I’m a self-proclaimed news junkie. Every morning, I begin by scanning through major news sites online, by poring over Facebook and Twitter posts, updating myself with what’s going on in the world. This continues throughout the day, just as it did on Monday, when I saw BREAKING NEWS cross my Twitter feed with a statement about a shooting at a high school in Chardon, Ohio. My heart immediately sank and started racing, wondering about the students and staff. My mind and heart next went to the place and time it always does when I read or hear about another school shooting: October 1, 1997, at Pearl High School in Pearl, Mississippi.
I was 16 years old the day Luke Woodham entered my high school and opened fire on a crowded common area. My morning that day was a little different than usual. Typically, I was in that area around 8:00 am, but that day was different. I was in another building on school grounds, getting ready to head up to the main building, when friends and I saw a flood of our friends and classmates running toward us with terror and desperation on their faces, trying to run that much faster to get somewhere safe. In a hurried jumble of words, we finally pieced together what was happening — someone had started shooting in the school. At some point we realized a friend had caught a bullet in his leg, causing a scramble to help to stop the bleeding. What on earth was happening? Why was our school under attack? Those are thoughts I still, nearly 15 years later, think about.
It was later in the day we found out who the shooter was and what he’d been accused of doing — killing two and injuring seven others, all of this after killing his mother before he left for school. It was also in later days that I found out how much more awful October 1997 would become. In my memory, I recall days of adults telling us how to feel, not helping us explore how to heal our school community. Woodham and several other students became villains in our small community, sparking an investigation into who else might have been involved, an investigation that led police to start arresting students, one even in the very same school building where classmates had fallen days before.
In even later days, more shootings happened and we all learned the names of those schools, more in a series that had been happening for decades. Security officers were installed in schools all over the country, zero tolerance policies kicked up to a whole new level, student actions were scrutinized and punished for the most minor infractions. All of this and students were still never included in the decision making process.
Many of the school shooters have something in common — they were bullied or were outcasts in their school communities. Where were the adults in the school? At what point will adults refuse to believe that “boys will be boys” and “this is a part of growing up!” when we see bullying happen? When will we all model the respect youth should and can have for each other? When will we intervene when students tear each other down? If someone had intervened with the bullying and harassment the shooters went through, would something have changed? Would they still have made those awful decisions to take lives and fracture communities? Maybe. Maybe not. We can’t know that answer, but we do know that something has to change. Now.
Students are supposed to be at the center of our schools, yet so many policies and actions are in place without their input. Students are supposed to be the center of our schools, yet adults are not helping them through dealing with each other. Students often aren’t allowed to explore how to deal with each other, through peer mediation and conflict resolution. Instead, bullying is ignored and zero tolerance policies become unbelievably punitive. Policies have to change and must be student-centered. These are decisions that cannot just be made by school administrators.
In the coming days, Chardon, Ohio, has a lot of healing to begin. I hope that parents, teachers, and community members will listen to their students and children. Ask them, “What do you need from ME? How might I help YOU?” Listen to them. Involve them. School shootings are terrible, awful things to happen and unfortunately, they keep happening. It is my hope that schools will understand there are more ways to prevent these actions than making schools into prisons. It is my hope that schools will find good ways to deter bullying from happening, that adults will stop dismissing harassment as typical adolescent behavior.
Listen to your students. Give them time and space as they work to find their way through this together.