You are a teenager and it’s a typical school morning. Five more minutes on the snooze button after the alarm goes off.
You rush to take a shower and then take some time picking out just the right outfit. You make sure that your homework is in the backpack. You gather your sports equipment, a script for the play or the musical instrument for after school activities. You text a friend about weekend plans. You run to the bus, taking the last bite of a bagel, stuffing lunch money into your pocket. You listen to your iPod for a few more minutes of solitude on the bus ride to school.
It’s a typical morning except that today one of your classmates has brought a gun to school.
It’s becoming disturbingly more frequent to turn on the news and hear yet another report of a young person who made the decision to take a gun to school. Last week it was suburban Baltimore. A 15-year-old student, took a gun and a bottle of vodka to school, assembled the gun in the school bathroom and then opened fired in a high school cafeteria leaving another boy injured. The shooter was eventually subdued by teachers and staff. The victim in this case, a student with developmental disabilities, is expected to recover.
The faces of these young people, being taken to court, escorted by police and wearing flack jackets could be the face of the kid who lives down the street.
We are almost becoming numb to the reports of school shootings. We hear the news, read the name of the school and say a prayer of thanks that “it didn’t happen here.” The children, the teachers, the families and the communities where it does happen are forever changed. For all of us, these stories erode our feeling of safety and security for our children.
The nation’s response to school violence has been to demand more locks on the school doors, insist that staff wear ID badges, to hire police officers and to install video cameras. Some school districts, including some right here in rural Central Pennsylvania, have put metal detectors at the front doors.
In truth, most of those security measures will do little to impede a student from committing a crime against another student or teacher. With rare exceptions such as Baily, Colorado and the Amish school shooting, a stranger entering school grounds to commit a crime is very rare. According to the government agencies that have collaborated in analyzing school shootings, in almost all, the incidents happen on school grounds, during the school day and are perpetrated by someone who has permission to be at the school.
As we have seen in Columbine, Paducah Kentucky, and in the many other communities that have had to face these tragedies, the greatest risk in school shootings is from that child who attends the school and who feels desperate, helpless and angry – and who has access to guns.
People who are hurting hurt others.
Attempts to profile a potential school shooter have been difficult. Almost all are male. Some had encouragement or collaboration with another student. Not all come from broken families. Some were bullied. The one thing on which the experts and profilers agree, however, is that the common thread are the warning signs in advance of the incident. A teacher, a fellow student or even a Facebook friend reported seeing something wrong.
In last week’s Baltimore shooting, the shooter allegedly posted “First day of school. Last day of my life” on his Facebook page the morning of the shooting.
What can we learn from these horrific tragedies? How do we help these kids who feel so disconnected?
The current economic situation with schools make that difficult. Budget cuts have mandated more kids and fewer teachers in classrooms. The pressure to cut staff as well as reduce the number of extra-curricular programs means fewer adult eyes seeing those kids who are in trouble and a reduced sense of connection to the school community. We build schools that look like mini-prisons and then expect children to flourish. Technology, social media and reduced interpersonal connections create a greater sense of distance and anonymity.
Our school boards and school administration have a challenging task. They have to manage the budgets, address the government mandates for schools and educate our kids – and keep everyone in the school safe - while we complain about our taxes. Cutting people is counter-intuitive to creating a safe and healthy environment for our kids to learn and to grow.
Teachers, friends and families are the best defense in preventing tragedies on school grounds.
Unfortunately, there are no easy solutions. Identifying a troubled kid and then helping that kid get some help is not always as clear as the “woulda-shoulda-coulda” that we point to after an incident. Providing training for parents, teachers and peers to help identify the warning signs of a kid in trouble is a good start. Paying attention to all of our kids – not just those on the far ends of the bell curve – is a must. Reaching out to a student or a neighbor or a friend can open the doors of dialog.
With the start of the new school year upon us, it is a good reminder that our children – all of our children - are our collective responsibility. How can we work together to make sure it doesn’t happen here?