By Teachers, For Teachers
On Wednesday, Feb. 14, at 2:19 p.m., Nikolas Cruz walked into Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. He had a black duffel back in his hands and a backpack over his shoulders. When he entered the building, he pulled the fire alarm, then took out an AR-15 – a semi-automatic rifle – and proceeded to shoot at students in the hallways and classrooms. Cruz killed 17 people total, 14 students and three adults, before discarding his gun, vest, and ammunition, and left the building by blending in with fleeing students.
He was arrested by police at 3:41 p.m. as he casually walked down a residential street. In his wake he left 17 innocent people dead, a community devastated, and a country once again asking the question, “Why?”
Unfortunately, this tragic shooting that took place in Parkland, Fla., is not a unique event. According to Snopes.com, which categorized shooting events that took place at schools in 2018, reports seven “Firearm attacks during school hours” at schools since Jan. 1. While the perpetrators, motives, and victims vary between events, the one devastating and overwhelming fact remains that violence and schools intersect far too often.
I was a freshman in high school when “Columbine” entered our cultural conscientiousness. Malcolm Gladwell, writing for New Yorker magazine, said that killers Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris wrote a sort of “Cultural script,” a way we as Americans think of school shootings that has shaped our understanding ever since. Klebold stated in one of his journal entries he wanted to “Kickstart a revolution” – unfortunately, he did. Since these two shooters entered Columbine High School in Colorado on April 20, 1999, and killed 12 students and one teacher, their backstory – including a history of bullying, mental health, obsession with violent movies and games, and disturbing journal entries and videos disclosing their vision – has laid out a script copycats have sought to emulate.
Klebold’s and Harris’ tragic legacy is that schools have now become targets for the criminally insane, and they have fundamentally altered the way we view everything about education. While they were certainly not the first killers to target students in school, the extent of violence and the truly evil intent forever jarred the American institution of education. Police responding to the Columbine event established a standard police perimeter, prepared to negotiate for the release of hostages and waited 47 minutes outside the building until a SWAT team could arrive. Why? Because few guessed the new truth about school shootings: The killers wanted to slay as many as possible and then kill themselves.
It is this disturbing truth, this absolutely insane truth, that has echoed in school shootings since. School shooters – the ones we think of in massive school shootings – want to kill. And against such madness, no matter how well-prepared or how well-informed we may be, there is little defense for the innocent. It was this image of school killings that resurged in events like Virginia Tech in 2007 and Sandy Hook in 2012. And it is this fear of the maniacal, crazed, unpredictable school shooter that reignited the nation’s fears again this year in Parkland, Fla., on Valentine’s Day.
The question that rises in Americans’ minds after yet another event like Parkland is, “Are our schools safe?” Fortunately, despite the tragedy and mass media coverage each school shooting receives, we can still confirm with confidence that schools are safe.
Some have reported, somewhat misleadingly, of 200-plus school shootings in the past several years. The Everytown for Gun Safety Support Fund reports 301 shootings since 2013. Media outlets, in the wake of the Florida shooting, told America there were 18 school shootings in 2018 alone. These numbers are flat-out scary … but not quite as scary as at first glance. We have to consider how “School shooting” is defined; the broader the definition, the more incidents will be included in the report.
Fortunately, the Columbine/Parkland-type of mass school shooting is the exception rather than the rule. Some may label a “School shooting” as any incident involving a school and a firearm, regardless of the intention (some are accidental), the number of injuries (some have no injuries), or when (some occur with non-students during non-school hours). Parkland is the only mass school shooting to take place in 2018 – and let us pray it is the last.
While it may give us some solace to note how rare the tragic mass shooting is, we cannot overlook how frequently schools and guns intersect. America has slowly come to grips with the fact that guns are common and, regardless of an event’s exact details, we do not like how easily gun-related incidents can take place in what should be a placid school setting.
For the last 20 years, a number of enhanced safety protocols have trickled into American schools. Visible safety measures, such as more video surveillance systems, school resource officers, and closely monitored points of entry, have an increased presence in K-12 schools. In 1997, just 10 percent of schools employed at least one police officer; by 2014, 30 percent did, according to the Department of Education. And a new generation of safety drill – the lockdown drill – has become as common as “Stop, drop, and roll.” As of 2016, the National Center for Education Statistics identified that 94.6 percent of public schools conduct lockdown drills of one variety or another.
