Trauma Informed Schools Don’t Throw Stones


Scrolling through Facebook I noticed  a news item about a rural school district in Pennsylvania that had made the decision to arm teachers and students with rocks in an effort to ward off potential school shooters. The idea being if a shooter entered the classroom the students could scare him off by pelting him with dozens of “river stones.”

I assumed it was a piece from The Onion.

“This is a joke, right?” read one of the comments.

It’ wasn’t

Indeed, The Blue Mountain School district in rural Pennsylvania has a 5-gallon bucket of river stones as a “last resort” should an armed intruder burst in.

“We always strive to find new ways to keep our students safe,” remarked superintendent, David Helsel

If you are going to involve students in your emergency plan, it might be wise to know how the plan will affect those students who have suffered or are suffering trauma or adverse childhood experiences. From a trauma informed perspective, this idea is grossly lacking in insight and is potentially quite damaging.

Nearly 35 million US children have suffered some type of trauma or adverse childhood experience. Fortunately, in an effort to understand and to help, we are seeing an influx of trauma informed schools and trauma informed teachers. Examples of adverse childhood experiences and trauma can include a serious accident, a parent’s divorce, being the victim of prolonged bullying, sexual and/or physical abuse, domestic violence, serious illness, a loved ones death and more. How a child is impacted by the trauma is dependent on a variety of environmental and genetic factors . Children and teens who have suffered adverse childhood experiences and/or trauma  are coping with a range of issues including  severe anxiety, depression, behavioral outbursts, inability to focus and learning difficulties to name a few.  It can be difficult for educators to know who these kids are because symptoms of trauma often mask as other issues including ADD, aggressive behavior or social isolation. What we do know is that every classroom has at least one child who has experienced an adverse experience or trauma.

Arming  kids with rocks to ward off a gunman is akin to giving a four year old who is terrified of monsters a baseball bat by his bedside to ward off the creature should it barge into his room during the night.  A child not prone to excessive worry might get a false sense of security from the illusion of “power” (and in this case a fictional threat) but a stressed or troubled child could be sentenced to even deeper anxiety (and missed sleep) as he nervously anticipates his call to action. Better for the adult in the room – the one really in charge of maintaining safety –  to offer  in a calm and reassuring manner,  ways in which the room can be secured from potential threats; ways that don’t involve the child ultimately needing to “save the day.”

There are numerous trauma specialists and trauma informed clinicians who could offer guidance as to the psychological ramifications of presenting this “last resort option” to especially vulnerable kids. It would benefit school districts to engage their opinions when considering these safety “options.”

Kenneth Trump, president of the Cleveland-based National School Safety and Security Services, a K-12 security consulting firm, calls the idea illogical and irrational and said it could possibly cost lives.

He also said the efforts fill an emotional security need, but don’t actually enhance security.

Mr. Trump is wrong. The efforts do not fill an emotional security need. They give the illusion of filling an emotional security need in a hair brained Wiley Coyote kind of way.   For stressed kids such thoughts can increase feelings of subjection, and fear.  Children and young adults prone to anxiety are already on hyper alert, hence their frequent inability to sleep or focus in school.  Anticipating a gunman barging into your classroom in and of itself is terrifying. Add to that the burden of needing to locate and hurl a bunch of stones at this imagined gunman and you are setting the stage for excessive rumination and worry in kids prone to obsessive/compulsive thinking; another issue associated with trauma and adverse childhood experiences. It will be interesting to see if levels of ADD in Blue Mountain spike after this idea. Who will have energy left to focus on academics?

Stressed kids ward off a multitude of evils every day . These include external threats such as an abusive family member,  living in an impoverished environment or facing peers who taunt or bully them.  They also ward off internal threats such as crippling anxiety, headaches, stomachaches and feelings of despair.  A sense that the adults in the room are ready and able to guide them to safety should an emergency arise frees them up to focus on  work, rest and play.

Blue Mountain School District explains on their website that they of course have offered this sense of reassurance to the students and indeed they do have other, more sophisticated measures in place. The stones are “a last resort;” an “option,”according to one parent. 

 

When will the river stones actually be used?
“This is a last resort! Throwing river stones or other items will only be used if all other steps have been taken to avoid contact with an intruder.”

Blue Mountain School District

 

To the child that does feel empowered by the idea of “fighting off the bad guy,” this is grossly manipulative and deceptive as such crude methods of defense could cost students and teachers their lives. To a child that has undergone trauma or extreme stress, this “option” is in no way empowering. Planting, into an immature AND stressed brain,  the very idea of needing to ward off a crazed killer in one’s classroom can re trigger the helplessness and fear the child felt (or feels if it’s enduring) from their trauma or adverse experience.

Throwing stones at a gunman as an “option” for impressionable students is an immature and knee jerk reaction that insults the work trauma informed clinicians and educators are doing on how to best help young people realistically cope with fears of gun violence.

We need to help our kids learn to trust and to build their internal resources. External resources when used properly (modern security systems, teacher training) and when supported by experts in security, psychology and trauma are also useful. Reactionary ideas which go so far as to involve the students themselves without including input from trauma informed clinicians, are ludicrous at best and at worst, potentially dangerous both physically and emotionally.