Talking With Students About School Shootings
Sam Diener, of the Center for Nonviolent Solutions in Worcester MA, created these insightful talking points to assist educators in speaking with students about the shooting in the Chardon, Ohio high school yesterday. Thanks to Sam for allowing me to publish them. I edited them with his permission.
This is not designed to be read to students. Tailor your approach to your students' ages and follow their lead. In general, the younger the student, the less information they will need and want. These are merely "jumping off" points for discussion in your class.
1) Why did it happen?
We don't have all the answers. We probably never will. Based upon the confusion and panic that were created by school shootings in the past, much of the early reporting may later turn out to be misleading or untrue. But even without knowing all the facts or being able to fully understand why the perpetrator did it, we can feel empathy for the victims (the students who died) and survivors, consider the issues raised and the societal conditions that promote and/or prevent such crimes, and evaluate how we can get involved to help people.
2) This topic is scary.
Some students will want to talk about it, while others might be angry when talking about it or might shut down. It is important to give each other space to express our fears, and to affirm that these events are frightening. I believe it's important to demonstrate that we hear students' points of view, regardless of whether we feel differently. It's also essential that we repeat the reasons we believe it is worth caring about. Some students might be justifiably angry that coverage of shootings in their community, particularly in communities of color, don't get nearly as much coverage as when shootings happen in mostly white communities. Sometimes, callous statements arise partially out of a feeling of powerlessness when hearing about crimes, and/or a feeling of powerlessness in aspects of one's own life.
3) Violence is not a joke, a game, or entertainment; violence truly hurts.
The five students who were shot in this most recent tragedy, and the student who shot them, are real people with families and friends who loved and love them. All those who witnessed the shootings at the school were traumatized. Even those of us who saw the images of the wounded on television, or even read about it later, might feel traumatized, in a different sense, as well. A nationally (and globally) televised crime like this can victimize everyone who hears about it by scaring us almost as if we had been there. The fear and powerlessness that mainstream media coverage can induce is also part of the problem. It's editoral preference for that which shocks (and therefore engages) us can skew our perceptions and reinforce our sense of powerlessness.
4) Fear, redux.
Could it happen here? These is a tricky question to answer. One impulse is to simply voice reassurance, while another is to reinforce how deadly serious hatred, bullying, discrimination, social ostracism, violence, and guns really are. I believe it's important to do both.
On the one hand, it is essential to remember that there are some 15,000 school districts in the U.S., and all the schools in all those districts except for Chardon High ended the school day on Monday without any murders. On the other, violence is a very serious national problem. The Center for Disease Control reports that "in 2009, a total of 650,843 young people aged 10-24 years were treated in emergency departments for nonfatal injuries sustained from assaults." Violence isn't something that just happens. People decide to commit violent acts, and people can join together to decide to help prevent them. Many students, staff, faculty, administrators, family, and community leaders are all working to help prevent violence from escalating, and each of us can help create a peaceful school and community.
5) Harassment and bullying are deadly serious.
T. J. Lane (the student accused of the shootings) is responsible for his own actions, no matter how much he was or wasn't harassed or bullied. Early news reports claim that students said that the suspected student was withdrawn, socially isolated, and bullied. Everyone in the building has a right to a safe environment free of harassment and bullying. If you're being harassed or bullied and you've already tried telling them to stop, or you're scared to tell them to stop, it is important to tell an adult so we can intervene to help stop it.
6) Threats, even "joking" threats, need to be taken seriously.
The Daily Beast is reporting that the alleged shooter left a rambling message on his Facebook page last December which concluded with a threat to kill everyone. If we know of threats, or know of the presence of weapons in school, it is our responsibility to take these dangers seriously and report them. Adults in all schools are dedicated to swiftly and decisively responding if they receive reports of weapons or threats.
7) Guns increase danger.
The presence of firearms in the home greatly increases the risk of death or injury for all members of the household. At a minimum, any gun should have child-proof safety locks, and should be kept in a securely locked place. Ammunition should also be secured in a locked place separate from the gun.
8) Some aspects of our culture promote and glorify violence.
Are the real, painful consequences of violence ever portrayed on Saturday morning cartoons? On action-hero TV shows and movies? In most video games? In gun-safety programs? In boxing? In professional "wrestling"? In most of our history textbooks? In military recruiting ads' depictions of wars? In videos of "smart" bombs hitting targets in Iraq or Afghanistan?
9) We aren't powerless.
We can help prevent violence. We can be allies of the people of Chardon by working to prevent violence here at our school, in our homes, in our communities, across the country, and around the world. When we hear someone getting picked on, we can speak up, saying, something like, "Hey, I think that's mean. Don't go there." When we're angry, we can calm down before we act. We can help each other learn and use methods for resolving conflicts and de-escalating fights. We can build healthier relationships in our own lives, offer support to those who are being abused, and gently and strongly challenge those who are being abusive. We can work to transform our society's unjust structures, institutions, laws and cultural norms through organizing collective action.
10) What ideas do your students have?
You might ask them to share their ideas with President Obama, Congress, your state legislature, school principal, and each other. The only good that can come out of a crime like this is to help motivate those of us who witness it, even via the media, to talk among ourselves and work together to stop the violence and increase the peace.