While the current debates and discussions regarding public access to militarized weapons, the breakdown of intel between national, state and local law enforcement officials, the flawed or non-existent background checks and the identification of individuals struggling with mental illness are all important, they fail to include the real culprit and core issue at hand...the alienation, suffocating and unrealistic expectations of boys and men in our society.
Iowa state legislators are rushing to propose and pass legislation requiring schools to have safety protocols and active shooter plans in place. Most schools adopted plans shortly after Columbine in 1999. Other than limit the number of casualties, these initiatives will have little, if any, real impact.
Iowa state legislators are rushing to propose and pass legislation requiring all teachers to receive mandatory mental health training to recognize the warning signs of mental illness among student populations. Most schools are already working with local mental health and public health officials. However, the challenge is that these same legislators are reducing and eliminating funding that would support mental health professionals and provide the insurance coverage necessary for all qualified individuals to receive services.
In addition, youth and adults struggling with mental health issues are not the ones who are arming themselves with an AR-15 assault-style rifle and walking in and blowing up a school, cafe, theater or dance club. In fact, the vast majority of individuals with mental health issues are more likely to be targets of violence and abuse, not the perpetrators. This strategy will have very little impact on reducing gun violence.
The solution: Weapons of Mass Inclusion
Today, at this very minute, hundreds of professional educators and student leaders around the country - and in Iowa - are working side-by-side with public and private partners to infuse and institutionalize programming and practices that serve to include and engage ALL youth in the quest to build caring and supportive school environments and communities.
These are weapons of mass inclusion. And from what we can discern, they seem to be working.
Rachel's Challenge - this program was founded by the parents of Rachel Scott who was murdered 19 years ago at Columbine High School. Darrell Scott, Rachel's father, attended yesterday's White House meeting with survivors and victims of Columbine, Sandy Hook, and Stoneman Douglas. He and his family have positively impacted the lives of over 2 million students. To date, not one act of gun violence has occurred in any of the schools where this program is operationalized.
Rachel's Challenge is student-led, leadership program that teaches and instructs students (and adults) to pay attention to and be aware of students who are - for whatever reason – experiencing bouts of loneliness, isolation and exclusion. Students are armed with skills and strategies to engage and connect with students who would otherwise continue disassociate, withdraw and experience intense feelings of rejection and shame. For boys and men this becomes lethal.
Why aren’t we seriously talking about this approach? We need to be.
Legislators - make Rachel's Challenge and programs like it mandatory in our schools. It works.
Mentors in Violence Prevention (MVP) – in a secondary school setting, this program is designed to train and engage upperclass high school students to serve as peer mentors with younger students, typically 9th graders. During weekly or bi-weekly small group breakout sessions, student mentors facilitate activities and discussions to help identify the "early" warning signs and characteristics of gender violence and bullying. Students learn how (and why) to be empathetic to those who are being targeted by abusive language, comments, degrading remarks, bullying, racial and homophobic slurs. MVP mentors facilitate fierce conversations with the younger peers in order to help them come to an agreement and/or understanding that these behaviors are wrong and that as a student body we all have a responsibility to safely and effectively challenge and confront these behaviors. In these student-led sessions, peers thoughtfully explore and practice a wide range of active bystander approaches and responses that would likely defuse, deescalate or distract the situation from becoming more harmful and abusive. To date, over 2,100 high school students have been trained in the MVP model and have subsequently facilitated prevention strategies to over 22,000 high school freshmen.
Developed in 1995, the MVP program includes a scenario whereby a student overhears a rumor or comment made by another student in the school about bringing a gun or weapon to school. Teaching and coaching students that this is not okay or normal and that there are options to consider on how best to respond and/or report the information to authorities is incredibly important. We can not take it for granted that kids will be proactive in these situations.
Legislators, like Rachel's Challenge, make MVP mandatory in our secondary schools. It has shown to positively impact the culture and climate of schools.
Coaching Boys into Men (CBIM) - is a program designed by coaches, for coaches, to engage their young male athletes in discussions around healthy relationships, problematic and harmful behaviors and language used by some men and boys to hurt others, as well as strategies that can be utilized to hold teammates and peers accountable in situations where violence and bullying may occur. This model helps reinforce the message that a young person's strength and aggression during competition has no place in relationships with others. Young men need the permission of older male role models to challenge and confront sexist, racist and homophobic language which is oftentimes excused as "locker room talk." And, let's not forget that older, male role models need training and support too.
With ongoing support of the Iowa High School Athletic Association, high school coaches in over 40 Iowa school districts have gone through the CBIM training. The training and materials are free. More can be done.
Legislators, like Rachel's Challenge and MVP, make Coaching Boys into Men mandatory for all secondary school coaches.
These models are incredibly helpful and effective in reducing and eliminating the harm and abuse that boys and young men both experience and perpetrate onto others. Without these weapon of mass inclusion, some boys and young men will increasingly feel isolated, angry and ultimately, shame, when they come face to face with some of life's early challenges and stumbling blocks such as: being excluded from a popular peer group, not being selected to participate on a team or in a certain school activity, feeling rejected by a crush or potential dating partner, appearing less masculine or physically tough when compared to other male peers, or being referred to as "weak," "pussy," "fag," or "girl" in front of others.
Boys and young men in our society learn early in life that real men don't ask for help and that you solve your own problems. No one's going to look out for your best interests - except for you, so take whatever means necessary to "speak your mind" and have the final word. This is exactly what leads boys and men into arming themselves with guns and explosives and adopting the language of lead and fire. Isolation. Anger. Shame.
Mass shootings are preventable - they are not inevitable.
Legislators, make Rachel's Challenge, MVP, CBIM and other programs like them mandatory in our schools.
The only real cost to implementing these models is "time." Utilizing less than one half of one percent of instructional time, these programs have shown to be effective.
Teaching professionals across the country have our students' best interest at heart and are speaking out loud and clear: "Do not arm us with guns!"
Instead, arm our teachers, coaches and students with weapons of mass inclusion.
Alan Heisterkamp, Ed.D.
Center for Violence Prevention
University of Northern Iowa