Monday, March 31, 2014

In This Corner: Breaking The Code of Silence- A Lesson From Columbine

In This Corner
By Lynne Kinnucan


Dear Readers,

The stream of school shootings since Columbine has left a bitter question: since circumstances all but rule out intervention, are there really any tools for prevention?
The response from schools, communities and law enforcement has been yes – and all of them have focused on what the FBI calls “law enforcement’s most powerful nonlethal weapon”: communication.

These school shootings have one characteristic that separates them from other acts of school violence: the shooter does not suddenly snap; rather the shooting is meticulously planned over a period of time.  The Secret Service has found that in more than 80 percent of critical incidents, the shooters explicitly revealed their intentions to their peers. Far from being "invisible," most shooters were already of concern to people in their lives.

And this is the critical second part: students know, but they do not talk.

Prevention, then, means taking the fight to the front lines: the students and their parents.  It means getting teenagers to talk to parents, something that is difficult in the best of times, but perhaps more so in this situation, when there are significant reasons for their silence.

In the following article, Breaking the Code of Silence, Dwayne Fuselier, clinical psychologist and retired FBI hostage negotiator, and researcher Jeffrey Daniels take us straight to the heart – and art – of getting people to talk. 

From dealing with bullying to preventing school shootings, communication is the first and best prevention we have.  If we can find a way to bring these strategies home, if funding and training now devoted to aftershock and trauma can be expanded to prevention, then perhaps we will have found the means to forestall these tragedies and save precious lives.

Breaking the “Code of Silence”:
A Lesson from Columbine

Dwayne Fuselier
Jeffrey Daniels
“These communication strategies are the best that hostage negotiators have, and they have been field tested for 30 years. If they can be effective in a “worst case” scenario that prevents homicide and suicides, they can help create open lines of communication, at a much earlier stage, with your teenager.”

More than a decade after the massacre at Columbine High School, we must still ask ourselves two questions: What have we, as crisis intervention professionals and/or parents, learned from that incident and its aftermath, and what can we do to help prevent future school shootings? The good news is that lessons have been learned, actions taken and shootings averted. The bad news is that school violence is not amenable to a quick fix. Combating it is an ongoing process.

But parents and their school children play critical part in that process: this article shows us why, and how.

Research from national studies showed that the shooters did not just “snap,” and strike out at their fellow students; rather, they planned their attack for some period of time, ranging from a day or so to over a year.  It is during this planning period that they engaged in what the FBI calls "leakage"—that is, the intentional or unintentional revealing of clues to feelings, thoughts, fantasies, attitudes or intentions that might signal an impending violent act.

Far from being "invisible," most shooters were already a cause of worry to people in their lives. The Secret Service, in fact, found that 81 percent of school shooters had clearly revealed their intentions to their schoolmates. But no one told, and this made all the differnence.

The fact that students already know makes parents and teenagers one of the best prevention tools against school violence.  Together they can break this “code of silence.”

 Why the code of silence, and what can parents do?

·     When other students know of an impending attack and tell no one, it’s usually because
o  they think the threat of violence isn’t serious,
o  they don’t have a strong enough connection with anyone at the school or at home to report it
o  they don’t want to be a “snitch.”

·     Parents are well situated to make young people feel comfortable discussing the problems they struggle with. And if they open the lines of communication, it then becomes possible to: 1) help kids make responsible decisions about those issues, and 2) identify possible and actual “behaviors of concern”—both theirs and other students’.
·      The value of this communication-based approach has been proven by recent research on averted school shootings.

Active Listening Skills - can elicit a wealth of practical information.  If they can be helpful in a “worst case” scenario in an effort to prevent homicide and/or suicides, we believe they can be vitally important in creating and maintaining open lines of communication, at a much earlier stage, with your teenager.

Here’s the hard part: parents play many roles in the lives of their children: guardian, teacher … sometimes judge and jury. We’re suggesting that in this case they take on the role of mentor.  To be valuable in this critical, let’s take a look at those specific communication techniques used by professionals.

Set the Stage

Find a time when you and your teenager are less likely to be interrupted, and are not multitasking.  Choose place that is comfortable, private and free of distractions -- such as cell phones.

Don’t “double team” him.   He may become overwhelmed if both you and your spouse are present. 

Listening and understanding

Now it’s more important to be a good listener than a good talker. When you listen anad understand, your teen will be more likely to talk and you will have the best chance at gthering important information.

Everything he says will tell you something about what is happening and why.

·     Your first and continued efforts should be a sincere attempt to understand what he is concerned or upset about.
·     Second, you need to demonstrate to him that you are listening. 
·     Third, you need to demonstrate to him that you do understand what the problem or issue is. (People in conflict want to be understood!)

Take your time; speak slowly.

Since your tone of voice indicates your attitude (regardless of what you are saying), try to adopt one that is calm and reasonable.  And choose your words; stay away from ones that will trigger defensiveness and anger.

Don’t argue.  Don’t try to pacify.

·     Keep going until you understand clearly what he is saying.

·     Show that you understand.

Be an active listener

Use the seven Active Listening Skills.

Identify the Feeling

·     After setting the stage, you can begin by tentatively identifying which emotion you think he is feeling and about which you are concerned.
·     For example, you could say, "It sounds like something is very frustrating to you."
·     Never tell him how he is feeling. That will almost certainly result in “You have no idea how I am feeling!”

