Breaking Apart the Single Story About School Shootings

 

 

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As a family member affected by a shooting that occurred during my formative years, I have been puzzled by the questions and sense-making from my own trauma. In the aftermath, as our daily routines fell apart, I had to reforge my life and identity as bent and crumpled.

I think of that silent moment, when my ears stopped taking in sound, and my mind shut down. It was like a pin piercing through a soft sponge, puncturing my sense of safety, awakening me to the idea of mortality. That day disrupted my eight-year-old reality, and reset the course of my existence. I never had an effortless sense of safety again.

As the moment of the murder has receded, my family has wrestled with asking, “How did this happen?” We have wondered what could have been different, rearranging the scene again and again around avoiding the outcomes.

“Who fired the gun? Was it violence? Was it anger?

Who killed the victim? Was it the community, the bullet, or the thought?

Was it the social constructions of one person in opposition to another?”

All of these are questions to which I answer, yes. With such intricacies surrounding traumatic events, it is inaccurate to flatten their complexities down to a single cause and solution. Instead, the conversation around the trauma rests upon overlapping and diverging layers.

Despite their unfortunate frequency, the raw feelings of sheer powerlessness from present-day school shootings continue to (re)traumatize me. I am not desensitized, but instead, overly sharp. As a K-6 certified teacher, I have worked in classrooms, bracing children for real and drilled lockdowns. My colleagues and I have supported students who family members to the kinds of gun violence that persists in under-resourced communities. As a teacher-educator, I work with teachers who are distressed and conflicted about schools as sites of violence. My frustration is that the intellectual and emotional labor aimed towards mediating school violence continues to fall on the shoulders of teachers and students, with the focus on evading future shooters remaining the responsibility of those in the schools.

February 15th, 2018 brought another morning of assembling a conversation with students and pre-service teachers to process ways to cope with mass shootings. I am heartbroken as I have pored over articles, media footage, and photographs related to the Parkland shooting. Students are leaving their classrooms to ask the government to institute a ceasefire. They are rushing legislative sites reminiscent of youth action during the Vietnam era, while teachers rebut the call for guns in schools with social media campaigns such as #armmewith. These actions are met with resounding acclaim from those unaffected by school shootings. I question what is it that we are applauding? I fear that we have not done enough to shift the conversation or challenge our nation’s complacency and climate. Our students and educators should not have to simultaneously recover and fight for their lives.

There is no single story and no single solution. Teachers and schools nationwide already work tirelessly to decipher the social puzzles of security and violence. Social Emotional Learning (SEL) curricula is (re)created in response to new ills. Teachers cry before work to maintain a brave face with their children. Districts revise crisis manuals, and parents campaign their leaders. School stakeholders have been alone in the work but we already know that these issues must be collectively addressed as a nation. The conversation, the responsibility for taking it up, and the dimensions of potential change need to be attended to by all members of the community.

While the Post-Columbine generation lives out a daily war replete with classroom avengers* and everyday heroes, we have romanticized their role in doing so. As the nation argues in circles, students have stepped forward to protect themselves. We have valorized these student activists to lead us out of the shambles. I do not discredit the agentive value or potential shifts this student movement will afford. However, as a trauma survivor, a classroom teacher, and now a teacher educator, I argue that school shootings are neither a school reform issue, nor a gun reform issue. Instead, the issue is our nation’s entrenched I am perplexed by the way that most arguments continue to circle around gun reform.

We are being called upon to build capacity to examine multiple concerns simultaneously. We are constrained by a federal structure that favors the wellness of the system over the wellness of its students. We must credit ourselves with the ability to persist, despite fatigue, as we connect across our lived intersections as students, teachers, parents, voters, survivors, and activists. We can no longer afford to speak in silos. This is a paradigm shift.

A substantial amount of empirical research published on school shootings has emerged over the past decade, pointing to several potential actions. The research shows intertwining themes of social rejection and violence, mental health, masculinity, white male adolescent identity, media salience, gaming, and gun regulation. Fields such as Journalism, Sociology, Psychology, Legal Studies, and Human Development need to come together in an interdisciplinary response. In looking toward the ways that disciplines such as critical race and post-colonial studies have already forged conversations about systemic violence, I am intrigued by the possibility of a cross-disciplinary conversation that brings varied areas of expertise into dialog.

This is collective responsibility that works across a broad spectrum of concerns, from addressing the immediate need for legislation to sustaining our mutual care for a society deeply impacted by violence. Universities, with a built in constellation of interdisciplinary voices in place, have an opportunity to shoulder part of the labor and leadership. Administrators, practitioners, and researchers can model ways to develop connections, and demonstrate unified action from a variety of professional spheres-including new ways to care for our-selves. Each of us is no longer a bystander, but a participant. As we move forward, I present these questions so that we might face them together:

“Who fired the gun? Was it violence? Was it anger?

Who killed the victim? Was it the community, the bullet, or the thought?

Was it the social constructs of one person in opposition to the other?”

What can we create so that none of us are left doing this alone?

 

 

Classroom avenger was termed in the following study: McGee, J. P., & DeBernardo, C. R. (1999). The classroom avenger: A behavioral profile of school based shootings. The forensic examiner.

 

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