Friday, February 26, 2010

Tacoma School Shooting: A Threat to a Colleague is a Threat to Us All

Jennifer Paulson, a 30 year-old special education teacher in Tacoma, Washington was shot to death in the parking lot of Birney Elementary School as she arrived for work this morning.  The suspect was pulled over by police and opened fire some time later.  He was killed in the shootout.  The shooter was someone Paulson had worked with in college.  He started turning up at her work a few years ago and calling her 10 or 15 times a day, and she eventually got a restraining order against him.  Last Friday, he followed her in his car and was arrested for violating the order.  He spent the weekend in jail, made bail and was released on Monday.  Friday morning, Jennifer Paulson was dead.

When you hear the phrase "school shooting" you probably think of situations like Columbine, or even the hallway shooting at an Alabama middle school last month.  In our minds, violence at schools is carried out by students towards students, or by adults who are intent on harming children.  This case, like the shooting in Knoxville earlier this month and even the one in Littleton, Colorado earlier this week, paint a very different picture.

The fact is that, in any workplace including a school, the most likely person to murder another person is a current or former employee or an acquaintance or family member of a current employee.  People who open fire at schools for the most part do it for exactly the same reasons they do it in factories, office buildings and other places of business -- they are gunning for an adult who they know is there.  They are current employees who are dissatisfied and go after the boss, former employees taking out their revenge, family members commiting domestic violence homicides in public, and stalkers of all kinds, whether former love interests or people who think they should be love interests.  The biggest danger doesn't come from strangers, and it doesn't come from children.  It comes from the adults we know.

Paulson certainly was afraid for her own safety.  She had not been staying at home since the shooter was released from jail.  I don't know if she told her colleagues or her boss about this man and the restraining order.  I hope she did, but it wouldn't be unusual if she didn't.  Do you know if anyone at your work is being stalked or harassed?  Do you know if they have a restraining order against someone?  You should.

It's actually not as uncommon as you would think for schools in particular to need to deal with restraining orders and issues of people who may be a danger to the school community, but usually these take the form of orders against non-custodial parents, step-parents and former partners of parents.  From time to time a parent will come to school with a picture and a court order and tell us to call the police if the person pictured comes within a certain distance of their child.  If we're doing our job, we share that information with school staff and file it in the child's file for future reference.

It is even more common, however, for a parent who is either non-custodial or does not have physical custody of a child on a given day but has joint custody in general to turn up and pick up their child from school.  The next day, we hear from the other, very angry, parent demanding to know why we allowed this to happen.  They are always surprised to learn that we cannot enforce a custody arrangement that is not ordered by the court, nor can we enforce one that is ordered by the court if we don't have a copy.  We have no way of knowing that Tuesdays are always "mom's day" if they don't tell us.

Which brings us back to Jennifer Paulson and school employees like her.  Someone who is a threat to a teacher is a threat to that teacher's students and colleagues.  If they know where the teacher works, that is one of the easiest places to find her.  In my 19 years working in schools, however, I have only known of a restraining order involving a colleague once.  People are embarrassed to talk about people who are stalking or threatening them, particularly if it is someone they once had a relationship with.  But we can't be alert to the danger to them or to us and the children if we don't know, and it's naive to think that someone who would act so inappropriately in the first place would let a restraining order stop them if they wanted to do violence.

There is a lot of healing to be done at Birney Elementary School in the days ahead.  If Paulson hadn't told her colleagues about her stalker, they're going to have to come to terms with the question of whether they could have made a difference if she had.  We'll never know the answer to that.  Hopefully, this tragedy will encourage other women in similar situations to confide in their bosses and their colleagues, if not for their own safety then for everyone else's.


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Naomi Zikmund-Fisher
is a clinical social worker, former school Principal and a Crisis Consultant for schools and community organizations. You can learn more about her at
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