(Intended for middle and high school students)
by Sam Diener, Education Coordinator, Center for Nonviolent Solutions, 2012-02-27
After previous school shootings, teachers in schools where I’ve worked have asked me for suggestions about how to speak with students about the topic. This memo contains some suggestions for topics to discuss and some of my thoughts about each of them.
I'm not suggesting that anyone read this to students, or that anyone discuss all of these issues with students at once. Nor am I suggesting that everyone will agree with all of the ideas I present here. I'm hoping that these reflections provide some jumping off points to continue discussions in your class about how we can all increase the peace.
1) Why did it happen? We don't have all the answers. We probably never will. Based upon the confusion and panic that were created by school shootings in the past, much of the early reporting may later turn out to be misleading or untrue. But even without knowing all the facts or being able to every fully understand why the perpetrator did it, we can let ourselves feel empathy for the victims (the students who died) and survivors, think seriously about the issues raised and the societal conditions that promote and/or prevent such crimes, and evaluate how we can get involved to help people.
2) This topic is scary. Some students will want to talk about it, while others might be angry when talking about it or might shut down. It is important to give each other space to express our fears, and to affirm that these events are frightening.
Some people might also respond to the shock of the killings with a show of bravado about not caring or being scared. It's usually counterproductive to argue that a person doesn't really mean what they say, and some people do have difficulty empathizing. I believe it's important to demonstrate that we hear their point of view, and, if we do, repeat the reasons we believe it is worth caring about. Some students might be justifiably angry that coverage of shootings in their community, particularly in communities of color, don’t get nearly as much coverage as when shootings happen in mostly white communities. Sometimes, callous statements arise partially out of a feeling of powerlessness when hearing about crimes, and/or a feeling of powerlessness in aspects of one’s own life.
3) Violence is not a joke, a game, or entertainment, it really hurts. The five students who were shot yesterday, and the student who shot them, are real people with families and friends who loved and love them.
All those who witnessed the shootings at the school were traumatized too -- and those of us who saw the images of the wounded on television, or even read about it later, might feel traumatized, in a different sense, as well. A nationally (and globally) televised crime like this can victimize everyone who hears about it by scaring us almost as if we had been there. This is part of the positive power of television (it enables us to witness events and empathize with people half a world away), but the fear and powerlessness it can induce is also part of the problem. Mainstream media don't put a gang-truce or a successful mediation on the national airwaves for us to celebrate day after day. This can skew our perceptions and reinforce our sense of powerlessness.
4) Fear, redux. Could it happen here? These are tricky questions to answer because one impulse is to simply voice reassurance, while another part of us might want to reinforce how deadly serious hatred, harassment, bullying, discrimination, social ostracism, violence, and guns really are (see below). I believe it's important to do both. The claim that "it couldn't happen here" is an assertion of privileged hubris and denial that no one can afford. However, this doesn't mean that what happened there will happen here.
It is important to remember that there are some 15,000 school districts in the U.S., and all the schools in all those districts except for Chardon High ended the school day on Monday without any murders.
Violence is a very serious national problem. The Center for Disease Control reports that “In 2009, a total of 650,843 young people aged 10–24 years were treated in emergency departments for nonfatal injuries sustained from assaults.” Yet, the homicide rate is declining nationwide, and the violent crime rate is decreasing nationwide as well. Violence isn't something that just happens. People decide to commit violent acts, and people can join together to decide to help prevent them. Many students, staff, faculty, administrators, family, and community leaders are all working to help prevent violence from escalating, and each of us can help create a peaceful school and community. Each and every one of us.
5) Harassment and bullying are deadly serious. T. J. Lane (the student accused of the shootings) is responsible for his own actions, no matter how much he was or wasn’t harassed or bullied. Early news reports claim that students said that the suspected student was withdrawn, socially isolated, and bullied.
Everyone in the building has a right to a safe environment free of harassment and bullying. If you're being harassed or bullied and you've already tried telling them to stop, or you're scared to tell them to stop, it is important to tell an adult so we can intervene to help stop it.
6) Boys, girls, and violence: Why is it that boys and men in the U.S. commit the vast majority of all violent crimes? When boys are encouraged to play football and "hit hard," and girls are encouraged to be cheerleaders for the boys (I know cheerleading requires athleticism, I'm questioning the gendered split), what messages does it send about gender roles? What's wrong with boys crying? Given the increased pressure on some girls to physically fight, is our culture working to make girls more aggressive rather than encouraging both girls and boys to become more assertive and empathetic? How are adults setting negative examples and sending negative signals to young people?
7) Threats, even "joking" threats, need to be taken seriously. The Daily Beast is reporting that the alleged shooter left a rambling message on his Facebook page last December which concluded with a threat to kill everyone.
If we know of threats, or know of the presence of weapons in school, it is our responsibility to increase the safety of this school by taking these dangers seriously and reporting them. The teachers, counselors, and administrators at this school are dedicated to swiftly and decisively responding if we receive reports of weapons or threats.
8) Guns increase danger. The presence of firearms in the home greatly increases the risk of death or injury for all members of the household. At a minimum, any gun should have child-proof safety locks, and should be kept in a securely locked place. Ammunition should also be secured in a locked place separate from the gun. A number of states have laws holding parents criminally liable if their kids obtain and use their guns. I don't know yet if MA is one of them. This is especially important in families in which both weapons and abuse (between adults or adult against child) are present. The possession of weapons is one danger sign that a person who is abusing somebody may someday use lethal violence, and it is especially important that a student or staffmember talk with a trusted adult in private if this situation exists.
9) Some aspects of our culture promote and glorify violence, especially male violence. (I know some of these questions might be controversial, but I include them because I believe they are important and can help promote serious discussion). Are the real, painful consequences of violence ever portrayed on Saturday morning cartoons? On action-hero TV shows and movies? In most video games? In so-called gun-safety programs? In boxing? In professional "wrestling"? In most of our history textbooks' and military recruiting ads' depictions of wars? In videos of "smart" bombs hitting targets in Iraq or Afghanistan?
Goth-Punks: Another note on culture: some media outlets are reporting that T. J. Lane was into goth culture. Early reports from Columbine (a school shooting in Colorado in 1999) mistakenly reported that the shooters, Harris and Klebold, were Goth-Punks, so we should be careful of jumping to conclusions. If the suspect in this case was into Goth culture, it’s also important not to fall into the prejudiced mistake of blaming all members of a group for the actions of an individual.
10) We aren't powerless. We can help prevent violence. We can be allies of the people of Chardon by working to prevent violence here at school, in our homes, in our communities, across the country, and around the world. When we hear someone getting picked on, we can speak up, saying, something like, "Hey, I think that's mean. Don't go there." When we're angry, we can get C.L.E.A.R. (Chill, Listen, Empathize, Assert, Resolve). We can help each other learn and use methods for resolving conflicts and de-escalating fights. We can build healthier relationships in our own lives, offer support to those who are being abused, and gently and strongly challenge those who are being abusive. We can work to transform our society's unjust structures, institutions, laws, policies, and cultural norms through organizing collective nonviolent action.
11) What ideas do you and the students have? You might ask them to share their ideas with President Obama, Congress, the MA state legislature, the Worcester school board, the principal of the school, me, you, and/or with each other. What questions do the students and other teachers have? I'd be interested in talking with people about the issues raised here, and about those issues that I've omitted. The only good that can come out of a crime like this is to help motivate those of us who witness it, even via the media, to talk among ourselves and work together to stop the violence and increase the peace.
The ideas here are the author's and don't necessarily represent the views of the Center for Nonviolent Solutions or the Worcester School District.