Seventeen killed in a school shooting, it seems as if this last mass school shooting just pushed everyone over the edge. “Enough!” everyone is saying, “We have to do something!” Yet, while many agree with this sentiment, the “what” is a very disagreeable topic. It seems as if the two top “whats” are more gun control or arming personnel to protect students on campus. And, it seems as if the state of Florida decided to just go for broke and pass laws for both options. Well, I am probably going to make both sides mad with my opinion, but I think you are both just plain wrong. I just don’t think the solution as easy as passing more laws. While I certainly see the appeal for both of these ideas, I don’t think either addresses the cause of the problem. I will explain, but first an analogy.
I have always been intrigued by magic. As a kid I collected magic tricks, and spent hours trying to perfect my skills. I was never very good at it, but there were some tricks that I could successfully perform. The real secret, I learned, to getting buy in from your audience was the distraction. All magic tricks involve some kind of bait and switch. The bait is the distraction, and once the audience is fixated on the bait, you can perform the switch. I think some issues in our society have become this way. In our quest for a simple solution we become so bogged down with the idea of that one thing that will fix the problem that we completely miss what the real problem is. In my opinion, we are so fixated on the bait, the guns, that we have completely missed the switch, the complex issues that led to societal violence.
The issue of increased violence in our society is so much more complex, so much more messy than some of these solutions suggest and can’t be solved by a simple law or initiative. Not that there are not solutions, but we need to stop spending all of our time and energy, and clogging our newsfeeds, with quick fix, one-size fits all get rid of or add more guns ideas. And, we need to start urging our leaders to invest our public funds in ideas that might actually work. I will share a few, but first, let’s look at why I don’t think the quick fix ideas will work.
Gun control can seem like the obvious first line of defense, after all, if people can’t get the weapons, this won’t happen. The first problem with this tactic is that those who are getting ready to shoot up a school are generally not worried about following the law. According to Mother Jones data on school mass shootings (following the FBI criteria) 50% of these shootings were committed with a gun obtained illegally or stolen. Now, one could argue that at least more stringent laws could prevent 50% of the shootings, but that does not necessarily follow. Just because someone obtained a firearm legally to perform a crime does not mean they would not have obtained the weapon illegally had the legal path not been available. So let’s look at actual data of states with restrictive gun laws vs. those without, specifically the top 10 strictest and 10 least restrictive. According to Gifford’s Law Center 7 of 20 mass school shootings from which they collected data took place in schools from the ten states with the strictest gun laws. And, from the ten states that had the least restrictive gun laws (by their criteria) zero of those 20 mass shootings took place. This data would seem to indicate that not only is there no cause and effect of stringent gun laws in relation to school shootings, but there may even be a negative correlation (meaning a greater chance of a mass shooting).
Of course those on the other side of the aisle have a different plan: arm the teachers. While on face value this may seem like a good tactic, after all we arm our military and our police offices, in practice I find it to be ill advised and impractical to really stop the problem. First, teachers already have so much to do with so little time, just when and how would we train and prepare these highly trained pistol-packers? I don’t think the general public realizes just how much is already on a teacher’s plate. According to Susan Barrett, an expert on positive school behavior supports, school districts average 14 initiatives that require training and implementation. The requirement for teachers to add these new initiatives to their repertoire in addition to learning new curriculum and standards, keeping track of new students and their progress every year, staying apprised of each students health and welfare, as well as keeping parents informed and updated of their progress taxes even the most efficient and capable individual. If districts were asked to add a concealed carry initiative surely something else would have to go. And that is assuming you could even find enough teachers willing to do this job on a large enough basis to make a difference. Most teachers got into teaching because they want to spend their time molding young minds, not warming up their six shooters for the shootout at high noon. Personally, I would find the idea of trying to protect a concealed weapon in a classroom full of children and adolescents exhausting and counterproductive to what my primary goal should be: teach.
Then there are those who suggest we protect kids a different way. These ideas range anywhere from the placement of armed guards and metal detectors in schools to the installation of door blockers or safe houses within a classroom. While I applaud the sentiment and range of ideas I just find these ideas to be a large expenditure for very little return. First, we need to realize how rare school shootings really are. During the 59 year period from 1959 to 2018 there have been 24 mass killings (according to FBI standards, including 1 explosion and 1 bomb) killing 247 people. In the United States there are apx. 100,000 k-12 public schools, 33,000 private schools and 7200 colleges and universities. While any number of killings is shocking and unacceptable, when you look at the actual numbers you realize schools are actually very safe. Next, we need to realize that none of these methods are fool proof. The Florida shooting on February 14th had an armed resource officer on campus, but that did not deter, nor did it stop the attack. They had metal detectors on campus, and yet those were not even in use that day.
