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Offering Protection and Comfort for Kids in the Wake of Latest Shooting Tragedy

December 14, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
How can parents and schools keep kids safe, and how can they reassure them when tragedies occur? Judy Woodruff speaks with a panel of experts, including Stephen Brock of California State University, Dewey Cornell of University of Virginia and Mo Canady of the National Association of School Resource Officials.
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TRANSCRIPT

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now we turn to just some of the many questions being asked about safety, security, and helping children cope in the wake of this tragedy.

Stephen Brock is a professor of school psychology at California State University in Sacramento. He’s a member of an emergency assistance team for the National Association of School Psychologists.

Dewey Cornell is director of the Youth Violence Project at the University of Virginia. He is a forensic clinical psychologist.

And we hope to be joined shortly by Mo Canady. He is the executive director of the National Association of School Resource Officers, which works on school-based policing and security.

For now, I want to welcome both Stephen Brock and Dewey Cornell.

And just, I will start with you, Stephen Brock. You have dealt with this sort of thing before. What was your reaction when you heard this today?

STEPHEN BROCK, California State University, Sacramento: Well, as a school psychologist, as a father, as a person who is no stranger to this kind of loss, it was, quite simply, devastating. It’s a very sad day.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And Dewey Cornell?

DEWEY CORNELL, University of Virginia: Terrible tragedy and very frustrating that we weren’t able to prevent this.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Let me stay with you, Dewey Cornell. You have, as we said, worked with this sort of thing. People look at this and they think, how could it happen?

What do you say when your friends, your colleagues, people who know the work you do — how do you answer that question?

DEWEY CORNELL: Well, the first thing I try to point out is that calling this a school shooting is a bit of a misnomer. It is a mass shooting that happened to occur in a school.

Schools are very safe places. We know objectively that students are safer in school than almost anyplace else. But what’s really critical is to understand the relationship between the shooter and the victims.

We look for ways to prevent these types of shooting through two key factors, mental health issues that may be present in the shooter — again, in this case, it’s too early to say — and also some kind of interpersonal conflict that was overwhelming to the individual.

We really can prevent school shootings and other types of mass casualty shootings. But we have got to think about earlier prevention. Prevention has to start long before there’s a gunman in the parking lot. Prevention has to start with mental health services and resources in the community to resolve problems and difficulties that people have long before they escalate into a serious violent situation.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Stephen Brock, we know that in many instances that prevention is taking place. But it’s not happening often enough, because so often these shootings occur, and it is typically a young man in his late teens or early 20s, a troubled young person.

Why aren’t — why isn’t — why aren’t communities reaching these people and what more needs to be done?

STEPHEN BROCK: Well, again, I would go back to what Dr. Cornell just mentioned.

These events are, in fact, objectively, very rare in occurrence. It’s like looking for a needle in a haystack. I think we’re doing a lot. We could do more. One of these events is clearly one too many. But, again, I would like to go back to what Dr. Cornell just mentioned. These events are extraordinarily rare. And, objectively, schools are very safe places.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And they normally are. And, with that — on that note, let me bring in Mo Canady, who is with the National Association of School Resource Officers.

You are joining us now.

Tell us, what’s — how safe are public elementary schools in this country? So many parents have to be asking that question tonight.

MO CANADY, National Association of School Resource Officers: Well, in general, I think they’re very safe. And the comments that you have already heart regarding, you know, the nature of these type incidents that they don’t occur very often.

Of course, when they do, they’re very high-impact. I think that, across the country, school officials overall do a very good job of working hard to maintain safe school environments. It doesn’t mean it’s perfect, and it certainly doesn’t mean that anyone is going to be 100 percent safe.

However, you know, as today’s tragedy shows us, it can happen anywhere.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, staying with you, Mo Canady, we know that today we were hearing that the school had a buzz-in system, that there was somebody there checking people who came in.

Still, this young man was still able to get in there, reportedly the son of one of the teachers. What is it that schools could be doing, should be doing to prevent something else like this, as rare as it is?

