A recent Boston Globe article clarified an anxiety, a despair I feel as an educator each time the news covers a traumatizing incident at a school. The article entitled, Mass Shootings Are Taking a Toll on our Mental Health, was in response to another horrific school shooting massacre in Uvalde, Texas killing 19 elementary students and 2 teachers. It’s the most recent example of the mounting carnage wrought by the political inaction of this century; a crass, immoral gun lobby; the ambiguous wording of the Second Amendment; and a continued indifference of the American voter when it comes to reforming gun laws.
My anxiety and despair is visceral when it comes to schools, teachers and students. As the Globe article pointed out, “No matter how far removed we might personally be from the events, experts say, they still take a toll on our mental health… It can be very personal even if it’s a distant experience.” I felt this way 23 years ago as a first year principal when news broke of the Columbine, Colorado shooting on April 20, 1999 taking 15 lives and injuring 24 others. We had a scheduled school board meeting that evening and the published agenda seemed trite. The discussion quickly turned to school safety concerns we seemingly never had to think about previously. However, from that day to the present, schools have had to continually ramp up safety awareness and active shooter drills. Schools have been hardened and police officers added, yet school shootings proliferate as weapons of war easily fall into the hands of teenagers who can legally purchase and carry guns in too many states across the country. Each school shooting is a subliminal reminder that no matter the distance, your school or community could be next.
Two and a half years later foreign terrorists flew jets into the Twin Towers of New York City along with two other aborted attempts to use jets to fly into the Pentagon and the White House. The trauma for schools and communities was heightened and present for anyone taking a trip to the airport and eventually for schools as they approved field trips and student exchange opportunities. The fear and trauma caused by the events of 9/11seemed to switch to the other…the foreigner. As a nation we all became vigilant of the potential for foreign terrorist threats as the newly created Department of Homeland Security was created. While we have not experienced another 9/11 incident on U.S. soil, the Department of Homeland Security has not protected us from the most lethal terrorists traumatizing our daily lives… our own citizens.
In March 2021 FBI Director Christopher Wray told a congressional panel that domestic terrorism is one of the United States’ greatest threats. Wray stated, “The problem of domestic terrorism has been metastasizing across the country for a long time now and it’s not going away anytime soon. At the FBI, we’ve been sounding the alarm on it for a number of years now.” And what has congress done since Wray testified? Not much. According to the Washington Post, more than 311,000 students have experienced gun violence on their school campus since Columbine. Over 33,000 students have experienced gun violence at school since Wray testified. The news reports the numbers of deaths and injuries, but we know little of the trauma experienced of those hundreds of thousands students and teachers; of how their trauma impacted their family and community over time.
The recent Uvalde, Texas shooting took 21 lives, but there will be a wide range of residual trauma for the remaining 516 students at the Robb School along with the over 4,000 students and staff of the district. Each of the reported school shootings evokes a level of trauma for me as well as an overwhelming sadness knowing so much of it could be avoided. My lingering trauma travels back to 1986 and my first year as Dean of Students at a small middle high school in the lakes region of New Hampshire.
It was a cold day preceding our winter break and a fresh dusting of snow had fallen to create a festive atmosphere for the school’s winter carnival. I was in the cafeteria when a student came running in saying there was a student outside with a knife. I hurried to the area and saw a group of students backing away from a tall, gangly kid, who today people would describe as odd and a loner. I’m sure he was feeling isolated during a week of activities designed to be more social and create school spirit. He had fear in his eyes. I think he knew he put himself in a situation that he didn’t want to be in, but he held the knife in front of him that was part threatening and part defensive to keep anyone away.
We had built a trust over the year and from a distance, and I asked him to lay the knife down. He did and the situation deescalated. That incident though dampened the spirit of the day and the week. It traumatized those who witnessed it even though no one was hurt. When a school shooting like Sandy Hook, Parkland, or Uvalde occurs I think back to that 1986 day and wonder how it all may have unfolded if a scared, isolated student was holding a gun rather than a knife.