On September 8, 2001, Michael Iken sat down with his wife Monica and told her that he had a feeling that he was going to leave this earth suddenly. He did not know how this would occur, but the feeling was strong. Michael told Monica that he had no regrets, that he loved her deeply and that he felt at peace. Three days later, he died in the second tower of the World Trade Center.
Five days after the tragic events of 9/11, I met Monica Iken for the first time, through my uncle, one of the only survivors at Euro Brokers. He was Michael’s best friend.
While talking with Monica and hearing her story, a clear vision came to me: one of Monica as a leader and spokesperson for a Memorial at the World Trade Center Site. When I shared this with her, Monica shrugged it off saying “That’s impossible. I am a kindergarten teacher. I love my job, and I plan to keep teaching.”
Ten years later, in the spring of 2011, I watched Monica live on CNN, speaking at Ground Zero beside President Barack Obama and former Mayor Giuliani. Monica, now the CEO of September’s Mission, was representing the 9/11 families participating in the building of the Memorial. Watching Monica on television, I felt a profound sense of interconnectedness. I witnessed a sense of grace demonstrated by those that overcome tragedy with resilience, service, and love.
In the wake of this profound experience, I reconnected with Monica and shared with her my vision for creating a curriculum for schools, designed to decrease high-risk behavior, violence and bullying, while addressing social and emotional challenges. We discussed a shared goal of creating this kind of program for NYC schools, and Monica expressed that this was very much in line with the goals of September’s Mission.
Years later we continue to work together. Mission Be reaches more and more schools with a message of forgiveness, resiliency, strength and hope. And now in partnership with Safe and Sound Schools, we look to reach school communities across the country.
Learn more about Carin as a speaker and workshop presenter on our Safe and Sound website and at Mission Be.
The recent series of violent events and tragedy across our country have devastated community after community, family after family. Our hearts are heavy for each of the communities, families, and victims touched by this violence. We at Safe and Sound Schools are working within our network of school safety professionals and community members to support and prepare schools for addressing these issues and fostering positive, peaceful dialogue. Together, we can prepare to welcome our students and families back to a safe and reassuring school environment.
The following statement is contributed by Safe and Sound Advisor, Dr. Melissa Reeves on behalf of the National Association of School Psychologists.
We join the nation in sorrow and outrage at the senseless acts of recurring violence. The level of anger and violence in this country is unacceptable and is a heartbreaking symptoms of serious underlying societal problems.
As parents, caregivers, and educators, we have a critical responsibility to help children and youth understand the challenges at hand within a problem-solving context and see themselves as active participants in our collective national commitment to liberty and justice for all.
It is our hope that the nation will take a lesson or two from how effective schools contribute—on a daily basis—to children’s understanding of what it means to be part of a positive community. School communities succeed in large measure because they maintain values that shape a positive learning environment. These values are expressed in the following ways.
- Adults model and teach desired behaviors. Adults can help children and youth manage their reactions to events in the news and their communities by understanding their feelings, modeling healthy coping strategies, and redirecting negative thoughts and feelings.
- What we say and how we say it matters. Adults should model civil discourse and provide opportunities to engage children and youth in conversations that focus on common goals rather than labeling groups of people for individual behavior.
- Other people’s perspectives matter. The very nature of civil disagreement is to acknowledge respectfully the views and experiences of other people and learn from differing perspectives. Adults can create safe spaces for youth to share their feelings and concerns while also exploring how they might feel and act if they were in someone else’s shoes.
- Trusting relationships are essential. Establishing positive relationships between adults and students is foundational to safe, successful learning environments. Schools can provide opportunities to strengthen positive interactions with law enforcement, such as engaging SROs as integral members of the school team.
- Safety and well-being are a shared responsibility. We each have a role in countering violence, inequity, and isolation. Being silent is not a responsible option. We have to actively counter anger and hate with acceptance and compassion everywhere.
- Contributions and effort are recognized and valued. We can and must honestly address systemic problems, but we must also acknowledge the individual citizens of all races and ethnicities, public servants and leaders, and members of law enforcement who go above and beyond to do the right thing every day.
There is no more important endeavor than helping our children and youth become positive, productive, valued citizens. We start by making their safety and well-being an unequivocal priority no matter where they learn, play, and live. Together we can work together to counter hate and violence and bring positive change and unity to our country.
Dr. Melissa Louvar Reeves is the current President-Elect of the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP). She is a nationally certified school psychologist, licensed professional counselor, and licensed special education teacher.
