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Editorial: Teachers and schools can’t do it all

Reducing the number of mass shootings, like the murder of 26 students and teachers in Newtown, Conn., will require not just state and federal measures to ban assault rifles and high-capacity magazines but action by every community on every front. Former Monitor photo editor Dan Habib, now the filmmaker in residence at the UNH Institute on Disability, discussed one of them in Tuesday’s newspaper, and it may be the avenue that holds the most hope.

A long and tragic history has allowed experts to create a profile that fits almost all perpetrators of mass murders. They are relatively young men, loners with poor social skills. They are the victims of bullying, real or perceived. They have a tendency to blame others for their unhappiness and a fascination with weapons, violence or death. Almost by definition, mass murderers suffer from some degree of mental illness that has almost always gone untreated.

Often the rage that led them to slaughter innocents was a response to family conflicts that began early in life and were exacerbated by their experiences in school. That’s where Habib’s documentary about Somersworth High School’s pioneering program to support students with emotional, learning or behavioral disabilities comes in. The program takes students on the margin of the school culture and brings them in. It lets them know that they are not alone and have support.

Habib’s film focuses on Kelsey Carroll, a student with attention deficit disorder and a history of homelessness and substance abuse, and how the school’s program of positive intervention helped her succeed. But it did much more. It reduced Somersworth High School’s dropout rate by 75 percent and drastically curbed behavior problems.

Applied more widely, in school and out, efforts to draw people in pain and on the fringe into society, to let them know that they too belong, could do more than an assault weapon ban to reduce mass shootings. It could reduce the estrangement that leads some people to commit such an atrocity and help ensure that people in need of mental health services get them.

Problems start early. Veteran law enforcement officers say that they can spend an hour in an elementary school class and predict which students they’ll get to know better with time. Early intervention, with help and inclusiveness, not punishment, may not only help troubled students succeed, it may turn them away from a future that too often puts them on the wrong side of the law.

Action is needed on all fronts. Access to guns by unstable people must be reduced, and access to mental health services in the community and in mental hospitals must be increased. A campaign to aggrandize kindness and community, not violence, should be launched. Students, teachers, friends, family members and neighbors must be encouraged to steer people they believe are troubled to help and report their fear that someone is about to act violently to law enforcement.

But early intervention programs, whether to keep a kid from joining a gang or to help overcome a learning disability, emotional trauma, incompetent parenting, poverty or a behavioral disability, may be the best way prevent school shootings and other antisocial acts. Teachers are usually the first to know when a child’s home life is chaotic or abusive, the first to suspect that a young person may suffer from a behavioral disability or a mental illness. Many serve, in their own way, as therapists. But teachers and schools can’t do it on their own. They need the support of the community that works to bring people on the outside into the circle.

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