What Can We Learn From the Santa Fe Shooting: The Mindset Must Change

In the wake of the Santa Fe Shooting, we are likely to respond with the same blame focus as with the Parkland school shooting (more gun control, a broken mental health system, bad parenting, bad President, etc.) instead of looking at how our mindset needs to change.
On May 18, 2018, 10 people were fatally shot and thirteen others were wounded. The shooter taken into custody was Dimitrios Pagourtzis, a 17-year-old student at the school. This is now the 22nd US school shooting this year, we need to look at root causes instead of focusing on surface problems. Here are some proposed solutions for school violence prevention.

Don’t Blame: Establish a New Mindset

Our mindset for school violence prevention must change and we need to start asking ourselves the following questions:

  • Why do these school shootings keep happening?
  • What are we missing at the root level that is driving the shooter?
  • What are the solutions needed for school violence prevention?

As a national family trauma expert, who recently published the book, Treating the Traumatized Child, I know there is much we can learn.

A Traumatized Family and Community: Not Just a Traumatized Child

What we do know about Dimitrios Pagourtzis:

    • The parents claim that they are shocked and saw no warning signs. The Pagourtzis family issued a statement: “We are as shocked and confused as anyone else by these events that occurred.. While we remain mostly in the dark about the specifics of yesterday’s tragedy, what we have learned from media reports seems incompatible with the boy we love.”
    • Pagourtzis had a social media footprint that included an image of a custom T-shirt emblazoned with the words, “BORN TO KILL” posted on Facebook and several images of a black duster jacket with Nazi, communist, fascist and religious symbols.
    • And Nicholas Poehl, one of Pagourtzis’ attorneys, said that Dimitrios did not appear to have a history of mental health or legal issues.

Therefore, unlike Nikolas Cruz, of the Parkland shooting he does not have an long history of mental health interventions and school problems.

But instead of a focus on the shooter, let’s step outside this box and look at these shootings from another lens.

What will we see differently with a different mindset?

It takes a family, community, and village to heal a child deeply traumatized — or to continue the problem. Therefore, it is within the village that we will find our answers to help prevent another act of violence.

What Key Root Causes Do the Traumatized Family and Community Tell Us?

Key Event #1: It’s a Not About Gun Control: It’s About an Interconnected Community

 A common theme across the previous school shootings and Santa Fe is the same rhetoric, better gun control or more armed teachers. As Trump again stated.

President Trump, in the East Room of the White House, expressed his solidarity with the people of Santa Fe, and said his administration would do “everything in our power” to protect schools and keep guns away from those who should not have them. He also pressed for an N.R.A.-backed proposal to arm teachers, and said he would favor taking guns away from potentially dangerous people.

What We Can Learn?

It’s not about guns, but it about mental health and a lack of community connectedness. Most of the shooters have a social media footprint that says in essence:

Hurting People Hurt Others and This is My Battle Cry for Help  

Each of helper systems (family, school, mental health systems, neighborhoods, police, etc.) work in silos. Simply stated, each system works independently from one another. For example, in the Parkland shooting the mental health and CPS (child protective service) worker did not connect with the family or neighbors. A teenager or adult who sees a social media footprint like “Born to Kill” has no grid to connect with to raise a red flag.

In the old days, we had less silos. For example, we were not as disconnected. Neighborhoods were that were filled with kids outside playing and parents on the porches are now often silent. Kids are now inside with video games and parents do not even know their neighbors names.  The adage of “It takes a village to raise a child” is now “You are on your own to raise a child”. Isolation is the new normal. And children who are on social media are often still isolated. For example, I can connect via technology but it does not mean I am spending face time with you or emotionally connecting with you.

A Proposed Solution:

  • When the natural support systems are not in place, we as a society have to use what I call “family trauma coaches” to jump start the process. The family trauma coach can act like “quarterback” or centralized family therapist trained in family trauma to bring these different systems together, along with parent(s)/caregivers and any friends or neighbors.
  • In the Family Systems Trauma (FST) approach with families and communities, we use a Town Meeting Agenda to bring parent(s) and their community together.
  • This means the therapist is trained to motivate and invite school officials, mental health counselors, police officers, neighbors, and the family into a “town meeting” that is run efficiently with introductions, root problem(s) explanations, solution brainstorming, and role clarification.
  • And once this town meeting happens the natural support systems will kick in and the child or teenager is no longer isolated

Key Event #2: It’s the Parents’ Fault

Another common theme is that somehow the parents of the shooter are to blame for bad parenting. For example, in the Parkland Shooting, Lynda Cruz, the shooter’s mother, assured the DCF investigator that he “doesn’t have a gun” and that he was meeting regularly with his mental health counselor.  And with the Santa Fe shooting the parents stated that they saw no warning signs.  

What We Can Learn?

What is the common theme in each of these events? Individual treatment for an individual child. There was no intensive family therapy work with the parents and child together, and no attempt to mobilize the support systems of the parent, which would include neighbors and extended family.

A skeptic might say the neighbors would never attend a town meeting and the parents of Dimitrios Pagourtzis lacked parenting skills.

A Proposed Solution:

The skeptic and the counselors may be right. But we will never know until we try this school violence prevention approach.

Competency is quiet; it tends to be overlooked in the noise and clatter of problems. And people will do well if they can (including Nikolas and his mother and their neighbors).

We must first lower the noise and clatter of the problems to give parents the tools and support in a family counseling environment in order to bring their competencies into the light of day.

School violence prevention has little hope of success when the helping systems continue to function in silos and isolation.

Summary: What Can We Learn Going Forward?

In each of these school shootings, we can provide hope rather than blame by doing the following:

  1.  Mobilizing the community and family in an intentional way with functional tools as an antidote to isolation. The natural tendency for a child or adult in emotional pain is to isolate or curl up in a ball. In turn, this isolation fueled by social media can lead to increased anger, frustration, and isolation.  As time goes on, the isolation can result in suicide or self-harm and extreme violence as we’ve seen too often. Therefore, the solution is not in finger pointing or individual treatment in silos. It is in going back to mobilizing the family, community, and mental health workers with the tools they need to help an isolated and lost child get out of the darkness.
  2. In the old days, it was the tribal chief or elder who took on the role of “quarterback” to organize and run a town meeting to help raise a lost parent or child. But that role is often missing from our current society. This requires us to adapt or die.
  3. Adaptation requires mental health workers and other professionals to partake in family counseling and systems thinking training.
  4. It’s also important to have the tools and skills necessary to work effectively with the family and village.  We provide step by step tools and playbooks in the book Treating the Traumatized Child: A Step-by-Step Family Systems Approach (2017).
  5. The problem is an operating system error and not an incompetent family, government, FBI, school, child welfare, or public safety system. Outcomes would be different if the family and community had the tools to work smarter early on with a different mindset of the traumatized family, not just the traumatized child.


Scott P. Sells, PhD, MSW, LCSW, LMFT, is the author of three books, Treating the Tough Adolescent: A Family-Based, Step-by-Step Guide (1998), Parenting Your Out-of-Control Teenager: 7 Steps to Reestablish Authority and Reclaim Love (2001), and Treating the Traumatized Child: A Step-by Step Family Systems Approach (2017). He can be contacted at spsells@familytrauma.com or through LinkedIn.

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