There has been another school shooting in Santa Clarita, California. A sixteen year old brought a gun to school inside his backpack, fired it before entering at the beginning of the school day, and killed two innocent bystanders as well as himself. Once again we are stunned and worried and left wondering what had driven a young man to do something so egregious on his sixteenth birthday.
Accounts indicate that authorities were initially baffled about the motive. The young man was an athlete who gave no signs of having a grudge or being bullied. He was quiet and generally thought to be a nice young man. Sadly there were indeed indications of trouble that may not have been adequately addressed. The clues were there but putting them together in the environment of a large public high school where teachers and students are often overworked can be difficult if not seemingly impossible. There are young people falling through the cracks across the nation and their fates are too often going unnoticed.
The puzzle pieces of the shooter’s life were there if anyone might have had reason to suspect that he was about to blow. His father died in December two years ago when he was only fourteen. His dad had been an alcoholic who often fought with the boy’s mother. Eventually the ravages of alcoholism caused the father to die of a heart attack and it was the sone who found his father’s body. The father and his boy had gone hunting together in happier times. The dad had a collection of guns and even made his own bullets, none of which is horrific in and of itself but it indicates that the shooter had access to weapons. The sixteen year old lived with his mother, a single parent who was no doubt stretched to her own limits both emotionally and physically. His life was a powder keg just waiting for the moment to blow, particularly given his age. Sadly I find myself wondering if anyone ever took the time to talk with him, counsel him, make certain that he was psychologically sound.
We humans have a tendency to be stoic in public. We hide our suffering, pretending that nothing is wrong even when we are dying inside. We are all too often afraid of uttering the truth. We worry that people’s perceptions of us will change if we reveal the hurts we are experiencing. We have all had experiences in which we trusted someone with our deepest thoughts only to be hurt by them, or even worse to be asked not to talk about such things. It sometimes seems that our society wants everyone to put on a happy face and pretend that all is well.
My happiest times as an educator took place at KIPP Houston High School mostly because so much time and financial investment was dedicated to have a fleet of counselors along with caring teachers who were encouraged to get to know every one of their students. For a student body of just under five hundred individuals there were six counselors, two Deans of Students, grade level teams that met weekly to discuss concerns about their pupils, and four Grade Level Chairpersons. At any given time there were multiple adults ready to help each student through troubles. We watched carefully for changes in personality, unusual behaviors, fluctuations in grades, lethargy or mania. When we saw worrisome signs we provided intensive counseling for both the students and their parents. We knew and loved our kids. Their well being came before anything in our focus. While we did not have a perfect record, I believe that we demonstrated how much we cared to the benefit of the entire student body.
One of my daughters recently noticed that an Advanced Placement elective was causing great stress for her son. She immediately contacted the school and set up a meeting with the teacher, an assistant principal and a counselor. She voiced her concerns and requested that he be reassigned to a history class that his twin sister was taking since he always enjoys learning about the past. The switch would have taken place within the first six weeks of school and would have required no major overhaul of his schedule since the elective and the history class were at exactly the same time. The history class only had eighteen students so it would not have burdened the teacher who had expressed excitement of having my grandson in his class. It seemed to be a grand solution for a young man who makes good grades and is generally happy and relaxed about academics, but just felt a disconnect with the elective.
The powers that be at the school not only refused to make the change in schedule, but they did nothing to address the issues of anxiety that my daughter had revealed to them. Instead they took a defensive stance making my daughter feel as though she was a trouble maker rather than a concerned parent, and embarrassing my grandson with insinuations that he wasn’t tough enough to take the heat even though he was doing well with advanced classes in Pre-Calculus and Chemistry. In other words they shoved the problem under the rug and moved on without consideration of my grandson’s individual needs.
I suspect that many mega high schools operate in such a manner with disregard for students’ unique requirements. I understand the limited resources of time and energy for teachers because I have been in their shoes. What bothers me most is that schools so rarely have the budgets to hire enough auxiliary staff to provide intensive support for every student. With dedicated professionals and a restructuring of the campus to create small groups of students who become members of a school within a school, it is more likely that someone will notice those who are troubled and become advocates for them before they reach a breaking point. I have seen such a system work miracles in leaving no child behind.
As a larger society we also need to be willing to hear things that make us uncomfortable. At a recent collegial gathering of individuals who had just completed a college level class together the topic of the California shooting entered the conversation. The usual thoughts about guns came to the forefront and sides were quickly defended. Ultimately there was no resolution because one of the participants yelled out, “Can we change the subject! I don’t want to talk about this!”
It’s time that we forced ourselves to have those very difficult discussions. Problems do not go away simply because we refuse to speak of them. In fact, they only grow more dire the longer we ignore them. It’s time we get our priorities straight. It’s time we make it easier for troubled individuals to find the help they need. Turning away from troubles, quibbling among ourselves and changing the subject will only cause us to experience horror in an infinite loop.