News Articles

Okla. chaplaincy expert reflects on latest school violence outbreak

OKLAHOMA CITY (BP)–Joe Williams, Oklahoma Baptists’ chaplaincy and community ministries specialist, already was scheduled to go to Muskogee next March to conduct a “Crisis Intervention Institute” when shots rang out on the campus of Fort Gibson Middle School Dec. 6.

Now, officials are scrambling to find a closer date to conduct the seminar as four middle school students begin to heal from wounds they suffered at the hands of classmate Seth Trickey. Trickey opened fire on them Dec. 6 with a 9-mm pistol as they clustered on a brisk fall morning waiting for the school day to begin.

Williams has been awarded both the John A. Price Award for Excellence in Law Enforcement Chaplaincy by the International Conference of Police Chaplains and the award of excellence for exceptional public service from the Federal Bureau of Investigation for his work following the April 19, 1995, bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in downtown Oklahoma City. Nearing a March 1, 2000, retirement from the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma’s staff, Williams created the Crisis Intervention Institute about two years ago to present courses in traumatology, compassion fatigue, disaster preparedness and response to violence.

As one who has seen more than his share of tragedy and its effects, Williams admits ruefully that incidents such as the shootings at the small Oklahoma community about eight miles east of Muskogee are bound to continue.

“This type of incident can occur in any size town,” said Williams, who also is chaplain to the FBI’s Oklahoma City division. “In our society, we have taught violence so much that it will take generations to change, if it ever does.”

Unfortunately, Williams doesn’t foresee that happening. “For the past 30 years or so, judges and legislators have made it impossible for us to have any spiritual impact on our schools,” he said. “They took away the Ten Commandments, the Bible and prayer in our schools, so what can we expect?”

Williams, who has been the BGCO chaplaincy specialist since 1987, said both secular and church officials can be trained in how to help victims deal with a tragedy and its aftermath. “There are three key elements: preparation, on-site response and post-event efforts which, in some instances, can go on for years,” he said, citing examples of emergency personnel who responded to the Oklahoma City bombing and who are still having psychological problems more than four years later.

Building bridges to community agencies before an incident happens is crucial for those who will be involved in counseling and aiding victims of crime or natural disaster, Williams said.

“We soon will begin to offer more in-depth training for pastors and church staff on how to relate to traumatized people,” he said. “Preparation, however, is the key. If a pastor hasn’t already built those bridges when an incident occurs, it becomes very difficult. When an incident occurs, law enforcement and emergency workers are too busy for introductions. If they don’t know you, you won’t get past them and be able to help.”

Williams said he feels that “glamorization” of criminal activities, such as school shootings, by the media and a society bombarded by sex and violence on television and in motion pictures and video games have played a part in the increase of such incidents over the past couple of years.

“The media need to report the news, of course, but they often go so overboard that it goes beyond just reporting,” Williams said. “It’s almost like they help program these people to resort to violence.

“If we are going to help prevent these types of incidents, we’re going to have to start with the kids in the schools who are going to have to cross the line and become friends with other kids they wouldn’t normally associate with because of their appearance or attitude,” Williams added. “And, I know that’s a hard thing to do; there are adults that I am reluctant to associate with because we don’t have things in common. But, if some of those kids will take those steps, it will help.

“Just saying hello to someone in the hallway may be enough to make a difference in their life and forestall another tragedy,” Williams said.

“Another thing, we’ve got to change what we have on our televisions. The violence on television and in video games has to be a contributing factor in this new trend of shootings.”

He especially bemoaned the release last summer of a movie, “Teaching Mrs. Tingle,” in which students kidnap and torture a teacher. “I wouldn’t be surprised to see something like that happen in the future,” Williams said.

Williams said virtually all of the persons involved in school and church shooting incidents over the past two years “played violent video games which involves shooting people. Most of them exhibited anti-social characteristics and behavior and felt that people didn’t accept them.”

Williams said these perpetrators feel powerless, and picking up a gun gives them a sense of being powerful. “Somewhere, maybe in their home life, there is a source of anger, which feeds on that sense of powerlessness,” he said. “Interestingly, many of them felt like they were not respected by their mothers.”

Ironically, Williams conducted two traumatology courses at Southern Nazarene University in Bethany, an Oklahoma City suburb, Dec. 3-4, just two days before the Fort Gibson incident.

“All of the Project Heartland counselors who went to Fort Gibson and to hospitals in Tulsa after the shootings attended those courses,” Williams said.

He also held such a conference in Arlington, Texas, the week before gunman Larry Gene Ashbrook entered Wedgwood Baptist Church in Fort Worth Sept. 15 and killed seven persons, wounding seven others.

“We had about 150 people attend that seminar. If we had held it the following week, there probably would have been more than 500 people there,” Williams said.

    About the Author

  • Bob Nigh