Schools are compelled to respond to the new reality of the mass shooting. Lockdown drills are rehearsals for students and staff to automatically respond to the event of a harmful intruder, frequently using “Run, hide, fight” as their eerie directions to follow. Intruders are like water, experts say, following a path of least resistance. Lockdown drills train everyone in a school to secure themselves within seconds, making it difficult for an intruder to encounter them. “Within 20 or 30 seconds, I, as a bad guy, should have very little easy access to anybody,” said David R. Connors, head of Connors Security Consulting Services in Spencerport, N.Y., and a former police officer, in a recent New York Times article.
Harvard professor and author David Ropeik writes in the Washington Post that, “The statistical likelihood of any given public school student being killed by a gun, in school, on any given day since 1999 was roughly 1 in 614,000,000. And since the 1990s, shootings at schools have been getting less common,” based on data from the Department of Education. Ropeik reminds us that students are far more likely to be injured driving to school, contracting a disease while sitting in a desk at school, and playing sports at school. Yet these commonplace activities rarely chill our blood.
About 18 percent of adults, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation, are classified as having a mental illness. Those with mental illness are no more likely to commit a violent crime than those without, but as you look across at individuals who have committed a mass shooting, they typically have certain mental illness qualities in common.
Dr. Alan J. Lipman, Ph.D., J.D., professor at the George Washington Medical Center and founder and director of the Center for the Study of Violence in Washington, D.C., has been following cases since 1998 and identifies three categories mass shooters typically fit into:
It comes as little surprise then that these attributes also characterize Nikolas Cruz. Unfortunately, our kneejerk reaction to tragic circumstances often causes us to overgeneralize. The consequence is that those with mental illness are marginalized, thought of as threats for no reason other than their mental condition.
Mental health can quickly become a political issue, but before we take it that far we must at least acknowledge we need to talk about mental illness with caution and intentionality, the goal being that those with mental illness receive the help they need without the stigma of being deemed a potential killer. Just because someone has a mental illness, is weird, or acts differently, doesn’t mean we need to automatically assume them a threat.
Since the Feb. 14 shooting, America has witnessed a startling transformation: Hordes of teenagers from around the nation have discovered they have a unique and powerful voice, generating a movement of America’s youth to end school violence. Emma Gonzalez, a senior from Marjory Stoneman Douglas, declared to a rally in Fort Lauderdale just days after the attack, “It's time for victims to be the change that we need to see,” and “We are going to be the kids you read about in textbooks … we are going to be the last mass shooting.”
Students from throughout the nation have been staging rallies, marches, walkouts, and sit-ins, pushing the national spotlight onto gun violence and laws surrounding gun control. Pres. Trump hosted a listening session with Parkland survivors a week after the shooting. Students have given speeches and interviews, have powerfully leveraged social media, and have written numerous op-ed pieces in noteworthy publications. The Atlantic magazine is one of many outlets awed over the Parkland students as a force to be reckoned with, noting, “Possessed of that blend of innocence and savvy peculiar to teenagers, the Stoneman Douglas survivors indeed have emerged as a rare, perhaps even unique, voice in the gun debate.”
The nation will not easily go “Back to normal,” and we cannot dismiss Parkland as “another school shooting.” Led by the unique charge of impassioned survivors, the nation’s youth has activated into a formidable political block that is bringing new energy to the age-old American gun control debate. Still, as the Christian Science Monitor reminds us, “The many hurdles that have frustrated gun-restriction advocates for decades remain,” including the fact that gun ownership is a constitutionally guaranteed right, with a long history of U.S. Supreme Court decisions.
Time will tell what textbooks of the future will say about Parkland survivors and their courageous response to the ongoing national tragedy of violence in schools. The Parkland tragedy reminds us yet again that while school shootings are horrific and complex, we don’t have to accept them as a given. While we mourn the loss of all the students and educators who have died in school shootings, we simultaneously use the educations we gained in those schools to give ourselves a voice, to critically think through our dilemma, and to emerge hopeful and victorious over this dark American recurrence.