When I was in about 3rd or 4th grade, my classmates and I had all the standard safety drills in elementary school. Fire drills, tornado drills, and the like. There was one drill though, that I remember doing only once, which was the active shooter drill. I don’t know that they called it exactly that at the time, but I do remember that they made all of us kids run zig-zag from the stairs of the school to the playground down the field and into the woods behind the playground, hiding wherever we could. I remember it being somewhat odd that we had this new drill, and at some point they explained to us that if someone ever came into the school and started shooting, that this is what we were supposed to do. I grew up in a suburb of Atlanta in a good school district. Overall it was a great place to grow up, and felt safe most of the time (though not always). This drill seemed a bit of an outlier, as though the district had heard about shootings in other schools and thought they should be prepared, just in case. Never mind that the strategy they adopted was totally wrong and unsafe given our current knowledge of active shooter survival. I’m sure they were doing the best they could back in the 80’s when this kind of danger was relatively new to the public consciousness. These days, though, an active shooter with an AR-15 and hundreds of little kids zig-zagging across a playground is a recipe for our next national tragedy.
Fast forward to 1999, and I was a senior in high school. In April of that year, the Columbine shooting rocked the national news. Prior to that, news of violence in urban school districts was not unheard of, and discussions about guns in schools and how to keep schools and students safe were certainly in the public discourse. The Columbine shooting was different, however, for many reasons. The affluent, mostly white suburban school, the arsenal of weapons, the bombs, the depressed, gun-obsessed teenagers who idolized Timothy McVeigh, the suicides. It was horrifying. Not long after the shootings, a copycat began calling in bomb threats to my high school. It was always around the same time of day on the same days of the week. I was always in art class, which was located across the hallway from the school nursery, where the babies of students and teachers were. My fellow art students and I would jet across the hallway and grab a baby before running across the street to a community center, where we stayed with the babies until their parents came to pick them up. Even as I write this now, it sounds totally insane. I didn’t go to a hard core inner city urban school. It was in a middle class, diverse, low crime town. The bomb threats continued for weeks, and to my knowledge, they never caught the person. It became clear pretty soon that whoever was calling the bomb threats in was pulling a prank to get out of a certain class, but in the aftermath of Columbine it seemed impossible to feel truly safe in that context. Years later, in college and afterwards, when I would tell people about the drills and the bomb threats, they were horrified. “What kind of school did you go to? Oh you’re from Atlanta? That must’ve been so scary! They must have some really bad schools where you lived!” Well… no, not exactly. What kind of school did I go to? A good one, or so I thought.
Now, that term has no meaning. There is no such thing as a “good school.” There is no school where children can be kept safe from gun violence, from bullying, from racism, from sexual harassment or assault, from exposure to drugs and alcohol, not even from predatory teachers. As hard as we try to put in policies and security procedures, and codes of conduct and mental health resources, we have been unable to protect our children from the world that we have created. A world in which violence is glorified and murder makes you a celebrity. A world in which anger is the most readily accessible emotion and violence an acceptable recourse when you feel provoked. A world in which we are quick to label violent criminals as part of the mental health crisis, yet refuse to properly fund community mental health centers, or put social workers in every school, or teach basic communication and conflict resolution skills to children. Teachers are vilified, blamed, and punished for classroom problems that originate in the home, yet we refuse to give teachers the support they need from social workers and school psychologists to help families become successful in the classroom. I say families, and not just children, on purpose. Families need to be treated as a whole, to ensure that we see and address all areas in which the family is struggling. We keep insisting that test scores are the best way to measure a child’s potential and progress, scores which completely ignore a child’s emotional, social, and psychological progress. While politicians starve our public schools of resources and ignore the needs of the mentally ill and struggling families, we have turned our anger on each other, vilifying our fellow citizens and digging our heels into the culture wars to make up for the lack of a functioning public sphere.
