An event hosted by Leicester Prevent on 24th November, featured the mother of one of the two gunmen responsible for the Columbine school mass shooting in Colorado in 1999.  The webinar, entitled ‘Reaching for Hope’ recounted the experiences of Sue Klebold as she struggled to come to terms with both her grief and the humiliation of her son’s involvement in the tragedy.

The Columbine shooting coincided with the beginnings of 24/7 news coverage which allowed misinformation to flourish and resulted in Sue facing vilification from many quarters.  Reassuringly, however, she spoke of support from her neighbourhood and friends and of compassionate treatment by the Police. 

As she struggled to come to terms with the tragedy and to understand her part in how it unfolded, she became interested in the links between suicide and murder/suicides.  She is now a passionate advocate, dedicated to the advancement of mental health awareness and intervention.

From the point of view of parents and teachers, the big takeaway from this moving event was Sue’s explanation of what she wished she had known.  This included the awareness that such a thing might even be possible in her own family.  She described a bright, funny, loving son with a wide group of friends and plans for the future.  She herself was a teacher and felt confident that she had been a good and loving parent.  But unfortunately, as she said, sometimes “Love is not enough”.

She talked about the signs of suicide or mental health issues and suggested we all be vigilant about changes in our children’s behaviour.  In her son’s case, the changes were not extreme but did involve a move from being a well-behaved child to committing some minor misdemeanours which led to involvement with the Police.  Other signs we could observe might be increase in use of drugs or alcohol, online searches for suicide, mass shootings or related topics, (an obsession with the Columbine shooting is not uncommon in some young people even today), reckless behaviour, drop in school attendance, troubling posts, blogs or diary entries, isolation from family and friends.  Most importantly she highlighted to keep an eye out for the main 3 changes: sleeping, eating and hygiene.

Signs of impending suicide can be calling old friends (to say goodbye), giving away possessions as if not needed anymore, or making plans for who would receive treasured possessions in future, being disconnected, anger, rage or irritability and, perhaps surprisingly, a sudden improvement in happiness.  This can be a result of having made a suicide plan which resolves the issues they have been struggling with.  She emphasised that just because someone appears to be making plans for their future, it doesn’t mean that they are safe.  This bears out the situation of Molly Russell, who apparently did her homework and packed her bag for school the next day before committing suicide.

Sue’s advice to parents was, if you become aware of an issue with your child, don’t minimise their worries.  It is natural as parents to want our children to feel better by providing them with a ready solution, or perhaps talking about our own experiences, but without listening to their concerns, we miss an opportunity to help.  Sue emphasised the need to listen and to explore the child’s feelings while putting our own thoughts to the side for a while is important in order to really understand what is going on.  She concluded that everyone can play a role and in her view, every child should have two adults in their life who could play the sort of supporting and listening role that she advocated whether it is parents, teachers, mentors or professionals.

As is often the case, this advice seems quite obvious once it is stated, but I’m sure both teachers and parents will recognise times when they have done exactly what Sue describes, offering quick, ready-made advice without listening deeply.  Let’s hope that her experience will help us all to do better in future.

Gooseberry Planet provides lessons plans related to this topic in Town Level (ages 10-11) – Scenario 4 Extreme Promises and City Level (ages 11-13) – Scenario 11 Extreme Views.  For those subscribed to Gooseberry Guru, there is a video on Radicalisation in the Resource Area.

Our Prevent CPD is an e-learning course providing training for teachers on their duty under Section 26 of the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015 to have “due regard” to the need to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism, (the Prevent Duty).  

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