We Are Only Human

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Rolling in the Deep

Tips for treading turbulent classroom waters

I'm often asked to give talks to burgeoning teachers -- young men and women who want to make a lasting impact on many future students' lives. Recently, I met with a group of students from the Harvard Graduate School of Education to discuss how to manage realistic problems in the classroom and common pitfalls in the lives of teachers. Luckily, these students are getting a taste of the triumphs and the troubles of an educator through their internships in schools across the state. Below, I've shared some of the advice I extended to them regarding troubled students and assessing violence in an educational setting. The common denominator is prevention -- I cannot stress this enough. Prevention is so much more important than predicting risk. In the wake of recent school tragedies and a resonating fear in schools, these key tips are invaluable for both teachers and administrators alike, as well as for parents.

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1. Inquire about gun access

When a student shows signs of aggression, begins to make threats to himself or others, or is involved in any other inflammatory episode, a teacher or administrator should always ask the student and his parents about access to weapons. As I'll get to more thoroughly in my second point, prevention is crucial. Knowing about weapons in the home could be the difference between prevention and a suicide or other horrific outcomes.

It's also important to go over the school's weapons policy with kids. A fair number of kids don't realize what constitutes a weapon. For instance, I knew of a student who was expelled for having a small Swiss Army Knife on his keychain. These things happen all the time, unfortunately. Another student was en route to a school dance from his after school job, and had brought his box cutter, required for work. This incident required a huge negotiation to prevent his expulsion. Going over the weapons policy with kids should be a routine procedure.

2. Be proactive; think prevention

Like I've stated, prevention is more important than predicting risk. If a student gets a bad grade in his English class and says, "Someone's going to pay for this," it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that someone has to make sure that he gets additional support and if he fails that they are quick to monitor him for safety.

3. Take concern from others seriously

One of the biggest red flags for a student is when other people, particularly peers, step forward with concerns about the student's potential for violence. I knew of a case where a young man's worried ex-girlfriend presented a despairing email to a school administrator, who then showed it to me. The letter was so despondent that I initiated immediate outreach. We arranged an emergency evaluation. A police officer and a mental health clinician showed up at the young man's house, and the boy admitted that he'd been considering suicide for days. The ex-girlfriend's concern was crucial to mobilizing a life-saving inquiry. Concern from peers should always be taken seriously.

4. Share responsibility

A teacher is equipped with a huge network of support, and yet it's so easy to fall victim to a student's seductive language, i.e., "You are the only one that I can trust this with! I hate everybody else!" Teachers may think they're impervious to this kind of talk, but it can be very flattering to be the chosen confidant. I always tell teachers to share the responsibility. If they're waking up in the middle of the night thinking about their students' problems, talking to someone about this is critical. And if teachers are never waking up in the middle of the night, that's something to think about as well -- I am just as concerned about someone who doesn't have a radar for worry and seems nonchalant. Some teachers fret all the time, and others have the "nothing's going to happen on my watch" view of things. There's a fine balance of sharing responsibility.

5. Know your threat levels

Young students can be unpredictable as they come into their own and learn to manage their emotions. So, they often say outrageous things, and while most of it's harmless, sometimes it can warrant further action. When a student says, "I'm going to get you" in the heat of the moment, but later, after some reflection and teacher follow-up, expresses remorse or apologizes, that's called a transient threat. Conversely, a substantive threat is when there's potential injury to others, like a student who says "When I come back here, I'll have a gun," or who has shown some follow-through on a plan about making a bomb. Teachers must frequently make judgment calls on this kind of language, and in this era of heightened vigilance, it is key to have a process in place to help teachers evaluate a threat. The majority of threats are not substantive and it is key to have a process in place to evaluate threats so that teachers feel safe and students can learn.

Nancy Rappaport is associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.

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