Are School Shootings in the Back of the Minds of Youth?
By Carol Miller
I work in a small rural school district as a school counselor. Lansing, NY is a great place to raise children. It’s peaceful, it’s quiet, it’s close to many great colleges, and the school district is great. Since the incident at Sandy Hook last year, there has been a focus on safety. We now have a greeter at the front door to sign in visitors and check in on who they are here to see. All doors except the front door are locked during the day, and doors now have swipe cards and staff carries their ID cards with them during the day. We practice lockdown drills in the event of an emergency. We send letters home informing parents of any suspicious activity on or near campus. Recently we sent home letters informing parents of a pickup truck driving past the schools attempting to lure students close to it asking for help and directions. We have improved our attention to potential security threats, but do our children feel safe? Do they feel that we are able to protect them in the event of catastrophe?
I run several weekly Lunch Bunch groups. The 5th and 6th grade students who are a part of these groups eat lunch with me and we talk a lot about friendship, peer relationships and bullying. On more than one occasion this year, students have talked about bullying and related it to school shootings. “You need to help someone who is being bullied, because if you don’t they can hurt so much that they bring a gun to school.” Kids have really related being victimized repeatedly by being bullied with the need for revenge on the bully. Oddly enough, however, this comes with a matter of fact feeling and not with a feeling of being scared.
A fellow school counselor in Massachusetts told me about a recent incident in her urban elementary school. Last Friday she had an incident with a 4th grader. This little boy, who has a tendency to misunderstand other people’s actions, felt that the kids in his class were laughing at him. This taunting escalated into an outburst about how no one likes him. She told me, “Another student was holding a calculator and said something about making it into a bomb. The upset boy then said, “Yeah, I’m going to use this calculator to blow up the school. I hate you all!”” This statement created an explosion, but reactions from her administrators was strong and immediate. Kids and some staff were extremely nervous. “I had to speak to two classes to reassure them that they are safe at school. We talked about how a lot of times people say things that they don’t mean when they are very upset and don’t know how else to communicate that. Most of the kids were okay after that, although handfuls were back in my office to say they still felt unsafe when the boy returned to school. A couple of them verbalized that they believe the kid might do something because one time he hit a classmate at recess. They took this as evidence that he’s a violent, unpredictable person capable of almost anything.”
Another counselor friend at a school in Goshen, Indiana, shared with me an incident during a lockdown drill at her school. “My office has one exit, the door. I have no windows to the outside. At the time of the drill, I had a 7th grade boy in my office.” She described the boy as a tough guy; a real Mr. Joe Cool. “Using the light from my cell phone, we navigated to the back corner of my darker than dark office, behind a bookcase and the junk I had stored there. We were supposed to be silent, no talking. As we sat there in the eerie silence and the seconds ticked by, the boy began to ask me questions. “Ms. D-M, is this a drill?” “Yes,” I whispered. “Ms. D-M, what would we do if someone came in our school with a gun?” “We would do everything we could to protect you, Student X”, again I whispered. I then reminded him we needed to remain silent and he said “okay”. A few seconds later, “Ms. D-M, what if someone came to the door right now, what would you do?”…and the questions continued. I could hear the concern in his voice; I could hear the fear. I could not remind him to remain silent. I had to answer his questions because I had to allay his fears.”
Times have changed in my 20 plus years of being a school counselor. When I first began working in schools, students did not talk about school shootings. They didn’t even think about it. I worked in a large urban district back then, and we had a security guard, but it was to prevent fights from happening. Back then we were concerned about people’s fists or verbal attacks. We weren’t concerned about guns. Sadly today, while it may not be everyday, the thought of someone bringing a gun to school is a very real concern for students. So, when you ask the question, “Are shootings in the back of their mind?” the answer sadly is, “Yes.” We live in an era where safety, concern, and fear have stolen a bit of the innocence from our youth.
Carol Miller is a certified school counselor with 20 years of experience throughout grade levels. She writes the blog The Middle School Counselor and you can follow her on Twitter at @tmscounselor.