The deadly school shooting in Newtown, Conn. has raised awareness and started national discussions about gun control, school security and mental health. While Dr. Joseph Colford, president of the New Jersey Association of School Psychologists, told NJ Today Senior Correspondent Desirée Taylor that people of all ages should talk about what happened at Sandy Hook Elementary School, he said no one should be looking for simple answers or blame the actions on a condition like autism.
In the wake of the shooting, Colford said he has heard Asperger’s, autism and personality disorders blamed for the deadly school attack. “Unfortunately we know from a 2002 report issued by the U.S. Department of Education and the United States Secret Service that analyzed 41 different school shooters over the years, there’s no profile. So there’s really no one way to pinpoint those who might be at risk to pose a threat like the shooter in Connecticut did,” he explained.
Colford said it’s important for schools to provide mental health services for all children with access to personnel like school psychologists, school counselors and school social workers. Having such people in place could also help relay relevant information.
“We know that there’s a protocol in place in most districts to provide familiar people, to provide familiar places to go to so children who might be bystanders and witness or hear something untoward like a school shooting or other violent act know where to go with that information. Because if we educate bystanders, all children and teachers for example in the schools, they’ll know exactly what to do when they hear or see something like that,” Colford explained.
Broaching the subject with children may be difficult for some parents, but Colford said everyone should talk about the incident. “I think you really have to be very upfront with all children and speak to them in developmentally appropriate language,” he said. “And especially young children who are afraid for their own safety, you gotta reassure them over and over again that things are indeed safe, that sometimes mean people do mean things but there are far more nicer people in the world than there are mean people in the world.”
Colford said it’s important not to stereotype after instances of violence. “Just like after 9/11 it was important not to vilify all Muslims because of the act of a few. Similarly, whether or not [the shooter] had Asperger’s or autism or whatever, that kind of behavior occurs also in a much larger context,” he said. “And not knowing all the factors in that context really makes those kinds of accusations unfair to other people with similar issues.”
Every school in New Jersey is required to have a school crisis plan, which should be composed of a variety of individuals, including law enforcement and mental health professionals, according to Colford. While he said most schools have psychologists, social workers and counselors available, he said those are usually the first services to be cut in difficult financial times. The New Jersey Association of School Psychologists is concerned that those services might be taken away from children, according to Colford.
Finding qualified personnel for schools can also be challenging. “The number of trained child psychologists and psychiatrists out there are very few and far between. And for the most part the only place a child gets mental health services is in the schools,” Colford said. “It’s really important to keep up those services, especially when we have to address things like the Newtown incident with all children across New Jersey.”
A debate over violent video games and movies has also resurfaced in the wake of the Newtown shooting, but Colford said human behavior can’t be categorized that easily. “I think media violence does desensitize children to violence but we also know that children who already tend to be violent tend to be attracted to those kinds of video games and movies. So that alone is not sufficient to explain why we have a violent society as some folks might suggest,” he said. “I think you have to look at the entire context.”
Colford also said access to guns was a major factor in the Connecticut shooting and should be examined.