Monday, February 26, 2018

Waiting in Imagined Fear

It is not a new subject. We have been through this numerous times in the past 19 years since Columbine in 1999. After the latest school shooting in Florida I was taken back in my memory to the two early incidents that had an impact on me. Beyond those directly involved, we are seeing that many are being affected. For those who are not at the scene, I wondered, "What does imagined fear do to a soul?"

Columbine. April 1999.
It was nearing the end of my daughter's senior year in high school. Living in a smaller Wisconsin city where school was often the center of the community and my daughter being a senior the events in Columbine seemed way too real.

I thought about my daughter sitting in school, in a study hall in the commons area right inside door 1, the main entrance. I thought about members of the church who worked in or near the office, right across the commons or my best friend, one of the band directors down the hall. I thought of all the young people I knew, through our daughter, the church or community activities.

Then, within a couple days, there was a threat made to the school just as has happened across the country in the past two weeks. I knew that student as well.

The school made a couple of immediate decisions, including changing the location of graduation. It had been held outside at a local park for years. People would bring their lawn chairs and enjoy the wonders of spring along the river while the students marched in graduation. It was quite a celebration for the students and the community. Now it would be held in the school gym, more formal, but safer to protect. Some of the seniors protested but to no avail.

Red Lake Shooting. March 21, 2005
Six years later short a month I was in southern Minnesota working as a chemical health counselor in the local schools. A 16-year old on the Red Lake reservation in northern Minnesota took his grandfather's police weapon, killed his grandfather and grandfather's girlfriend then went to the school and continued the murders. He was wounded in a shootout with police and then committed suicide in a vacant classroom.

The shooter was only a year or two older than the students I worked most closely with, and had lived in our district for a short period of time. In the odd way of coincidences, I also knew his mother. My office was about fifty feet from the main entrance, the only unlocked door, of course, into the school. I often sat in there working with my office door open. The days after the shooting I became very aware of the proximity of that entrance and how quickly someone could get to my office. I vaguely remember having discussions with other staff, but we never really went into any detail that I can recall.

The students seemed naturally subdued for a few days. None of them ever mentioned to me that they knew the shooter when he was in our district, although they may have. All kinds of thoughts ran through everyone's minds I would guess. It's easy to become a sitting duck in many of the buildings in any school district.

I would call this "imagined fear." It is fear of the unknown that can easily come with an awareness of powerlessness, loss of control, the unplanned events that "can't happen here!"

Reaction as a pastor and counselor
I first thought of this after Columbine when social workers and others reflected some of their feelings on what had happened. They missed clues, they believed progress was happening with the two shooters when the youth were faking it. It was still a rare event in 1999 so even the best trained social workers didn't know what to look for. (By the way, in many ways they still don't. But that's another post.)

As a pastor in the community as well as an addictions counselor working with adolescents and a close friend of two guidance counselors in the school system, I wondered with them over coffee how we would know. We didn't have any answers, just as the counselors in Colorado didn't either.

In Minnesota I worked closely with the school counselors and staff. I was officially working for the county and was part of the school social work group. While the Red Lake incident did not have the larger impact of Columbine, we all shook our heads wondering what we miss on a regular basis. Since we all worked with severely "at-risk" youth we knew that just about any of our students could potentially break and cause such a disaster. It is not as easy to identify the future shooter as many would like to believe.

Rage, extreme anger, being bullied- these are all triggers and potential symptoms of school shooters. But these youth are also very, very good at masking it- sometimes by becoming bullies, sometimes by extreme introversion, sometimes by just being damn good actors. Every counselor or social worker in any school is painfully aware of this. It may be the nightmare for many that they miss the cues of suicidality or a shooter and the unthinkable happens. I have never had a shooter, but I know the pain of missed signs of suicide. I would guess the missed murderer is even worse.

Don't attack the counselor or social worker who misses it. Even though signs and the understanding of causes are clearer now than in 1999 or 2005, they are still variable. Plus, we don't know how many we DID prevent without ever knowing it was a possibility. There, I believe, we have most likely done more good than we will ever know.

Safety and Security Reflections
I was also aware then and still am in many ways of the impossibility of security and safety. Looking back at the four schools I worked with in Minnesota, they were all active places. At times of the day there were people entering and leaving the main entrance- people like myself, the social workers, shared teaching staff who traveled from school to school as needed; parents bringing forgotten papers to school or picking up a student for some appointment somewhere. Sure, having one main entrance to watch helps, but that does not prevent a mass shooting with multiple casualties.

An armed teacher would not be in the same position as an armed guard or patrol. The teacher is hopefully more focused on a day-to-day basis with teaching. They are working with some significant number of students on a regular basis. They are lecturing, proctoring, helping with homework, watching for misbehavior in their own classroom. If they are doing a good job as a teacher, they are not in a very good position to respond as quickly as they would need to if an event occurred near them.

It is already tough enough to be a good teacher. We can't also require them to be a good armed guard. Many don't want that job. I wouldn't. Improved security is important, of course. But we should probably expect that an armed guard at a main entrance to a school may well be the first casualty, not the last.

Students today
Malcolm Gladwell wrote the famous book The Tipping Point which essentially laid out that before any significant change occurs, there has to be the point where a critical mass of people say, "Enough!" For some reason, at least as I write this at the end of February 2018, we seem to have hit that point. Why the students of Parkland, FL, have reacted this way when others haven't to this extent will be something for social scientists to ponder somewhere down the road.

It is not that they have been fed by some left-wing, anti-gun conspiracy. It is not that they are more liberal than any of the students in the other places. They survived what their friends and teachers did not. Instead of survivors' guilt sending them into a dark frenzy of self-questioning, they shouted, "Enough."

When these students responded, so students in schools across the country were reminded that they, too, have been living in fear of such an attack. As a nation, since 9/11 we have all lived with such a fear of terrorists. The government in all kinds of overt as well as subtle ways, has been reminding us of that threat for seventeen years.

Maybe this last school shooting, an act of terror if not terrorism in the usual sense, was a tipping point to deal with those fears. Here is something that we might be able to do something about. More of us are getting killed by "shooters" than terrorists. Students in schools, worshipers in church, concert-goers having a party, workers in offices. Terror-inducing scenes.

People are tired of being afraid. People are sick of fear. People want to be able to do something that might have an impact on the culture of mass shootings we seem to be in the midst of. (That, it should be noted, is also why gun sales increase after each shooting.) Nothing will be 100% effective at stopping mass shootings. No one should ever believe it would. What the students of today are saying is that they are tired of being on the front lines of a war they never signed-up for. They want to have a say. They want to throw off the fear and do something.

Courage is not something that means we are fearless. Courage is, as an old, trite phrase used to say, is simply "fear that has said its prayers." What that means is that to act with courage is to know that there is strength in action, with confronting what is causing our fear. Courage is doing the next right thing to make a difference. There is a generation out there, a whole school generation since Columbine, that is now saying they want courage, not fear, to be their guiding principle.

We should listen and then be willing to truly sit down in dialogue to find out what is possible. We need to stop throwing ideology and patriotic misunderstandings at them. We need to support them and perhaps in so doing cast off our own fears.

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