In the hours, days, and weeks after an act of school violence, our nation predictably turns its focus to the mental health of the perpetrator. We often assume that the attacker’s behavior was caused by mental illness. This belief provides something of an explanation for us to hold onto in our shock and grief. Believing that the perpetrator suffered from mental illness allows us to distance ourselves just a bit from the individuals who would commit this type of violence. While this explanation may serve as comfort for our wounded psyches, is it valid? What does the research tell us about the connection between mental health and violence?
The majority of people with mental illness do not commit violent acts. A number of studies support the finding that a mere 4% of violence toward others in the U.S. can be attributed to people diagnosed with mental illness. There are, however, specific severe mental illness diagnoses linked to slightly higher rates of violence – schizophrenia, which is characterized by disorganized thoughts and behavior and perhaps a loss of touch with reality, along with the major mood disorders, bipolar disorder and major depression. The truth is, persons with mental illness are more likely to be victims than perpetrators of violence. Mental illness does, however, carry an increased risk of violence toward oneself – suicide.
We also know that alcohol and drug use and abuse significantly increase risk for violence toward self and others in both mentally ill and non-mentally ill populations.
Mental illness, then, is not the sole cause of school violence. Roughly 1 in 4 people in the U. S. have a diagnosable mental illness and most of them do not feel compelled to act violently. Mental illness is just one risk factor, and the presence of risk factors does not necessarily result in a specific outcome. Many factors are involved in this process.
How can we reliably determine which individuals are at risk for perpetrating violence in our schools?
The practice of threat assessment, developed over the past twenty years, is the tool we use to investigate and determine the level of risk posed by a given individual. Its focus is not on predicting, but on preventing violence.
Quite simply, we can get a glimpse into someone’s mind by observing precisely what the individual says and does. We review all risk factors, behavioral warning signs, and violence inhibitors, to obtain a more complete picture of whether the individual is heading toward violence. Then, we can intervene, get help for the person, and manage the possible threat in a way that will keep others safe. If we find that we do have concerns about the individual’s mental health, this is the time to summon the person’s support system and refer him or her for assistance.
This discussion would not be complete without acknowledging that in the aftermath of a number of school shooting attacks, previously overlooked indicators of undiagnosed mental illness were uncovered. While the incidence of school shooting is rare, and the link between mental illness and violence is tenuous, we always want to watch for signs of possible mental health issues, and attend to them swiftly.
Other risk factors and warning signs of violence include access to weapons, substance use/abuse, noncompliance with psychiatric medication or treatment, fascination/preoccupation with weapons and violence, a commando mentality, holding onto grievances, a model or script for using violence to solve problems, feelings of envy, anger, rage and hopelessness, a sense of being entitled to revenge for a perceived wrong, and a feeling of marginalization from peers. Can a distorted sense of reality or skewed thought patterns be behind some of these factors? Absolutely!
There are also specific protective factors shown to inhibit violence. These may or may not be present in a given individual’s life. It is the totality of the situation that ultimately determines the outcome.
Small steps we can take each day to keep our schools safe include making vital personal connections with our students, fostering a positive, equitable school climate, educating others and ourselves about the risk factors and warning signs of mental illness, suicide, and violence, and keeping a watchful eye on students. We can develop a process in our schools for referral, assessment, and intervention to provide the help our students need. With all of these preventive measures in place, we can trust that we’ve made our schools a much safer place to learn.
– Susan Sibole, B.A. Psychology, M.S. Counseling Psychology, Youth Risk Prevention Specialists
Founder of Youth Risk Prevention Specialists and creator of the SafeAware program, Suzanne Sibole works with school districts nationwide to significantly increase their levels of safety. With the SafeAware program, schools receive step-by-step assistance developing safety and crisis response plans and setting up violence threat assessment teams. Suzanne trains all staff on everyday school safety, detecting the warning signs of suicide and violence, and the importance of reporting and following up. She then works with key staff members until they are confident assessing individual cases and managing potential school threats. She also speaks to parents about their critical role in school safety and violence prevention. Suzanne has trained at the Gavin de Becker Academy, is a member of ATAP (Association of Threat Assessment Professionals), and works with with national school safety and threat assessment experts.
 Friedman, Richard A., M.D. The New York Times, December 17, 2012.
 Brekke JS, Prindle C, Bae SW, Long JD. Risks for individuals with schizophrenia who are living in the community. Psychiatric Services. 2001; 52(10):1358–1366. [PubMed]
 University of Washington School of Social Work http://depts.washington.edu/mhreport/facts_suicide.php
 Singh, Pavita, MPH. Huffpost Media, Jan 28, 2016
 Langman, Peter. School Shooters: Understanding High School, College, and Adult Perpetrators, Rowan & Littlefield, January 2015