“I need to get out of here before I hurt someone. I’m not kidding. I’m telling you man, for real, I can’t keep it together and somebody is going to get hurt.” These are the words you want to hear from a student. These words can save his life and those of his classmates and teachers.
Those words were spoken to me by a student three weeks before he came to school to commit suicide. I sat with him on the day he spoke it, ate lunch together and talked it out. I stayed in touch with him over the weekend and thought things were, well, stable. Yet three weeks later I received a call from the shelter where he was staying to tell me he was coming to school to commit suicide. After hours of searching for him, he arrived at school distressed.
Gun laws are not the sole problem. They are a tool used to exercise the pain these young people are experiencing. Some act out with verbal emotion, detachment, self-isolation or other coping mechanisms. This is the sole difference between those who take the lives of others and themselves and those who don’t. The young man who came to me expressing his desire to hurt someone was not violent by nature. He was hurt. He was homeless. Homeless because he didn’t feel loved or cared for. On the morning he came to school to kill himself, he told the director of the homeless shelter of his plans. He came to kill himself at school because he knew he would be heard. He knew there would be a response to his words. That response would not be words, but action. An action he could feel, an action that would demonstrate that he was relevant and important to someone other than himself. The choice to use a gun is a manifestation of how deep the pain is. It suggests a powerful need to show everyone how hurt they are. If this young man were labeled on the day he told me he wanted to hurt someone and was suspended because of a perceived threat rather than a cry for help, would he have acted out on those feelings?
We have to look no further than the inaction of a system that claims to protect our children. We were able to get him help and today he is a thriving, productive young man.
Guns, drugs, gangs and any other rationale for the behaviors we attribute to the violence of youth is a manifestation of the absence of something. Something we continue to ignore because we don’t want to look at their pain. We don’t look because we are the solution and possible cause of it. We are the adults, we are the parents, the community, the police and policy makers. We spend millions on resources creating solutions for adults. The adults who have lost their focus on the future which is embodied in our youth, not technology or the growth of our economy. These are manifestations of how we support our future, which is our youth.
Pain, suffering and a search for identify is what is overlooked when we conduct our autopsies after school shootings. After the cycle of outrage, thoughts and prayers, silence and another shooting, we consistently fail to examine the root elements of the problem, the social and emotional needs of our youth. Notice I didn’t label it a ‘cause’ of the problem, but an element of the problem. We have continually attempted to label the shooters and deploy strategies such as zero tolerance policies that do not address the social and emotional needs of the people we purport to help. This is a cycle of adult thinking absent of any acknowledgement of the needs of our youth.
Seventeen souls were lost in a continuing dynamic that moves further away from the key element in this discussion. These lost but not forgotten souls are added to the list of senseless violence that has been courted by not addressing the issue at its elemental level. There is no singular reason for the pattern of school violence that takes lives except that we have not looked at it through the lens of those experiencing it. Bullying, isolation, depression, and a general need to establish a positive presence and identity among peers are all factors that our young people are working through as a part of their normal development. Policies may make the public feel as though they responded to the needs of our children, but practices will have a more personal a direct impact on their needs. The practices that result in our current policies have not addressed their needs, but those of adults.
Policies keep us above the conversation. It keeps us from connecting with the voices that are seeking to be heard. It makes the adults in the room feel satisfied that they did something, but has it changed things for the better?
The Columbine school shooting in 1999 brought forth zero tolerance policies. They labeled behavior and thusly students. The assumption was that by eliminating students from the school environment that exhibited the potential for violence would make everyone safe. Nikolas Cruz, a young man with a very troubled past who had been expelled from the school is evidence this policy can’t protect others from real pain. After Columbine the FBI assisted schools in establishing a tiered threat assessments for students who may be prone to acts of violence. In their effort it was acknowledged there was no way to profile such a student as actual shooters exhibit behaviors of many of their students. What should we have learned from that statement?
We need to respond rather than react to what we see and hear. The response should be driven by the voices of those who are at risk and this includes the potential shooters. The response shouldn’t be a new policy, but new practices which should not only show evidence of hearing the issues of young people, from young people, but include structures in our educational system that demonstrate that their words and needs were heard. If you have any experience with young people one should know that you can’t hold them accountable to what you think. They respond better when we build systems that support their needs, that’s how they learn accountability for themselves and others.
The seventh grader who shot himself this week is painful. It’s painful to know that a young person is in so much pain that they would come to school to end their life. At this point we don’t know his mind, his struggle nor the source of his pain. What we do know is that it was deep enough to want to end his life. School shooters like suicide victims give signs or hints of their intent. What were the signs of this young man? Who did he tell? What would have been the outcome if someone listened?
If the pattern of response to these violent events is consistent, there will be an examination into his life and another profile created. The problem is, he fits the profile of many of his classmates in his school and around the country. Until we acknowledge that we have not addressed the problem, yet reacted to it, we will continue to fail. We will continue to conduct public autopsies as the body count in our communities rise. We have to look deeper inside ourselves and more importantly our children. Prayer without works is dead.
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Dr. Marvin Thompson in an educational leader who has spent the majority of his 25 years in the educational field turning around schools in challenged communities. The scope of his experiences in schools range from pre-school director, elementary teacher to district superintendent.