of mental health services AND reducing social media toxicity AND decreasing social inequities AND strengthening effective policing AND regulating access to weapons of mass destruction WHILE maintaining our bill of rights.

Or not.  Or we can keep bickering about whether the problem – and the solution – lies in just one of these things.  We can keep blaming others, which absolves us of any responsibility for being part of the solution.

Just STOP it!  Let your common sense guide you.  Let your compassion motivate you.  Let your integrity compel you – to make as many of these changes as humanly possible.  Or something better.

I speak from my heart and from my many years of clinical experience.  I speak for the child who isn’t being seen or heard.  For the child who isn’t being warmly nurtured and firmly held accountable.  For the child who may wind up, someday, shooting or getting shot.  For all of us.

STOP it!