So, what will work? First, I think it is important to realize that there are many societal problems at play here. I think that family values, violent media, as well as the way society views the value of life all come in play in this issue, but this article is about solutions, not problems. Primarily I think the solution lies in supporting the mental health and wellbeing of young people. In a country where public education is compulsory we are missing out on a prime opportunity if we do not better prepare our children for adulthood. Ideally, children would be fully supported by their families, but that just isn’t happening in many cases. The good news is that lots of positive things are happening. Lots and lots of research has been done on how to support and improve behavior and mental health. Lots and lots of schools and districts have supports in place that are working. And, lots and lots of people are working in the trenches, trying to support our struggling kids and reaching out to those in need. The bad news is these voices are not the ones we hear. The voices we hear are all about the guns, all about the distraction. So let’s take a minute and look at the good news, the solutions that might actually work. This is where we should put our money, time and focus. This is where politicians and school districts should be calling for initiatives. In the programs that actually support the health and welfare of kids.
The most promising public school initiative is school wide positive behavior supports (PBIS-https://www.pbis.org/). PBIS techniques support good behavior in the majority of students, while providing supports and teaching new skills to students who struggle. Schools which have instituted PBIS techniques have been able to decrease suspensions and office referrals, while improving behavior in the majority of their students. This behavior model, which has been around for some time, has now been expanded to include supports in academics as well as social/emotional well-being. The goal of this balanced support model is to ground students in the social and emotional health necessary to navigate adult life. In my mind, it makes a lot of sense to invest in this type of an initiative in schools in this country. Every student in every school could use support in social emotional health and well-being. Very few schools will ever encounter a gunman (thankfully). Should we not use our public money to invest in the sure thing?
Next, let’s call on our communities to step up and help support the health and well-being of our young community members. According to the Interconnected Systems Framework, a major researcher in positive behavior supports, community support is vital to the sustainability of Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports. There are lots of ways that communities can help support mental health and well-being, but I want to focus on some real-life programs that are really working. Programs that are giving support to kids, mostly kids at risk. Programs that help kids who might otherwise have turned out to be disenfranchised gang members or school shooters. This is the real deal, the things that work.
Hana Build– Why do we think that everything has to be learned in a classroom? Ma Ka Hana Ka ʻIke has turned that idea on its ear. This program, located in a remote town on Maui, not only teaches kids on the job, it provides community building projects that enhance their entire community. In addition, it gives young people a skill, education and a purpose.
Camden Sophisticated Sisters– We often think of drill teams as fluff, extracurricular, non-essential activities that take the backseat to the main activities of learning and growing. Camden Sophisticated Sisters (and their affiliates, Distinguished Brothers – DB’z & The Almighty Percussion Sound – TAPS) has turned things around and tied all that is needed to build skills and work habits in young people into activities they love. Daily practices are interspersed by homework sessions and character and skill development. Young people in Camden, New Jersey come from some of the poorest homes in America. CSS is aimed at not only overcoming the results of poverty, but reaching out to their community.
Nascarz, of Vancouver, seeks to give former and would be car thieves the thrill of working on top performing automobiles and the chance to develop top notch mechanic skills. The cars are the hook, but the real projects are the young people, shaping and teaching them that they can be productive, law-abiding members of society.
City of Angels Ballet– We all hear stories about prodigies, young people with exceptional talents at a very young age. But what if a musical prodigy never met with a piano? What if a brilliant mathematical prodigy grew up without any formal education and never knew of his skill? And what if a prodigy in dance never had the opportunity to learn the basics to catapult her to stardom? Mario Nugara seeks to solve this problem, at least in his little part of the world. Trained in Denmark, Nugara provides high caliber ballet courses to some of the poorest neighborhoods in Los Angeles. Not only does this training give children the skills and talents of ballet, it gives them poise and self-efficacy that helps them better navigate their adult lives and become productive members of society whether or not they pursue dance as a career.
The bottom line is, as disheartening is it is, we can’t really assure that bad things don’t happen to our kids. We live in a world full of disasters, accidents and yes, just plain evil. It would be wonderful if we could come up with a solution that would keep all of our kids safe, but unfortunately there is no way to do that. And, while there are many things we can do, there are only limited resources on what we can spend our time and money on. Doesn’t it make the most sense to spend our time and energy on things that give us the most for our money? The things that really help? The things I have suggested that may not assure that every child is safe (because there is no such thing). But they are the things that will raise the social and emotional well-being of our children and provide our future with more functioning adults. Don’t be distracted by the guns, they are just a tool. It is really about people, and teaching them to get their hearts and heads in the right place. If you really want to help, encourage your lawmakers to support positive behavior support initiatives. Seek out those who are making a difference and donate your time or money. Or, just smile a bit more, reach out to those around you, and be aware of those in your community who may just need a friend.