Parents, officials talk school safety

Madison Middle School’s auditorium was filled to near capacity March 9 as hundreds of parents, many of whom were still without power from a strong winter storm earlier in the week, turned out to discuss school safety with school and town officials and a panel of experts.

“School safety is obviously a very important issue to parents in the community, and you could see it by the numbers,” said First Selectman Vicki Tesoro, a panelist. “This is a complex problem, and there are many issues that need to be addressed, and there was a healthy discussion about it.”

David Bernstein of Forensic Consultants LLC was the featured speaker. In his consulting work he has worked with police, the FBI, and school districts to come up with plans to prevent school violence.

There are many myths surrounding the phenomenon of mass shootings in schools, Bernstein said. Among them is the thought that normal teens simply “snap” and then commit acts of violence. Not so, he said.

“They have a perceived grievance, they make a plan, and carry out the plan,” Bernstein said. “Their victims are directly targeted.”

Identifying motives in mass shootings can be difficult, especially since in many cases the shooter does not survive. Bernstein said that when a motive can be determined, 75% of mass shooters perceived that they were victims of bullying.

The word “perceived” is very important, he said. Even though an outside observer might not think a school shooter had been bullied, those opinions are completely irrelevant.

“What they are reacting to is their perception of the situation,” Bernstein said.

Social isolation and anxiety also are significant contributing factors, he said.

“The average high school student of today reports anxiety levels as high as inpatient psychiatric patients in the 1950s,” Bernstein said. “The average person in the 1970s had four close friends. Today, they have two.”

Among the questions from parents was what role video games played in the psychology of a school shooter. Bernstein said violent games do not appear to be a cause of school violence.

“The research shows that kids can tell the difference between shooting pixels and shooting people,” he said.

While it is true that students with a grudge will use violent video games as a virtual substitute to rehearse their eventual crime, violent video games don’t make children violent “any more than watching rom-coms (romantic comedies) makes viewers more empathetic,” Bernstein said.

Following Bernstein’s talk, several town officials took their turns at the podium describing some of the preventative measures the schools have taken. These talks were intentionally vague, with speakers offering little detail on physical safety features at the schools or potential response plans.

School safety discussions won’t end, though, as town officials already are planning internal discussions on ways to enhance school safety. About a dozen Trumbull elected officials and staff, including police Chief Michael Lombardo, school Superintendent Gary Cialfi, finance board Chairman Elaine Hammers, and representatives from the Town Council, convened a meeting Monday to continue the discussion of school safety initiatives.

“This is, and will remain, a top priority for us,” Tesoro said. “The safety of our children, staff, and school community is paramount.”