Preventing Mass Shootings: Pam Hooper, Social Worker

Are we our brother’s keeper?  What role can communities play, to intervene in the lives of troubled youth before they fall so far that a mass shooting seems attractive to them?  Are neighbors, teachers, church friends missing opportunities to step in and prevent another tragedy?  Pam Hooper offers a social worker’s perspective.

This article is part of a series examining ways to prevent school shootings.  The intent of the series is to change the conversation from the same old useless debate over guns to a practical, productive discussion of prevention.  Previous articles have focused on school security, existing gun laws, policy analysis, and psychological analysis.

… everyone can play a role in the lives of others.  We choose what kind of role we play.

This installment focuses on ways communities can identify at-risk youth and intervene in their lives.  The organizing principle is the belief that everyone can play a role in the lives of others.  Each of us is a piece in the puzzle that forms another’s life.  We choose what kind of role we play.

I spoke with Pam Hooper, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker based in Boise, Idaho.  Hooper has spent her career helping families get through difficult times.  She has seen how communities can help struggling families.  She also has seen people left in distress when they were overwhelmed and couldn’t find help.

“What saved him was that he made a connection, a guy who became his best friend. He felt valued.”

I asked Hooper what communities can do to identify at-risk young people and divert them before they turn to violence.  In response, she spoke of a recent article in a Boise paper, written by a man who said he could have become a school shooter when he was younger.  “What saved him was that he made a connection,  a guy who became his best friend,” she noted.  “He felt valued.”

“The foster care system is very broken. Yes, it’s important to make sure they get services, like food and care and weekly counseling. But the most critical thing is for that child to feel valued.  If we were doing an article for a church audience, I would be talking about love.”

What about the many kids who were brought up in circumstances similar to those of mass shooters, but don’t commit horrific crimes?  “That’s the long debate, isn’t it?” Hooper said. “It’s about nature vs. nurture.  There is clearly some of each at work.  There is some genetic component: some people are simply more prone to violence and anti-social behavior.  That’s an unpopular view among social workers – we like to think we can fix things.  And some people can’t be fixed, but they can be improved.”

“The question is, how is a kid like this made? How does he happen?  We must understand that we all can play a part in how they’re made, if we choose to.”

“The question is, how is a kid like this made? We all can play a part in how they’re made, if we choose to.”

Once a person reaches a point of acute distress, there are still things that we can do.  Hooper pointed out that the Parkland shooter was crying out for help.  Failing to intervene at that point made the difference between life and death for 17 people.  He could not have been more clear, in his message to the police: “I lost my mom.  I’m not doing well.  I feel like killing people.”

“The Parkland shooter was suffering through his own acute distress. His mother had died of pneumonia unexpectedly a couple of months ago. When people are hurting and they don’t know how to express it, they hurt other people.  We all do it, but most of us do it in small ways.  We have a human need to share our pain.  Don’t get me wrong – this is not an excuse for his behavior – but the question is what can we do to change it?”

“We all need to be more aware. The help they need is a real connection with another human. We need to ask ourselves, what can I do to make this kid feel important to another human, make him feel like he is a part of something?”

“Everybody could have done everything right, and it still might have happened.  But statistically, it would happen less.  The family that took him in after his mother’s death deserve medals.”

“Everybody could have done everything right, and it still might have happened.  But statistically, it would happen less.  The family that took him in after his mother’s death deserve medals.”

Hooper’s analysis was very practical.  She made it clear that some things can’t be stopped, but that we should still make the effort.  “Evil has been with us always.  But we can take actions to control it, or to contain it.”  When Hooper speaks of controlling evil, she is referring to human interactions, not to arming teachers.  “I don’t support arming teachers.  I don’t like the idea of more guns in schools.”

Intervention starts early.  “It starts with what we teach our own children about how to treat other people. Are we raising them to be judgmental, and to isolate or bully those who don’t fit in?  Or are we raising them to look out for others and step in to help them?”

Hooper came back repeatedly to the same theme: the one thing most likely to make a difference in a person’s life is to feel a sense of personal worth.  They must feel valued.  That is central to being a social worker.

“I can tell people what I think they should do, but that doesn’t usually create change. What creates change is that they feel valued.  It is not my schooling, or that I might think I have the answer to their problems, that’s important.  What makes me successful is warmth, positive regard, and respect for my client.  That is what makes a successful counselor, a successful neighbor, a successful teacher, a successful partner and friend.”

The opinions expressed here by contributors are their own and are not the view of OpsLens which seeks to provide a platform for experience-driven commentary on today's trending headlines in the U.S. and around the world. Have a different opinion or something more to add on this topic? Contact us for guidelines on submitting your own experience-driven commentary.
Bart Marcois

Bart Marcois (@bmarcois) was the principal deputy assistant secretary of energy for international affairs during the Bush administration. Additionally, Marcois served as a career foreign service officer with the State Department.

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