By Sosamma Samuel-Burnett, J.D.
Founder/Chair, G.L.O.B.A.L. Justice
On Valentine’s Day 2018, my family was celebrating together at home and at our children’s schools. Cards, chocolates, flowers, and sentiments of love and affection abounded. But in the backdrop were news reports of the school shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida — such a stark contrast from the Valentine’s Day sentiments and such a terrible loss of 17 lives.
This shooting – like others in a line of mass shootings in recent years and even months – calls not only for our attention but our focused response to a difficult and complex problem. School shootings are particularly challenging and emotional. Few incidents are as terrible as children being murdered. Few circumstances are as horrific as an active shooter in a school setting. But this incident and this circumstance warrant that we discuss not only the tragedy, but also how we can potentially prevent this type of tragedy from recurring.
The following summarizes some recommendations that may not answer every concern in a school shooting, but can be a starting point for the conversations, policies, and practices that are necessary:
Profile of a School Shooter
While every school shooter and every school or other mass shooting is distinctive in its facts, there are also some key similarities. The school shooter is usually young, usually a white male, usually depressed, usually engaged in violent or hateful discourse or interaction (whether publicly or privately), usually vengeful in light of their circumstances, usually expresses that vengefulness (either with others or online), and usually is armed with a gun as their weapon. The reality is that while most people who may exhibit some of these qualities or behaviors are not likely to become mass shooters, those that do become mass shooters generally do exhibit this range of factors.
Although profiling any type of suspect can be problematic and may lead to stereotypes or misidentifications, profiling appropriately can also potentially protect others when there is a risk of violent behaviors. Containing that risk may be worth some of the inconvenience of profiling such a suspect, as long as it is in appropriate parameters.
When and if parents, friends, other students, teachers, school officials, or community members observe a combination of factors particularly as they relate to depression and engagement or expression of violence along with access to weapons, those observations should be seen as a high risk. Reporting that high risk is essential not only in preventing a potential shooting, but also in providing adequate assistance to a troubled person who may need counseling or other supports.
Clearly in this case, such observations of “high risk” behavior were not taken seriously enough by the school, law enforcement, and even the FBI. What a difference it would have made for the 17 lost lives, if these individuals and agencies had paid closer attention to all of these warning signs and risk behaviors that were reported and at least took the effort to investigate or offer support.
Schools are centers of learning and growing. They are not intended to be prisons or high security institutions. Although we want to ensure safety, we have to balance that with also encouraging an environment where learning and growing can happen without security intense conditions. However, we live in an age where the more open a school building is, the more likely that school may become susceptible to violence and other concerns for school safety. There is no way to fully secure a school building without making it into a high security environment, but some lesser measures could still go a long way to increasing the safety of schools.
First, community police programs need to be instituted in every community, and especially within all schools. While we may not be able to provide enough staffing for a police officer at every school, we can at least have an officer who is available to roam among schools on a regular basis. Simply having a police car or uniformed officer at or near a school can act as a significant deterrent for various crimes.
But security doesn’t stop or start with police. It really involves the students, teachers, and community. It is essential for anyone who is aware of or suspects any concerns related to a student or community member, to make that concern known to the leadership and/or law enforcement authorities. Proper reporting and open communication can be a significant part of school security.
Further, students, teachers, and others must be trained on not only in identifying and reporting, but also on how to handle an active shooter circumstance at their schools. It may be also necessary for an official – perhaps the principal – to have some means to directly protect the school if law enforcement is not present. Schools may even want to consider having a taser or other device that can be accessed in extreme emergencies to contain an active shooter. They would need to be trained on how to properly use that device if needed. But taken together with other training and reporting, it may be lifesaving.
One of the most heated issues in our society is the debate over guns and gun control. While I personally do not like or own guns, I recognize that gun ownership is a 2nd amendment right that needs to be respected. However, like any other constitutional rights, this 2nd amendment right has and should have certain curbs. People can’t yell fire in a theater despite having 1st amendment free speech rights because the safety concern is greater than the unfettered right. So too with gun rights – they have some necessary restrictions for the interest of the community or society as a whole.
