More than just school se­cu­rity needs to be dealt with

The China Post - - COMMENTARY -

Last week’s mur­der in a Beitou Dis­trict el­e­men­tary school has some sadly familiar el­e­ments. Kung Chung-an ( ), 29, who is sus­pected of stabbing a school­girl to death, has com­mon­al­i­ties with Cheng Chieh ( ), 22, on death row for an attack last May that killed four and in­jured 24 in the Taipei MRT.

Both are so­cially iso­lated men in their 20s, with al­leged men­tal health prob­lems that went un­re­solved for years and a pen­chant for video gam­ing that has be­come a fo­cal point of public at­ten­tion.

Re­ac­tions af­ter the two high-pro­file crimes have also fol­lowed a familiar script: Opin­ion mak­ers de­bate video games and the death penalty and lead­ers hes­i­tate to act on ei­ther. Mean­while, the lo­cal gov­ern­ment tem­po­rar­ily strength­ens se­cu­rity to al­lay public fears.

In the wake of the re­cent stabbing, Taipei City’s Depart­ment of Ed­u­ca­tion ( ) has or­dered school se­cu­rity per­son­nel to run ex­tra rounds of pa­trols on cam­pus. The depart­ment has also in­sti­tuted ID checks for stu­dents at the gate dur­ing school hours, called for par­ents to vol­un­teer as se­cu­rity guards, en­acted a new rule on stu­dents not vis­it­ing re­strooms alone and or­dered com­mit­tee re­views on the height of school walls and the place­ment of sur­veil­lance cam­eras.

Schools are open com­mu­ni­ties and in­her­ently vul­ner­a­ble, and this fo­cus on safety and se­cu­rity on cam­pus seems im­por­tant for the peace of mind of par­ents and the chil­dren they place there.

But as­saults like this are a chal­lenge to what we know as threat man­age­ment, which so far has been the more com­pli­cated polic­ing of bound­aries. Th­ese re­in­force­ments are tem­po­rary and, in the short term, cur­tail crime within the perime­ters but have lit­tle im­pact else­where.

Ran­dom crime is hard to stop, as it can take just one per­pe­tra­tor in an un­pre­pared place. While we are in­vent­ing more reg­u­la­tions to keep youth safe in se­lect spheres, we are mak­ing less head­way in en­sur­ing they don’t be­come adults who cause harm upon their exit.

Each tier of Tai­wan’s ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem has many teach­ers who care deeply about their stu­dents, but who are not legally ob­li­gated to in­ter­vene when they see early in­di­ca­tions of men­tal health prob­lems. The cul­ture of th­ese schools does not im­pose a moral obli­ga­tion to do so, and in fact, en­forces the op­po­site.

That’s most true at the un­der­grad­u­ate level, where bud­gets are tight­est and fund-rais­ing and stu­dent re­cruit­ment have be­come a mat­ter of sur­vival. It is at this level where teach­ers ex­pe­ri­ence the least ad­min­is­tra­tive sup­port — some­times even ac­tive dis­cour­age­ment — for in­ter­ven­ing with a pay­ing stu­dent who ex­hibits signs of anger or dis­tress.

Teach­ers may not even be able to rec­og­nize th­ese signs in a sys­tem where large lec­ture classes with op­tional stu­dent at­ten­dance are the norm. Or they may be able to see an ab­nor­mal­ity, but can­not rec­og­nize when a crit­i­cal host of con­di­tions point the way to se­ri­ous risk.

While the ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem does of­fer li­censed coun­selors at ev­ery level, mis­judg­ments, in­sti­tu­tional blind spots and the fear of be­ing sued or fired can eas­ily dis­suade most teach­ers from re­fer­ring trou­bled stu­dents to treat­ment. Most com­monly, th­ese stu­dents are left to their own de­vices for emo­tional man­age­ment. Not all, but some, be­come adults who are venge­ful in mo­ments of dis­tress. When the acts are bru­tal, we write off per­pe­tra­tors as so­ciopaths and there­fore in­cor­ri­gi­ble and, re­ally, not our prob­lem.

The public, in the af­ter­math, de­bates the death penalty and makes vague as­sess­ments about video games, all the while say­ing lit­tle about why close — and dis­tant — ob­servers of the lives of the per­pe­tra­tors, who ex­hibit signs in vivid de­tail years be­fore their at­tacks, were re­luc­tant or un­able to act. Tai­wan has not yet con­ducted a co­or­di­nated in­ves­ti­ga­tion of why th­ese teach­ers, friends and fam­ily are un­equipped to deal with un­sta­ble be­hav­ior, an in­ves­ti­ga­tion that could al­low schools to in­sti­tute pro­to­cols and a set of so­cial val­ues to head off tragedy.

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