In April 1999, I was a 5th grader in a suburban town in Delaware. Without much explanation, my entire school was immediately released with a half-day. As your average 11-year-old who loves spring weather I was elated. Until I got home.
My mother and high school aged brother were glued to the news, watching the black and white security footage of Columbine High School in Colorado reel over and over. At this age, the idea of school being anything less than a safe haven was jarring. Littleton was a small town just like any other American town. That familiarity perhaps is what made it even more disturbing. Despite this, it still seemed so far from my backyard.
When I was 19, I worked at a little Italian restaurant back East. The radio was playing in the kitchen as I hustled through the morning routine. My heart sank as the programing was interrupted by news of an active shooter on the Virginia Tech campus, my best friend’s
I tried endlessly to text and call her. I called my father on every break. He reported the developments that came on the television. I barely finished my shift, restless, my mind in Virginia.
It was hours before I heard anything. A call from her mother, in a shaky voice, informed me that Katie was OK and locked down in her dorm. Later that night, her parents and I drove down to Blacksburg counting our blessings, something not all families were fortunate enough to share. That day, 32 lives were taken and another 17 people were wounded, making this tragedy American history.
The following day, we watched President George W. Bush make a speech live on the campus. He gave his condolences, embraced the grieving and offered them his prayers. Bush said later that, “I think there is an awareness as a result of some of these tragedies … there is awareness for the adults in these schools to pay attention to behavior that is unpredictable.” Is awareness the solution?
We are in an age where we have been accustomed to tragedies like Thurston High, Sandy Hook and West Nickel Mine. They are now household names with horrific connotations. Very few would understand in 1999 the ramifications of a single event and its threat to education system.
Over eight years later, on the other side of the country in Oregon, my heart has sunk again. Just an hour from Lane, Umpqua Community College in Roseburg faced the same terror on Oct. 1, 2015, this time leaving nine dead and seven wounded. Word about the shooting spread throughout Lane’s campus at breaking speed.
As a journalism student, I immediately caught the buzz and asked my editor what our plan was to cover the situation. After an hour, my adrenaline faded and was replaced with an intense feeling of fear.
Would there be a copycat? Is Lane safe? Do we have action plans for similar situations on our campus? I drove to see my partner an hour early and sat in the car waiting for him to get off work. Being alone at home wasn’t an option.
In my next math class, the instructor began her lecture with a plan. She proposed to the class we lock the doors during class time. She asked students closest to the light switches if they would be able to shut them off if needed in an urgent situation, as if they were sitting at the emergency exits on an airplane. This was no longer happening somewhere else. It became clear this was a possible threat in my school.
The naive notion that events like these are unthinkable has all but vanished. Today, student assemblies and talks on gun violence are held annually. Teachers must take classes in how to deal with active shooters or violence in the classroom. These trainings were something unheard of 20 years ago.
As this continues to happen across the country, we realize that these shootings aren’t “isolated incidents” but rather frequent occurrences needs to be addressed. This is a national ailment. It affects small rural towns and large cities. Children and adults from all walks of life are at risk.
Looking back at this, it seems most of my school career has been overshadowed by dangerously increasing odds of a mass shooting. That is terrifying. The solution is beyond “awareness.”
The nation’s reaction, just like that of anyone going through the grieving process, is to blame something. Everyone is searching for the reason why these things happen. This isn’t about Marilyn Manson, violent video games or trench coats. The debate of gun control and mental health has still not reached a resolution, despite running rampantly back and forth in the media for years.
What is the solution? I wish I knew. Some try to alleviate the problem with restriction, while others seek defence for peace of mind. Awareness is also a factor, but do we really understand what characteristics we’re looking for? Counseling during hard times is a service available on every school ground, but asking for help is extremely difficult for many people. What I do know is that everything we have tried up until now has failed to protect our schools. It’s time for something new.