Prolific coverage of mass violence by media outlets can add layers of horror to an already dramatic situation. On top of that, recent domestic acts of violence have more frequently involved the most vulnerable members of society: school children.
In Human Behavior in Extreme Situations: Implications for K-12 Education in the Twenty-First Century, authors Robert H. Koff and Kathryn Hanna help readers examine how the reactions of those involved can be used to develop appropriate responses to emergency situations in school.
What is it that enables or prevents an individual’s survival in an extremely dangerous situation, and what kinds of safety measures can help or hurt? Koff and Hanna offer stories of individuals, many of them children, who have found themselves in life-threatening peril within institutions of learning — as the authors put it, “an all-too-common phenomenon in the United States.”
Koff and Hanna suggest that the 1999 Columbine shooting was the beginning of a phenomenon of fear in K-12 schools. School-aged children, they write, serving in the role of safety patrol, have been replaced by safety officers who are often armed and trained in combat techniques and war zone technology. These officers alert local police departments when shots are fired inside the school.
And yet, Koff and Hanna write, such responsive measures often do more psychological harm than good.
Therefore, they argue, it is necessary to ensure that both students and adults have the skills and knowledge to survive violence. Adults must learn the skills required to lead students to safety, while students must be able to adapt. Because each situation is different, Koff and Hanna write, students and adults alike must be able to analyze what’s happening and figure out the best possible course of action.
The book explores school-based violence in two sections: one that covers historical examples, which offers narratives of about eight emergency situations involving students, and one that focuses on recommendations for pulling together a plan to overcome such situations. The authors tie each story to one of the text’s major themes: leadership, planning, teamwork, and values systems. Two stories explicate each of the four themes, and connections emerge between different stories as well.
While some of the situations presented are historical in the sense that they took place early in the previous century, such as “Shackleton’s Voyage” and “Davao Prison Camp,” some are from the 1970s and others from within the last ten years. In this way, they provide relatable studies for readers across the age and experience spectrum.
A table in the appendix provides an overview of the circumstances surrounding each story from the first section of the book. This lets readers quickly note who was involved in each incident, the number of perpetrators, and which of the primary themes connect to the particular story. Koff and Hanna also provide questionnaires for school leaders, students, and parents and caregivers that assess familiarity with existing emergency plans. They include questions after each questionnaire that are appropriate for focus groups, classroom discussions, and professional development opportunities.
The book stands essentially alone, since other texts related to the topic of reactions to violence and extremism do not identify specifically with school-aged populations and the people who serve them. Although there have been a few texts beforehand, including a volume commissioned in the 1950s called Human Behavior in Extreme Situations: A Study of the Literature and Suggestions for Further Research and several academic articles, researchers between then and now have been almost silent.
The text also sets itself apart by offering an easy read on a tough subject.
While the subtitle suggests the book is appropriate for all ages, it may be difficult for teachers and administrators of lower grades to use it without certain modifications. Specifically, the question about last grade completed by the student on both the student and parent/guardian questionnaires have a fifth-grade-through-high-school focus. The teacher/staff and administrator questionnaires have a similar focus: those who work with grades six and up.
That said, the language throughout the text is accessible to a wide range of readers. The book would serve as an excellent companion to an action research class or community development program related to training for school crises.
Human Behavior in Extreme Situations: Implications for K-12 Education in the Twenty-First Century
Inkwater Press, September 2015
Paperback, 126 pages