Candlelight Vigil

In the wake of the Santa Fe Shooting, we are likely to respond with the same blame focus as with the Parkland school shooting (more gun control, a broken mental health system, bad parenting, bad President, etc.) instead of how our mindset needs to change. After the 22nd US school shooting this year, we need to look at root causes instead of focusing on surface problems.

Not Blame: A New Mindset Needed

Our mindset must change by asking ourselves:

  • "Why do these school shooting keep happening"?
  • "What are we missing at the root level that is driving the shooter?"
  • "What are the solutions to prevent yet another shooting?"

As a national family trauma expert, who recently published the book, Treating the Traumatized Child, I know there is much we can learn from:

A Traumatized Family and Community: Not a Mentally Unstable Teenager

While we have no information on the suspect(s) in police custody, it is likely we will find similar circumstances to Nikolas Cruz – a history of trauma and failed mental health interventions. And it is likely the treatment system or parent will be blamed. But let’s step outside this box and look at these shootings from another lens. What will we see differently with a different mindset?

It takes a family, community, and village to heal a child deeply traumatized -- or to continue the problem. Therefore, it is within the village that we will find our answers to help prevent another act of violence.

What Key Root Causes Does the Traumatized Family and Community Tell Us?

Key Event #1: It’s the Systems Fault - Missed Red Flags

A common theme across the previous school shootings is that social workers, mental health counselors, police officers, or school administrators were blamed for missing red flags during home visits and school evaluations.

What We Can Learn?

Each of these systems worked in silos. There was no “quarterback” or centralized family therapist trained in family trauma to bring these different systems together, along with parent(s)/caregivers and any friends or neighbors.

A Proposed Solution:

In our work with families and communities, we use a Town Meeting Agenda to bring parent(s) and their community together.

This means that the therapist is trained on how to motivate and invite school officials, mental health counselors, police officers, neighbors, and the family into a “town meeting” that is run efficiently with introductions, explaining the root problem(s), brainstorming solutions, and clarifying roles.

Key Event #2: It’s the Parents Fault

Another common theme is that somehow the parents of the shooter are to blame for bad parenting. For example, in the Parkland Shooting, Lynda Cruz, the shooter’s mother, assured the DCF investigator that he “doesn’t have a gun” and that he was meeting regularly with his mental health counselor.

What We Can Learn?

What is the common theme in each of these events? Individual treatment for an individual child. There was no intensive family therapy work with the parents and child together, and no attempt to mobilize the support systems of the parent, which includes neighbors and extended family.

A skeptic would say that the neighbors would never come to a town meeting and the mother lacked parenting skills. Furthermore, the mental health counselors might say that therapy sessions with Nikolas yielded no safety risk.

A Proposed Solution:

The skeptic and the counselors may be right. But we will never know until we try.

Competency is quiet; it tends to be overlooked in the noise and clatter of problems.
And people will do well if they can (including Nikolas and his mother and their neighbors).

But we must first lower the noise and clatter of the problems to give parents the tools and support in a family counseling environment to bring their competencies into the light of day.

Isolation and silos of the helping systems will have little hope to achieve these goals.

Summary: What Can We Learn Going Forward?

In each of these school shootings, there is a common theme to give hope, rather than blame.

  • Mobilizing community and family in an intentional way with tools is an antidote to isolation. The natural tendency for a child or adult in emotional pain is to isolate or curl up in a ball. In turn, this isolation fueled by social media can lead to more anger, frustration, and more isolation.
  • As time goes on, this isolation can result in suicide or self-harm and extreme violence as we’ve seen too often. Therefore, the solution will not be found in finger pointing or individual treatment in silos. It is going back to mobilizing the family, community, mental health workers with the tools they need to help an isolated and lost child get out of the darkness.
  • In the old days, it was the tribal chief or elder who took on the role of “quarterback” to organize and run a town meeting to help raise a lost parent or child. But that role is often missing from our current society. This requires us to adapt or die.
  • Adaptation requires mental health workers and other professions to get trained in family counseling and systems thinking.
  • It’s also important to have the tools and skills necessary to work effectively with the family and village.
  • The problem is an operating system error and not an incompetent family, government, FBI, school, child welfare, or public safety system that all currently work in their own silos.

The outcome may have been different if the family and community had the tools to work smarter early on with a different mindset of the traumatized family, not just the traumatized child.

About the Author

Scott P. Sells, PhD, MSW, LCSW, LMFT, is the author of three best-selling books, Treating the Tough Adolescent: A Family-Based, Step-by-Step Guide (1998), Parenting Your Out-of-Control Teenager: 7 Steps to Reestablish Authority and Reclaim Love (2001), and Treating the Traumatized Child: A Step-by Step Family Systems Approach (2017). He can be contacted at spsells@familytrauma.com or through LinkedIn.