“When school shootings happen, why don’t we talk about it?”
This is a question posed by a student group working with Tom Rademacher. It stopped me in my tracks when I read it, in a photo posted by Tom of whiteboard notes from a student activist planning session.
The question, to me, is the whole ballgame of education. When our students want and need to talk about what’s important to them, do we show up? Do we create space? Do we set aside our lesson and just listen? Do we sit in the discomfort, because we serve our students, or do we avoid hard conversations in our own self-interest?
In the last few months, I’ve been thinking a lot about how our own fears as educators (and people) can drown out our ability to hear what our students are really saying.
In the aftermath of yet another school shooting, we expect that our students are going to be scared. We, as the adults, are also scared. Will I die today in this place? It’s a horrifying question to consider, yet we see images of the victims and can’t help but feel connected. I teach English, too. I would stand in front of my students, too. Our students see themselves: I would send that text. I would speak out if I survived. I would be terrified.
Yet, what do we do when our students see themselves reflected not in the victims, but in the shooters?
In my time teaching at a therapeutic school, many of my students were more likely to be categorized as bullies, not targets. Their “challenging behavior” was often what landed them at our school- or, their original school’s response to that behavior. Many of these students lacked coping skills and healthy boundaries. They struggled to form and sustain reciprocal relationships. Faced with trauma, poverty, mental health challenges, and a whole range of adverse experiences, these students were often in survival mode. Doing the best they could.
Survival mode isn’t inspirational. My students were often unkind. They made awful choices. They lied and lashed out and broke stuff. I cared deeply about every single one of them, even though it felt impossible sometimes. That was my job. I saw the magic in every one of them. Even when they were jerks.
I cared deeply about every one of them. And that care made it possible for me to hear them say “I am going to bring a gun to school” and really listen to what they meant.
As I write this, I feel the tension and I hear objections echoing. “We have to take all threats seriously.” Yes, I agree. “We can’t make excuses for these perpetrators’ behavior.” I agree.
And. Some of our students will read the news and identify with the shooter. They feel lonely and isolated. They feel powerless. They don’t have the skills to cope with the overwhelming feelings. They wonder, “If I did the worst possible thing in the world, would anyone still love me? Does anyone really care that much about me?”
So when a student who I care about says, “I want to bring a gun to school,” how should I respond?
“You can’t say that.”
“Don’t joke about that.”
“I need to call the administrator.”
“I need to call the police.”
Or should I say, “That sounds like a really intense feeling. Tell me more?” Should I say, “I really care about you and it makes my heart hurt to know that you are that angry. Let’s talk about it?” What would it look like to set aside my own fear and let myself empathize with a student who is empathizing with what I perceive as evil?
What would it look like to recognize the complexity of trauma and how victims so often become perpetrators? What would it look like to learn into that messiness and choose empathy instead of fear?
I wish I knew how to identify when a student is reaching out for help or when they have crossed over the point of no return. I wish I knew what the line was – when a student is speaking their truth and seeking connection, and when a student is sharing a murderous plan. I wish I knew how to prevent these atrocities. And I am not making a case against sharing information, reporting, or intervening.
But I’m wondering. When we talk about school shootings, can we be brave enough to recognize that some of our students identify with the shooter? And can we hold them in our care, our empathy, and our curiosity? Can we pull them closer into our community and say, “No matter what awful thing has crossed your mind, you still belong here”?
I don’t know the answers. But I am committed to wrestling with them until we find a better path forward. I am holding all of the victims, past and future, in my heart, and all of my magical, struggling students, too.