School Shootings and Our Failure to Act

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Photo by Andrew Amistad on Unsplash

This past weekend saw the start of the college football season, so my son and I sat in our living room watching one of the countless games.

He is a 17 year old senior who is on the honor roll and active in his school’s theater and choir programs. With a heart for people, he intends to major in journalism or social work. He’s not a big football fan, but he sits with me.

Watching college football gives us plenty of opportunities to discuss education.

During a commercial break, I told him of a story I had read about a new high school. The building design was receiving accolades for many safety features. Some of them included curved hallways and alcoves throughout the building. The curves are intended to prevent bullets from traveling long distances, and the niches provide areas for students to take cover in case a gunman opens fire.

I lamented this because I felt that it contributed to an environment of fear in an educational setting. This building design surrenders to the inevitability of people bringing guns into American schools.

My son stared at me and announced, “I think it’s a great idea. We go to school every day assuming we might get shot. At least this would give me a chance.”

I sat stunned. His words and palpable dread shot through me, and there was no place to take cover.

I tried to answer. “I understand. But I think we should use our time, money, and creativity to address the root causes and limit access to guns.”

“That’s fine,” he replied. “But no one is going to do that. We need more of these schools where kids can be safe when a shooter shows up. Dad, we all feel like we could get shot every day. I have a plan for what to do in every classroom when a shooter comes in.”

Not if a shooter shows up. Not if a shooter comes in. When.

I grimaced and reluctantly nodded.

He’s correct — not about the inevitability of a mass shooter roaming the hallways of his school. At least I hope not.

Instead, he’s spot-on in his critique that the adults who make policy in our society have failed him and his peers. Politicians, interest groups, and their supporters have valued high-powered military-grade weapons more than the lives of teens and children.

I was teaching first grade when Sandy Hook happened. My teammates and I learned about it during our lunch, and we sat in near silence. In the following days, we heard how things must change. Nevertheless, background checks, red flag laws, and weapons bans failed to materialize.

I all but gave up hope at that point. If the massacre of kindergartners would not prompt us to change our values and deadly ways, nothing would.

Years later, following the slaughter at Parkland, I allowed myself to hope once again. Maybe the robust vocal leadership of teens could instigate a transformation. But soon afterward, powerful forces ridiculed the teens for being naïve.

We shut out the voices of young people who were attacked, who ran from a school in which a murderer opened fire at them, and who watched their friends die from bullet wounds.

Oh, we let them talk but just long enough until the news cycle moved on to another outrage and another shooting.

Meanwhile, students across the country went back to school, endured terrifying active shooter drills, and planned how to escape when (not if) a gunman invades their school.

Imagine trying to learn in that kind of environment. Picture yourself preparing for a math test, writing an AP essay, or taking a high-stakes exam.

Day after day, children and teens face an implied threat of deadly violence when they enter the building that society requires for them in order to prepare for their future participation in a democratic civilization.

Then we wonder why young people experience epidemics of depression, anxiety, and suicide. My son was not yet alive when Columbine happened. An entire generation has been born into a culture of school shootings, and they subsequently suffer from traumatic stress.

I don’t know how to make people care enough to act. Maybe a new election will bring about different results, but I’m not optimistic.

Perhaps at this point the best we can do is listen to the fear of young people and their disappointment in us. Then we should apologize and take their advice to create more labyrinthine schools because I sadly do not believe that we as a nation care enough about our children, their education, or their future to eliminate weapons.

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