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College of Human Ecology

K-State expert applauds effort to teach children to combat school shooters, other violent intruders in the classroom

Friday, October 27, 2006

MANHATTAN -- A program encouraging students to confront and counterattack a violent intruder in their school is earning applause from an expert at Kansas State University.

Charles Smith, professor of family studies and human services at K-State's College of Human Ecology, wrote "Raising Courageous Kids: Eight Steps to Practical Heroism." When he heard about a school district in Texas that is training its students to fight back against an attacker, Smith thought the idea was right-on.

"Yes, finally somebody is really looking at this and saying, 'Don't be a lamb,'" he said. "It's telling kids to keep their heads up and to defend themselves with a sense of honor and self-respect."

Smith said fighting back and fighting for your life is a message that's been delivered to adults as a self-defense tactic for years, and that it's about time children start hearing the same thing. When he conducts bullying-response programs in schools, one of Smith's messages to children is "don't feed the bully," don't give bullies what they want. Bullies want to intimidate and cause fear in their targets. That's why Smith said a program like the one in Texas is good in that it encourages children to overcome their fear.

"I don't think we do a very good job of teaching kids about and learning to respond to their own fear," Smith said. "One of the greatest things this program is doing is to encourage public discussion about issues of fear, courage and risk management in kids. I think this is going to bring a sea change in how we look at these kinds of circumstances."

Smith has seen firsthand the power that even half a dozen preschoolers can have. When Smith was a preschool teacher, he once engaged his preschool group in a game of tug-of-war. He was surprised by the children's combined strength, as they dragged him around the playground despite his strongest efforts to resist.

Although in theory a group of older grade-schoolers may have enough physical power to combat an attacker, it doesn't mean they can keep their composure in a school shooting situation in the way a middle school or high school student might.

"They don't have the capacity to control fear, avoid panic and act in any decisive way," Smith said.

Smith said respecting differences in age and maturity level is something schools will have to keep in mind as they consider implementing this kind of program.

"And, adults still have to assume the primary responsibility to do all they can to protect children at all grade levels," he said.

Schools also should pay attention to who's teaching the program and how. If children aren't given a good understanding of when and why they should stick up for themselves, Smith said teaching them how to fight back can cause even more problems.

"You can teach kids to defend themselves, and you can embed that in a nonviolence philosophy," Smith said. "Being nonviolent doesn't mean being passive and weak. I think we really need that perspective."

Some parents might fear that teaching students to defend themselves from an attacker will cause their children to worry unnecessarily about a rare event that is unlikely to occur at their school. But Smith doesn't think it will make students paranoid. Beyond whatever anxiety about school violence they pick up from parents or the media, Smith said students have bigger worries.

"I don't think kids really go to school and worry about being attacked by strangers," he said. "The biggest worry the children have at middle school and high school is being shamed in front of their classmates."

If children are taught how to confront an attacker at school, their parents may worry about whether their children make the right choice.

"It's a matter of how you want your children to live their lives," he said. "Do you want them to manage and overcome fear, to have self-respect and a personal strength that courage can give them? The alternative is to leave them powerless and vulnerable."

This article was posted on Friday, October 27, 2006, and is filed under College News, Family Studies & Human Services.