Nancy Flanagan: Violence and Threats in Schools: Who’s Responsible?
It’s been a terrible week for teachers in southeastern Michigan. A terrible week for students and families and school communities as well. Early yesterday morning, school districts—by my count, at least 60, but that was an early tally*—began announcing that out of the proverbial abundance of caution, they were closing down for two days.
They’re not closing due to COVID (although Michigan’s school-based infection rates are ghastly at the moment). They’re shutting down because of spiraling threats of in-school violence, spread on social media.
School leaders are terrified. Not one of them wants to be the next school where an angry, disaffected kid shoots off more than his mouth.
I have dozens of friends who teach near Oxford, site of Tuesday’s massacre in Oakland County, and know many others who have children or grandchildren in the district.
I have been reading their social media threads: First, the reassurance that they’re fine. Then, sharing of how they knew the students who were injured or killed: a friend of their daughter’s, their babysitter, the boy who was in their second grade class, years ago. Sometimes, anger over the words and actions of the shooter’s parents. Photos of the dead, and #OxfordStrong hashtags.
Then, inevitably, the conversation turns to blame. Copies of the two messages of reassurance sent by Oxford school administrators to parents earlier this month—saying hey, we know about these threats and we’re doing something—are shared. There are repeated acknowledgements that the school followed all the recommended safety protocols. So how did this happen?
Two things—true things—are repeated endlessly in these dialogues. The first is that the nation exposed its true values nine years ago after the slaughter at Sandy Hook Elementary, choosing unrestricted gun ownership over the lives of children. The second is that we need a greater understanding and focus on mental health. In our schools, of course.
What is often missing from these heart-wrenching discussions is the fact that schools are just like malls and movie theatres and churches and political rallies—stages for playing out what it means to be an American citizen in 2021, our deepest principles and beliefs.
Despite selfless and heroic actions, despite good parenting and good teaching and due diligence on the part of school administrators and counselors—we live in a pretty ugly country right now.
We live in a country where Kyle Rittenhouse walked free. