Could "Actively Caring" Help Prevent School Shootings?

Feb 27, 2018

Each time there’s a mass shooting in this country, a similar thing happens. Along with the grief, comes questions about how to prevent it from happening again.  At Virginia Tech, where the deadliest school shooting in U.S. history occurred in 2007, psychologists have been exploring that question ever since.

Alumni Distinguished Professor Scott Geller directs the Center for Applied Behavior Systems in the Psychology department at Virginia Tech. He has written a series of books on the now familiar patterns and situations that, too often, culminate in a mass shooting.

“The more we develop a culture of aggression, of violence, of guns. We’re going to see more of this happening, but it is a people issue too and we have to address the caring side."

Geller’s book series, titled “Actively Caring for People” includes checklists and role playing exercises for creating supportive, interdependent culture in schools, offices, and even police departments. When someone in the community shows signs of potential violence, he says, that’s the time for empathy and professional psychological support.

“This individual in Florida was acting out and he was aggressive, so what did they do? They kicked him out of school," Geller notes.

It's not likely he would have gotten the help he clearly needed after being expelled from his school. 

A New York Times report on the Florida School shooting noted, the suspect showed "every red flag" and had been quote, “causing trouble as long as anyone could remember.”

Geller says there’s proof that troubled people without support systems are at greater risk of acting out, seeking attention – even the negative attention -- that massacres invariably bring. 

“We have to look for people in that situation and we have to help them find a sense of importance beyond doing negative things."

He says the shooter at Virginia Tech, like the suspect in Florida  showed clear signs they were in deep trouble.  

While Geller's approach may be controversial in the aftermath of a horrific shooting, he says research shows that positive motivation, if it comes early enough, leads to better outcomes than negative consequences.“These folks needed some therapy way before they did the dirty deed, so it scares me to think that we’re going to bring in more police officers with guns and even perhaps teachers with guns instead of more school psychologists in these schools. That’s where we have to change things. That’s the change we need.”   

Nationally, there’s one school counselor for every 480 students in public high schools, exactly the ratio in Florida and Virginia.