RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
We're going to talk about gun violence. And we could start this story as we usually do - with a lot of tape reminding you of all the recent school shootings, including one just Thursday night at Tennessee State University. We could play news clips reporting how many people were killed, what inspired the shooter. We could hear local leaders condemning the acts of violence. But this is a story that is so much a part of our culture right now and our politics, we don't need to remind you how we got here. Instead, we're going to introduce you to a couple of people who've dedicated much of their professional lives to preventing this kind of violence. For the Record this week, the work to keep kids safe.
JONI GREENBERG: I'm Joni Greenberg, and I am the Project Aware coordinator for West Virginia and Berkeley County Schools. And I live in Martinsburg, W.Va.
MARTIN: Before that, she spent more than 20 years as a high school guidance counselor.
GREENBERG: I loved working with the students, trying to help them navigate life and how to survive a breakup. I loved that.
MARTIN: But the shooting at Columbine in 1999 changed everything. And after that, she was looking more carefully into her students' lives and motivations. Most of the time, the kids who came to her were just going through the tough stuff of adolescence. There were exceptions, though.
Have you encountered a student in your career that did give you pause, someone who you thought was potentially a threat?
GREENBERG: I think I've had two.
MARTIN: How so? What kind of signs do you see?
GREENBERG: The social isolation, maybe not fitting in. They've probably felt like they've been bullied. Some of them haven't had real good home lives. One of them, I think, was undiagnosed with mental illness and the one had kind of an obsession with guns. He was an avid hunter 'cause that's real popular in our area. The one I think I was probably most concerned, there were behaviors at school that were alarming.
MARTIN: Like what?
GREENBERG: At times, we might have to clear a classroom because the child wouldn't leave the classroom when he was having a bad day. This child was angry.
MARTIN: Every guidance counselor has a story like this. When Joni Greenberg finally got a chance to sit down with that student, she found out he had just been really mad about one particular homework assignment, and eventually he found his way out of that anger. But what are teachers and administrators supposed to do if the situation escalates or if the nagging worries about one student just don't go away?
This is what Joni Greenberg focuses on now. She left her job as a high school guidance counselor, and now she manages a $500,000 grant that was given to her county in West Virginia. The money funds programs designed to increase awareness of mental health issues. Part of that means training people to recognize when someone could be a potential threat to themselves or others. It's work psychologist Gene Deisinger has been doing around the country since the early 1990s.
GENE DEISINGER: We're asking people to pay attention to those things that seem out of the norm or disproportionate to the situation, like person becoming more isolated and withdrawn, they're expressing ideas about the use of violence.
MARTIN: Shortly after the massacre at Virginia Tech in 2007, Gene Deisinger was brought in as a security consultant.
DEISINGER: There were people who were so frightened and so hypersensitive to the risk of another incident that they were seeing a lot of risk where from an objective standpoint, it wasn't there. And we had to work through that together as a community.
On the other end of the spectrum, there are also those people who were dealing with their trauma through the use of denial and a belief of, well, because we've experienced the worst, nothing else bad can happen. And this focus on safety and security and mental illness is too much being made too late and it's not relevant anymore.
MARTIN: Gene Deisinger says it was relevant because just a few years after the Virginia Tech massacre, another person on campus had a plan of their own.
DEISINGER: There was a case involving an individual that did have significant mental health concerns in particular, developed a plan of action, gathering weapons to do that. When he came to the attention of university staff who implemented the threat management process, and that was one of the first interventions and thankfully had a significant effect in de-escalating the situation.
MARTIN: Intervention is key, he says. So much of this training is something we hear all the time now, right? If you see something, say something.
DEISINGER: We encourage people, if they had an interaction or observed some things and they were pondering to themselves, quote, "this may be nothing but," and we use that phrase because we've heard it so often. And if it was, in fact, nothing, we'd all be happy and relieved.
MARTIN: I asked Joni Greenberg if that is especially hard with teenagers.
I imagine some kids - you have to combat this idea that it's tattle telling in some way, right?
GREENBERG: Yes, believe it or not, you still do. They think their friend is never going to talk to them again if they tell somebody that they're feeling suicidal. And, you know, you try to tell them, would you rather they be mad at you or would you rather them commit suicide? But it is hard. They want to do the right thing by their friend, and they feel like by keeping their confidence, that's doing the right thing.
MARTIN: Greenberg says she's doing what she can to spot mental health issues in her schools, but gun safety is also important, she says. And that's a tough issue to wade into.
GREENBERG: People don't always like to be told what to do with their guns. You just try to educate the students.
MARTIN: There are efforts to prevent an act of gun violence in schools, but there are also exercises designed to prepare teachers if it does happen.
GREENBERG: Last year at Hedgesville High School, we brought in - I think it was the state police. And they would put us in a cafeteria and then they would go to the opposite end of the school and shoot three different guns. They would move closer, and at one point, they put us in classrooms with the door closed. And the closer they got, the more upsetting it was. It just made it very real, I guess, to think about what those children went through when that was happening and what it would be like if it was happening in our school.
MARTIN: The police officers in this exercise were using blanks. Even so...
GREENBERG: When you hear that gun in your building, it's just, like, you can't not face it.
MARTIN: Gene Deisinger told me that he thinks the jury is out on whether these kinds of simulations really do any good. And if they aren't carried out properly, he says they can be traumatizing to those taking part. With all these kinds of prevention efforts, there is a line you don't want to cross. The role playing, the simulations, the trainings, it's all about giving people a sense of control about their own safety. But all that awareness-raising can have consequences.
Do people ever accuse you of cultivating a culture of fear?
DEISINGER: Not often, but it certainly happened. But through our work, we've seen organizations for many years take proactive steps to identify, assess and manage concerns out of a desire to prevent, where possible. So I don't think there's any need for us to focus on a fear-mongering affect.
MARTIN: I asked Joni Greenberg the same thing about fear. She says you don't want to scare children, but the consequences of inaction are not acceptable.
GREENBERG: You always have to try. I mean, look at Sandy Hook. That was devastating. So yeah, you never quit trying. And you never quit inventing ways to make your school safer.
MARTIN: Joni Greenberg, former guidance counselor at Hedgesville High School in West Virginia and Gene Deisinger, managing partner of Sigma Threat Management Associates.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.