I'm going to ask you to think about the school shootings that have gone on in the United States over the last two decades. Think of the men and boys who, for whatever reasons, chose to horrifically end the lives of their peers and often their own lives as well.
Now rewind. Imagine those young men on their first day of kindergarten.
Why does Joey get off the bus thirteen years later poised to thrive in society and Johnny feel so hopeless and angry that he feels the need to murder?
The answer is trauma.
While there are a number of factors that contribute to feeling so hopeless, so disconnected that someone feels the need to take another person's life, trauma is present 99.9% of the time. More likely than not, little Johnny is getting off of that school bus and going home to physical and/or emotional violence between his parents. He's sleeping without heat because the gas bill couldn't get paid this month. He may be the victim of physical or sexual abuse by a family member. He may be told he's stupid or no good or a host of other horrible things that adults shouldn't be told, let alone children. His physical and emotional needs are going unmet.
As a result, Johnny acts out in class. He becomes the thorn in his teachers side. He may get punished more often, socially ostracized by the other kids and pushed further into the outskirts of social acceptance.
Now home and school are uncomfortable and unsafe leaving him feeling he has less options and less to lose.
Now, let's be clear. All of this is not to say there should be no accountability. We can both hold individuals accountable AND understand how this came about in the first place. Because these incidents are tips of icebergs. And the tip of an iceberg can feel like it popped out from behind thick patches of fog to surprise us. But the iceberg wasn't really hiding was it? It's been there all along.
Let's also be clear that while it is true that there has been an increase in school shootings it is still statistically an unlikely event. But do you know what is likely going on in the homes of children in your district? Child abuse, domestic violence, sexual abuse and physical and emotional neglect. While again, it takes a number of factors for these kids to grow up to be school shooters, they are more likely to go on to physically and verbally abuse their girlfriends, severely bully other students and sexually assault other girls and boys.
Imagine you had every child and parent in your school district in a room. Now apply the numbers:
- One in three of the adolescents in the room will experience physical, emotional, verbal and/or sexual violence by their boyfriend.
- One in three women and one in four men in the room are survivors of domestic violence.
- Just over 3,000 child abuse reports were made in Allegheny County in 2016 (3 deaths). A portion of those CYF calls were made in your district.
- One is 6 women in the room have been raped and just over 50% of those rapes occurred before she was 18 years old.
Violence is already present in our schools. Trauma exists on campus with our children. We all say those silent prayers each time we send our kids off to school:
"Please be safe." "Please come back to me."
But when we solely focus on what could happen today, we miss opportunities to do some real prevention work for the future. There are many factors that go into whether or not Johnny is going to end up hurting himself or someone else throughout his time in class with our kids. But trauma is the common denominator. Therefore, we must ask how can we better connect with and support the family who can't put food on the table. How do we reach out and support kids and adults who don't feel safe in their homes? The puzzle pieces are all around us, we're just not putting them together to see the bigger picture.
All too often we look to teachers to bear the brunt of this responsibility. And it's true, they are at times the front line. But it's on parents and community members to take accountability for the emotional and physical safety of the children around us. Here are a few ways to get started:
- Collaborate. With each other, with teachers, the PTA, with the school board--everyone.
- Find out if your school has had any trauma informed training. Do your teachers know how to identify behaviors as potential symptoms of trauma?
- Advocate for both physical AND emotional safety in schools. Get creative about promoting a culture of emotional safety in school throughout the year--it cannot be a one time event.
- Find ways to expose families in your district to information about key issues such as domestic violence, sexual abuse and child abuse prevention as well as resources for utility assistance, food pantries, DV shelters, etc.
We're talking about creating a cultural shift inside the classroom but also within ourselves as a community. And as you get started it can certainly feel overwhelming but worth it. The presence of ONE stable and committed relationship with a supportive adult can change the course of even the most troubled child's life. Please remember:
"Don't judge each day by the harvest you reap but by the seeds that you plant."
Robert Louis Stevenson