To: Rep. McKell, M.,
Subject: School Shootings
I write this in the shadow of yet another in a series of school shootings. My heart goes out to the victims of this senseless act of violence. To the victims, there will be a lifetime of struggle with the questions of why this happened. The answers to these questions may never come.
As the father of a child who was accused of plotting to harm his fellow classmates I am amazed that in this country we continue to wait until a crime is committed before we begin to act. How many more acts of senseless violence do we need to go through before we as a nation begin to wake up? In Roswell, NM a 13 year old boy shot two of his fellow classmates. The initial reports were that bullying was a factor. In Philadelphia, PA a 17 year old student felt that he needed a handgun because he felt he was the target of an assault after school.
In the days and weeks after our son’s plans came to our attention, we began to ask many of the same questions the families of these two boys will be asking themselves. How could something like this happen? Where did we fail our son? In our case, our son didn’t fit the standard mold of a school shooter. After Columbine I had been told that shooters were loners, depressed, and had sudden marked changes to their personalities. I had been led to believe that they frequently watched “R” rated movies and played violent video games. This certainly wasn’t our son. He was popular in school, having just run for class president. He carried an “A” average, he was in extra-curricular activities, and frequently was found defending his fellow students who were different or had physical challenges. Ours was not a broken, single parent home. He did not grow up in poverty. We were a typical middle class family whose most violent game in the house was “Big Game Hunt”. Our son didn’t watch movies filled with gratuitous sex or violence. On the contrary, it was more like “Adam 12” and “Emergency” from the 1970’s.
We believe, from all of the investigations, that he was the victim of bullying, both at school, and online.
In the hours and days after our incident in early 2013 we began to speak with mental health experts and evaluators. In the early beginnings of the investigation one of these evaluators called to ask us about our family. More specifically, how we fight, as a family. My wife told him that we don’t fight. We don’t slam doors, call names, hit, shout, use profanity and so on. The response from this professional surprised us. He told us that he felt our son, when faced with the difficult challenge like severe bullying, wasn’t taught the skills necessary to cope with the issues. Interesting, we thought that by providing him with a loving, nurturing home, free from conflict, we were teaching him the values that would benefit society. We live in a small community and felt that those around us shared the same beliefs and values as we did. How wrong we were.
After our son was taken to juvenile detention facility, we saw a list of classes on the board. Dealing with difficult people, conflict resolution, anger management, to name a few.
Why is it that we wait to teach these vital skills to our children until they have been accused of committing a violent crime? Why is it that I didn’t receive these classes until I was going into management with a major corporation, and many adults never get this training? Why is it that we as a society fail to act until after a crime has been committed?
We learned a few other things, too. We learned that 25% of all teachers feel that there is nothing wrong with bullying behaviors. We learned that only 4% of teacher will even intervene in a bullying incident that they witness, and we learned that in most jurisdictions, bullying is only an infraction, not a misdemeanor. That means that it is more like a parking ticket. It carries a fine but the perpetrators never have to see a judge. This being the case there is not a lot of incentive for local law enforcement to look too deeply into reports of bullying.
We learned that many local schools and administration either don’t know, or don’t want to admit that bullying is an issue in their schools. (In our case there was an incident between our son and another child days before that was witnessed by a substitute teacher in a classroom, and nothing was said or done.) We learned that all too often people will fall back on the axiom, “kids will be kids”.
We wait for the student who is being bullied to act out, and then prosecute them for a crime, while turning our collective backs on those individuals that might have caused this action in the first place. Don’t get me wrong. I am not justifying the actions taken by my son, or these two young men in Roswell and Philadelphia. They must be held accountable for their acts. But by turning our backs on the others that were involved, are we not also rewarding the bully’s behavior?
As we waded through all of the questions that came as a result of our son’s actions, spoke to educators, administrators, and mental health professionals we came to a conclusion that in order to fix the problem of school shootings, we need to take a more proactive approach to the problem. We need reach the children long before they act out. We believe that there are three very specific actions that will begin to stem the tidal wave of violence that is flooding our middle and high schools.
First, educators, administrators, and staff must take action when they witness, or suspect bullying has taken place. We need them to set aside the concept that an incident doesn’t fit the “legal description” and begin to enforce “what’s right is right, and what’s wrong is wrong.” These individuals need to be trained to spot, investigate and intervene in these cases. The school that our son was enrolled in at the time had a program that was called “Stop, Walk, and Talk”. The problem is that time after time when the students did “talk” their concerns were dismissed either because the administration didn’t care or didn’t know how to follow up on these reports.
Second, skills need to be taught to every child, in every classroom, in every grade level, beginning in kindergarten and continue throughout his/her high school career. The argument is that it will take extra funding to do this, or more teachers. In truth it can be incorporated in the existing curriculum now. Role playing, essays, group discussions can all be used to teach our children the essential skills that our children need to survive and to thrive in school, society, and eventually the workplace. Working with difficult people, diversity, acceptance, tolerance, conflict resolution, coping skills and strategies are skills every individual needs to be successful throughout our lives.
And finally, when a report of bullying had been substantiated, both parties, the victim and the bully, need to have additional supervised interactions to resolve the issue, to discuss what was wrong and how can it be handled differently in the future.
The schools are not the only ones that need to step up to the plate. Parents need to remember there is a time to be your child’s friend, and a time to be a parent. Parents need to know the passwords for their children’s electrical devices, social media and email accounts and check them often, and randomly. If your child is hesitant, or hides these things the parent needs to ask themselves why. It was through these types of action that we were alerted to our son’s possible actions.
We, as a society need to stop looking at the shooters in these incidents, and start looking at the cause in order to get a firm handle on the situation. Bullies continue to bully as they grow older. 60% of bullies are charged with a crime by the time they are 24 years old. Students who were bullied have a higher tendency to turn to gangs, alcohol, and illegal drug use. They also have a higher rate of teen pregnancy and suicide. Time and time again we hear the phrases “I wanted to hurt them as much as they hurt me” or “I wanted to do anything to make the pain go away”.
It may not happen in the first year. It may not improve it the first five or even ten years. It may take a full generation, but I can’t help but think that if we give our kids the tools that they need to survive, we as a society will see a decrease of violence in so many areas. All I know for sure, we can no longer afford to sit back and do nothing.
We got lucky with our son. Others had alerted us to a potential problem. We were able to follow up and get it stopped. If we hadn’t been vigilant who knows what the outcome might have been. One thing is certain though, this discussion would have been entirely different.
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