By Stuart Muszynski, President & CEO, Values-in-Action Foundation (Purple America)
February 19, 2018
Photo: John McCall/South Florida Sun-Sentinel
In an era of new normals, another stark new normal was solidified in the minds of Americans last week. As the 200th mass shooting since Sandy Hook and the 18th school shooting of this calendar year, the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida indicates that this can happen anywhere. Anyone's child, grandchild, niece, nephew or friend can be the next victim of a school shooting.
In the case of the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting, all precautions were taken. The potential shooter, who had been expelled last year, was identified by the school, and administrators asked to be alerted if he ever showed up on or near campus wearing a backpack. Administrators were alerted. Neighbors, teachers and students had long-identified him as a troubled youth who was violent, had access to and fascination with guns, ranted about society, and shot at neighbors' chickens with a BB gun. And the FBI was tipped off by two informants that Nikolas Cruz said he was going to be a "professional school shooter." Lots of people saw something and said something!
Despite metal detectors in schools, enhanced security procedures, active shooter drills for students, and heightened awareness, the shooter slipped into the school and killed seventeen people. The Parkland community and our entire country are anguished and heartbroken. This should not happen in America. But what can we do about it?
Not much. That is the consensus among law enforcement leaders interviewed on television. Yes, the FBI goofed by not aggressively following up on tips. But, as ABC News analyst and former FBI agent Brad Garrett said, even if the FBI had knocked on Cruz's door and discovered the AR-15 assault rifle, the rifle and other guns had been purchased legally, and the potential perpetrator could have sidestepped arrest by saying that he was just joking. Negative joking doesn't reach the level of shouting fire in a crowded theater. Hence, it is still protected free speech.
I admit that I, like many Americans, have become desensitized by America's mass shootings. They have become normalized, and in the din of daily life, we have come to expect them. After the shooting at a Kentucky high school a few weeks ago, there were the requisite articles in the nations' newspapers, periodic reports on the 24-hour TV and Internet news cycles, and then -- nothing more. With the burials of the two slain students, the news cycles moved onto other news, and the tragic situation was soon forgotten. The Los Angeles Times editorial board recently observed that, "... even if we're shocked, we tolerate it."
But, I believe that Parkland may be a tipping point. With the realization that – except for the FBI's lapse – virtually everything that was supposed to be done had been done, I believe that Americans may finally recognize that this can happen to anyone. That's a realization that makes this predicament personal.
No American family is immune from negative reactions to bullying, isolation, anger and resentment, or from the consequences of a mental illness boiled over. No family's children are shielded from the potential school shooter. Ultimately, like the opioid crisis, we each will be able to identify a victim we knew personally, at least within three degrees of separation. Within that range, I knew victims at Columbine, Sandy Hook, Chardon and, now, Parkland.
We can no longer sit by on the sidelines. We must all become enraged for this school shooting epidemic to go away. And we all must become involved, even if just weighing in to implore and instruct leaders, politicians and schools.
I applaud the Parkland students for outrage turned to activism. But what can we all do?
The obvious is that some level of gun control -- mandatory background checks that also include screening for mental illness, banning of assault rifles, and other measures -- must be considered and implemented.
My avid Second Amendment friends point out that, if the bad guys want to get guns, they will. They're correct, but let's make it harder for them. Especially for potential school shooters, who tend to be adolescents, maybe the passage of time and the difficulty of access will enable them to reconsider, cool down or tip their hand.
But, even with modest gun control, school rampages will likely continue. Knives, bombs, or trucks can be utilized, just as they have been by terrorists. Unfortunately, the world gives unstable people continuous examples of ways to kill.
Yes, this is our new normal. School shootings will continue. But that doesn't mean that they can be normalized. And it doesn't mean that we and our schools can't do something about it. Here are some suggestions:
Bystander - Don't be a bystander. When you see something, say something, and follow-up to see that something is done.
Increase Mental Health Intervention – Cruz’s mental health issues go back to middle school, and he was transferred to an alternative school equipped to deal with these issues. But then he was transferred back to a 3,000-student high school that for many students with social-emotional or mental health issues can be challenging.
Share Information - Broward County Schools Superintendent Robert Runcie said that agencies were aware of Cruz's mental health issues, but they were "operating as silos."
Bullying - Although it doesn't appear that Cruz was bullied in school, bullying has been a continuing contributing factor that, combined with other issues, has led to school shootings. School districts must incorporate formal anti-bullying training continuously from elementary school through high school.
Dialogue - Schools that have students engage in active and honest conversation about serious issues enable students to flush out and deal with issues that otherwise may become flash points for future violence; also, to learn how to dialogue without conflict.
Kindness, caring and respect - Both Virginia Tech and Chardon chose, in the aftermath of their tragedies, to incorporate intentional acts of kindness into their students' and schools' ecosystems. Cultures of kindness, caring and respect encourage regard for all students and can dissipate anger, resentment, bullying and other acts of violence.
Values and Mindfulness - Values buy-in and mindfulness techniques, intentionally trained in schools, encourage respectful social-emotional behavior and can dial down anger.
A potential victim of the Columbine school massacre, now approaching its 19th anniversary, reported that she was in the rifle scope of one of the shooters when he put the rifle aside and told her to get out of there because she was always nice to him. People generally don't kill people who were outwardly nice to them.
These aren't guarantees, and mental illness is the perennial wild card. But I believe that, while negativity breeds more negativity, positivity also breeds more positivity. If we create the most kind, most caring and most respectful and civil schools possible -- if these elements are emphasized as baseline behaviors even before academic performance begins -- maybe we can dodge some bullets, and our children will be safer. Every American, student, family and school can do something to help avert the next school shooting. Enough is enough!
Muszynski is President and CEO of Values-in-Action Foundation. Purple America is Values-in-Action's national initiative to re-focus the American conversation to a civil, productive and respectful dialogue around our shared values. www.PurpleAmerica.us; www.viafdn.org