Our schools should not be war zones, yet that’s what many of them have been for decades, and any attempts by parents to get their kids into a “good school” are increasingly fruitless. There is no panacea to solve the culture of violence that has resulted in the mass shooting epidemic that we are currently suffering through. It cannot be solved with thoughts and prayers, it cannot be solved by banning bump stocks, or raising the age to purchase certain weapons, or bringing religion into schools. It cannot be solved by school resource officers, as we so crushingly discovered during the Parkland shooting, and it cannot be solved by instituting more anti-bullying campaigns. Trying to imagine any of the teachers that I grew up with as pistol-packing renegades seems not only incredibly dangerous and ineffective, but incredibly unfair given the sacrifices and responsibilities that we already expect from teachers and our refusal to pay them properly for the amazing work they are doing every day. We are way beyond all of those ideas now. People continue to shout their ideas for solutions, and many of those ideas have merit, while others seem reactionary and insufficient. I am not going to pretend to know all the answers. I certainly have my own opinions about what I would like to see happen, but I fear that nothing we can do at this point will be sufficient without an enormous cultural shift that our country seems unprepared for and unwilling to recognize. The problems that go into the making of an active shooter are deep and resonating throughout our culture. Lack of empathy, isolationism, misogyny and racism, rampant abuse and violence in our neighborhoods, families, schools, and media, easy access to weapons ranging from hunting weapons to handguns to military style assault rifles, glorified violence on television both fictionalized and reality based: all of this has indoctrinated us to the point where we don’t even try to stop the violence any more, we just try to prepare for it.
I am sick. I am sick of this culture of violence. I used to get angry when I would hear people say that they don’t like to watch the news because they don’t like to see all the violence and terrible things going on in the world. How could they just turn a blind eye and pretend it’s not all happening? I understand this more now. It comes from a feeling of abject helplessness in the face of the world we have created. It comes from a sense of self-protectionism, akin to hiding in a closet while a gunman murders your classmates. I used to watch Law & Order episodes like a junkie. Ditto the ID Investigations, and Forensic Files, and other reality based crime shows. However, after years of working with victims of violence and abuse in my real-life job, I cannot see violence as entertainment anymore. I don’t ignore it, I can’t ignore it, and my job necessitates that I continue to confront it daily. Yet I can’t shake the feeling of helplessness and self-protectionism. So I will continue to battle as I have always done, one life at a time, one client at a time, and one family at a time, which includes my own. This is the only way I know how to fight back against our cultural sickness.
A few weeks ago, my daughter filled me in on some of the 2nd grade struggles going on in her school that week. A student did not want to include one of her friends in their games, and was trying to get the other kids to leave the other kid out. This upset my daughter because she didn’t want her friend to be left out. We processed this for a while, but she came to her own conclusion: “I’m going to stick up for my friend tomorrow”. “I think that’s a good idea, I’m proud of you,” I said. Meanwhile, back at work in my office, we prepared for another annual active shooter drill. So when the alarm came on via my computer and cell phone, alerting to the fact that there was an active shooter (exercise) on premise, I closed and locked my office door as instructed, and listened as we heard pretend gun shots, people running through the halls, and the first responders practicing their take down in the building. Back in elementary school, zig-zagging across that field, it seemed silly, remote, and implausible. Sitting in my office that day, listening to shots fired and the boots running through the hallways, it felt more real than ever before.
It’s on all of us to change the culture that has created this mess that our children are now paying for with their lives. What each of us can do is going to be different. Perhaps engaging in the policy battles and protests, perhaps donating to or volunteering with your local school systems or other organizations, perhaps changing your buying or viewing habits to promote more of what you want to see and support, and less of what continues to sicken us. I can’t come up with a catch-all prescription and say “here’s the solution, this will fix it”. I just know that most of us can do something, including our feckless leaders, and we all have to be a part of creating the world our children deserve. I will continue to hope that we can make progress together, despite the political barriers that seem insurmountable at this time. I can increasingly sense the desperation, the anger, and the futility that is seeping into every area of our society. I’m not willing to give up, though I understand why people do. When it feels overwhelming, I try to remember that even though I can’t change everything I want to change about our culture, I can still be responsible for my little corner of the universe. I know that small scale change leads to bigger changes later on. If anything is clear to me now, it is that change comes from the bottom up, not the top down. To me, that means working on myself, on my own family, with my clients, with my friends, and with my community. I want bigger change, but I can’t single handedly pull it off. To that end, bottoms up.