Use Open - Ended Questions

Once you have helped him identify the emotion, and the associated problem, the next active listening skill you can use is the open-ended question.  For example:

“So tell me, how do you think this got started?”

“What happened at the party last night?”

“What led up to this?”

Using “how” or “what” at the beginning of the question will usually result in a narrative response, rather than a one-word answer. We suggest avoiding beginning the question with “why.”  Generally, when we ask a person “why” in regard to his behavior  (“Why did you do that?”), it implies criticism, and will often result in the answer, “I don’t know.” Using “What led up to this?” or “How did this start?” will get you the same information as asking “Why?” but without implying judgment.

In asking questions, your tone of voice is as important as the actual words. You are trying to initiate a candid conversation, not grill him on what happened. And, as he is answering the question, listen!  Don’t interrupt him to gather specifics. You will be able to fill in any gaps by asking additional open-ended questions.

Use Minimal Encouragers

Using common utterances, like "Uh-huh,” “Okay” or “I see,” can show that you are actively listening and that you understand.


After you have tentatively identified the emotion and used open-ended questions to elicit information about how the problem developed and how he actually feels about it, you can summarize, using paraphrasing, and put his story and his emotions in your own words.  Using paraphrasing will indicate two important things, namely that: 1) you have been listening to him, and 2) you have some understanding of the problem as he sees it.

Reflect or Mirror
Sometimes he may express his feelings very emotionally. For example:

“This is the worst day of my life!”

“Sometimes I just feel like smashing something!”

“She’s going to be sorry she said that!”

At this point in the discussion, we would suggest using reflecting or mirroring, where you simply repeat the gist of what he said with an implied question.

“The worst day of your life?

“You just feel like smashing something?”

“Amywill be sorry for what she said?”

       Notice that each example is a question, and one that is designed to keep the person talking about his or her feelings.

Don’t respond with something like:  “Oh, Jim, you don’t really mean that!” (telling him how he feels) or “You had better not do that!” (ordering)  or “Things aren’t that bad!” (belittling the situation).  At this stage of the conversation, your goal is to keep him speaking openly and honestly with you. Later, once he believes that you do understand how he feels and what he is going through, he will be more likely to allow you to help him decide what the best course of action might be. The purpose of this early listening is to help your son or daughter move from an emotional, irrational state to one that is more logical and rational.

Use Pauses/Silence

You don’t have to have an immediate response to everything he says. It’s okay to allow a few minutes to pass without either of you saying anything. This gives him time to reflect on what he has said, or perhaps begin to formulate some acceptable solution to his problem.

A deliberate introduction of silence might also provide a stimulus for him to continue talking and thereby give you more information.

For example, you might say something like, “Matt, from what you’ve said, I think I can see a possible solution to the problem,” and then deliberately stop talking. If you have already identified his emotions, used open-ended questions and paraphrasing, and he now recognizes that you do understand the problem he is dealing with and how he feels about it, he might respond with  “What do you think would work?”

At this point, since he has asked you for your opinion, you could respond with something like:  “What do you think would happen if you…?” or, “How do you think it would turn out if you…?”  Remember, you are attempting to help him solve his problem, not tell him what to do or fix it for him.

Use “I” Messages

If he says something that implies causing harm to himself or someone else, and this occurs early in the conversation, wait until you have had a chance to demonstrate to him that you have been listening and understanding and then, once you are sure that he believes you, you can use an “I” message to respond .

The “I” message should contain these parts:
·     "When you… (describe what he said), I feel… (state how you feel about it), because… (provide a reason for your reaction)." For example, if he indicated he might physically retaliate for something someone said or did, you could say: “Jim, when you say you are going to get Pete for what he did, I get concerned, because I believe that’s not the only way you can handle this.”

·     If he continues to state that he may respond inappropriately, you can say:  “Jim, if you do that, what do you think will happen then?” Once he has described what he thinks might happen if he responds a certain way, a logical follow-up question is:  “And do you think that will make things better or worse for you?” In asking these questions, you are simply helping him recognize the possible consequences of his behavior and accept responsibility for his actions.

·     “I” messages can also be used to reinforce a positive statement that he has made. For example: “John, when you say that you will think about what we have been talking about, I feel relieved, because I believe you are a reasonable person.”

Behavioral Change Stairway

Created by Gary Noesner

For a birds-eye view of what is happening while you are using the skills with your teenager, look at the chart above.

·     The teenager perceives that the person has empathy (identifies with and understands his feelings or difficulties);

·     which develops rapport (a mutual liking, trust and a sense that they understand and share each other's concerns);

·     which allows trust to develop (someone will listen to him and attempt to understand his feelings and problems rather than just tell him what to do);

·     which leads to influence (being able to affect his thinking and actions);

·     which allows him to make better decisions.


       Since the Columbine tragedy, many school shootings have been averted. Research on those incidents reveals that the development of close, trusting relationships with children and teens has been the key to preventing them. When students feel connected to at least one adult, they are more likely to break the code of silence and report their concerns about another student, or about their own struggles.

 Sadly, not all school violence can be prevented, but there are proactive steps that parents and educators can take that will decrease the likelihood that a tragedy will occur. The key is to keep listening.