MO CANADY: Well, and, certainly, it’s — there’s no way to say that they were not doing the right thing today. It sounds like they probably were, just from what I can tell.

But, you know, the buzz-in entry systems certainly are effective, especially in elementary schools. But they’re only effective — as effective as the person that is manning that system.

But the other issue, of course, is the perimeter security of the building. It’s one of those painstaking things that has to take place, but someone or some people need to be responsible to make sure that all of those perimeter doors are always secure during the day.

And that’s really difficult, especially with children having the propensity to open those doors, sometimes for people they don’t even know.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, is there typically a different security system at an elementary school — this was a kindergarten-through-fourth grade school — than there would be, say, at a high school?

MO CANADY: You know, I don’t know that there is anything that I would really say is typical from what I have seen.

But, at the same time, you do see a lot of the buzz or camera type entry systems at elementary schools. One of the things that we’re beginning to see at more schools from K-12 are visitor management entry type systems, in other words, where the person coming in has to check in with the front desk, has to present an I.D., and has to be cleared to go into the building.

Of course, the gunman who enters, that is a whole different set of circumstances.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Dewey Cornell, coming back to you and your comment a minute ago about the need to identify troubled individuals earlier on, you know, this — again, we have had this. We have seen it happen, the Aurora, Colo., shooting, Columbine years before that, what has happened recently in Washington state. It has happened every part of the country.

What more do people tonight, as they go home and have dinner with their families and as they talk to their children, what more do we need to be doing?

DEWEY CORNELL: Well, we can’t turn our schools into fortresses. We can’t turn movie theaters into fortresses or shopping malls into fortresses. We have got to think about prevention as something that’s done far earlier.

When there are conflicts, when there are troubled individuals, when there are people who are extremely angry and upset and frustrated, as a society, we have got to be more willing to reach out to those individuals, to — we need to have mental health services available for those individuals who need it. We need counseling and mediation services available in domestic situations where there’s intense conflict that hasn’t resolved.

But we have got to start before it escalates into a violent situation. And if we can provide these services more generally, we will have a healthier society and we will have fewer of those cases that rise to this extreme, unusual level.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, in those situations, people say, well, I knew someone who was troubled, but I didn’t know if that was the point to intervene or not.

DEWEY CORNELL: Yes. Yes.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Is there one message for everyone, or is it individual by nature?

DEWEY CORNELL: Yes. Well, we don’t want to wait — there’s no magic signal that says, oh, this person is going to be violent. We’re not trying to intervene because we have some prediction of violence. We’re trying to intervene because a person is troubled, because they’re in a conflictive situation or they’re experiencing mental health symptoms.

There is a great reluctance that people have to recognize that someone is having serious emotional difficulties and it’s all right for them to seek treatment. We need threat assessment teams that can help identify troubled individuals in troubled situations and facilitate referrals for services.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Stephen Brock, finally, let me come back to you on this question of, again, tonight, as families around the country are thinking about what happened.

What should parents and grandparents be saying to their children, their grandchildren? Should they wait for the children to bring it up? How should families be dealing with this?

STEPHEN BROCK: That’s a really good question.

I think it’s important that parents be open and available to talk to their children, yet at the same time not force a conversation. I like to say, let children’s questions be your guide.

Let your children know you are able — you’re available and willing and able to talk about it, but not push them, and not — especially, don’t give them unnecessary details about the event.

One thing I think I might tend to be more assertive about putting forward, and that is the thing you have heard from all three of us so far, is that, objectively, schools are safe places.

And I know that might sound like a contradiction today, because this is a very sad day. And the tragedy is horrible. But schools are safe places. And parents need to be reassuring their children that the schools that we send our children to on a day-to-day basis are very, very safe places.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, that’s an important message to take away on this terrible day.

We thank you all, Stephen Brock, Mo Canady, Dewey Cornell. Thank you.