While I can’t speak with authority on all the details and distinctions between various guns since I have not been an owner or advocate for them, I do have a sense of what is or isn’t acceptable in society. Anything in society that is extremely dangerous, harmful, or has other negative ramifications can be subject to some limits. Consider prescription drugs. While they are of benefit for various illness, and when taken appropriately are medically important, they can be abused if accessed for the wrong purposes and in the wrong amounts. Similarly, not every gun needs to be widely available to the general public. Various automatic or assault weapons should be limited to the use of law enforcement or the military. And most school age students should also have limited or no access to these guns.
However, curbing guns and gun rights for the purposes of safety has to be done without violating the constitutional right and without unfairly restricting law abiding gun owners. The greater concern is not whether law abiding people have access to guns (no matter what type) but how to curb criminals and those who are mentally unstable from accessing guns (of any kind). It is their use of guns that needs restrictions not that of the general public. That includes cracking down on illicit sales to anyone via the web and black market.
But the conversation about guns and restrictions is challenging on both sides of the debate. As many gun advocates state – “it’s not guns that kill, its people who kill.” But I would add, that it is unstable and criminal people who kill…with guns. For every gun owner, having a conversation of how best to address the issue of gun violence should not be a threat to gun rights if focused on the right access questions. For every proponent of “gun control” there needs to be great concern for public rights. And both sides should seriously be concerned about addressing the larger issues of mental illness and criminality. The gun debate then is not so much whether someone has a gun or even what guns, but rather who has a gun, for what purpose, and how. We don’t want to violate constitutional rights, but we do want to prevent criminals and mentally unfit people to have access to guns. And that is where any “gun control” has to start and focus.
Beyond the discussion on guns and violence, the broader issue is mental illness. Our nation and our world have always had mentally ill individuals and some of them have committed crimes. But the larger issue of mental illness in America today is not only about school shootings, but also about the suicide crisis, the opioid and other drug crises, and depression in general. There is no question that behind every school shooting is a disturbed person with some form of mental illness whether psychological or psychiatric. The question then is how we identify such illness and provide appropriate treatment before the illness results in violent behaviors. This is perhaps a more difficult conversation than even the issue of guns or security.
For mental illness, we need to encourage people to select therapy and voluntarily seek counseling or other assistance. But those that have certain mental illnesses may not be in a position to make that rational choice. So, what does that mean for the community? Do we consider formally requiring certain individuals to undergo treatment before they exhibit violent or criminal behaviors? How do we do that and under what circumstances? These are questions that need careful consideration not only by professionals but also families.
Media and Social Media
While not all students are depressed, many more are feeling isolated and alone, especially in the context of our technologies, media, and social media. Most students are bombarded with various video games, online content, and social media pressures that can create a myriad of mental and social concerns. Those concerns range from violence and abuse depicted in video games and online, to access to content and people that are highly problematic. Such concerns create a situation that opens students to a range of issues that can develop into depression or other mental and social problems.
These concerns need to be discussed within families, schools, and communities, as well as within media itself. Most businesses have a level of responsibility to consumers to ensure safety in their products. But why is it that we don’t consider safety when it comes to media products – whether that is games, movies, or social media? Don’t companies like Facebook and YouTube also have accountability for content or at least responsibility to report content that could be high risk? These are points to consider and address not only within business but within society.
Faith and Hope
I have friends who have a range of perspectives on religion, faith, and God. But faith is an important aspect of the broader discussion on school shootings and violence in society. Those who are not “religious” as well as those who are “religious” both need to be willing to engage in this discussion. At the center of school shootings and other such tragedies, is a general feeling of hopelessness. That hopelessness becomes the seed of a number of troubling outgrowths. Whether you agree or not with a particular religion, church, practice, or belief, faith and spiritual reflection can provide hope and perspective that can’t come from most other sources. Without allowing a spiritually based discussion on life and the value of life, we are missing the larger issue — people need more than the society and circumstance they face. We are not only flesh, but also spirit and in need of something greater than ourselves.
In summary, the goal of considering various aspects of prevention is not to create a “police state” or such restrictive laws that prevent us from fully enjoying our lives, freedoms, and the world around us. But we should consider what threatens that freedom and what the underlying factors of those threats are. Sensibly equipping and supporting students and communities from being victims to senseless violence is important. Ensuring the safety and security of our children and communities is paramount. But also vital is encouraging a community and world where we do not need to live in constant fear and hopelessness, and can celebrate Valentine’s Day with love and not despair.
The views and opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and do not imply endorsement by G.L.O.B.A.L. Justice. We are a faith-based, nonpartisan organization that seeks to extend the conversation about justice with a posture of dignity and respect.