Growing Up With School Shootings
The threat of violent attacks has shaped my childhood since the beginning
The Columbine massacre occurred exactly five months before I was born. When recounting the incident with my mom recently, she recalled thinking “what kind of world was I bringing my child into?” In time, she would help me onto the school bus for my first day of school. Would she do so in fear?
At the age of six, I entered elementary school. School as a kindergartner was hardly taxing. Coloring, learning to count, and playing with friends at recess consumed the majority of my day. However, every once in a while, the 20-some students in the class would be ushered into the corner of the classroom and tucked under desks. The lights were turned off and the windows covered with dark construction paper borrowed from our craft corner. We were instructed not to speak and to keep our eyes low.
When you stand somewhere just shy of four feet tall and still believe in unicorns, active shooter training is hardly bothersome — it actually allows students to skip dreaded afternoon nap-time. Like routine fire and tornado drills, active shooter training was commonplace in school. But as a kid, you don’t understand the gravity of the situation you are preparing for.
Three months after I started middle school, the Sandy Hook shooting occurred. This was the first time I was able to contextualize the active shooter drills I had been doing for years. It was harrowing and next to impossible to wrap my preteen brain around the mortality of children younger than I was.
In high school, active shooter procedures were dramatically reformed. My high school had adopted the ALICE system: alert, lockdown, inform, counter, evacuate. This plan was a significant improvement over the previous procedure, which was simply to huddle in the corner of the classroom and pray that you wouldn’t be spotted.
The ALICE procedure puts great emphasis on communication throughout the attack. In the event of an active threat, an administrator would narrate the whereabouts of the shooter as they advance through the hallways over the intercom.
If the shooter was in a different wing of the school (say, the math wing) and you were in the English wing, you were to evacuate (through door or window) and run. Some of my classrooms had bricks or other blunt objects to break the window and a rope to ease the climb down.
If you were in close proximity to the gunfire and escape wasn’t an option, you were to barricade the door. During homeroom drills, students practiced stacking up wooden desks in front of the door (ever wondered why the doors only open inward? It’s for this exact purpose). Others volunteered their belts to wrap around the door handles. If a shooter were to successfully enter the room, you “counter” — interfering in whatever way possible to prevent a clear shot on yourself or one of your classmates.
While students went through routine drills for ALICE, teachers were trained much more extensively. Certain teachers were transparent with us about what their training entailed. In short, they used role-play to gain proficiency in the procedure. One teacher would act as an aggressor and the other teachers had to barricade and attack their colleagues if they successfully entered the classroom. It goes without saying that throwing pencils and notebooks at your co-worker brings a whole new meaning to professional development day.
Although the threat of violence remains heavy on students’ minds, it seems the media is starting to suffer fatigue on the subject. Historically, school shootings have been breaking news across all mediums, but recently I’ve been alerted to mass shootings more through the trending page on Twitter than a push notification.
So why has the narrative seemingly shifted away from shootings?
There’s something to be said about the decreased sensitivity of news coverage around these acts of violence. If you consider breaking news stories that we typically see, they are extraordinary events that usually inflict a small number of people. For example, an Ebola outbreak infecting only five individuals within the United States almost broke the news cycle. Whereas car crashes, which kill around 90 people per day in the United States, are scarcely reported on in the national arena.
Are mass shooting fatalities becoming the new car accidents of media coverage? So routine that they couldn’t possibly all be reported? We have all watched the shaky helicopter footage that captures SWAT teams with weapons drawn as students pour out of classroom exits with hands over their heads. The hours of coverage spent on the ground at these scenes just waiting for new information to be released. This type of coverage simply isn’t prevalent anymore, but it’s not because mass shootings have declined.
This generation of students and those in the foreseeable future will sit with the fear of an attack.
Some would argue that media attention contributes to copycat attacks. In the El Paso shooting, media coverage granted increased visibility to the shooter Patrick Crusius and his white supremacist manifesto. Had he not turned to bloodshed, his manifesto would not have reached the national audience that it did. It’s impossible to know what implications the manifesto may have had on a similarly radicalized mind, or what effects may still be brewing.
The actions of the media around shootings may seem unimportant, but decreasing coverage causes concern that as a society, these acts of violence are becoming normalized. I’m certainly guilty of seeing a headline and simply thinking “Oh, another school shooting” before moving on with my day. The next step after normalizing these acts would be to accept them, instead of finding solutions to actively prevent them.
This generation of students and those in the foreseeable future will sit with the fear of an attack. They will look over their shoulders at the library, and actively scan for exits at the movie theater. Between the routine active shooter drills throughout school and the regularity in which the violence is occurring, the subject is married to our subconscious.
I can only take inventory of how growing up alongside this threat has impacted me and my peers. It is crucial that we continue to talk about the toll this violent climate will take over time, rather than allow it to become the norm. I hope that in the future, kids are afforded the privilege to simply be kids again.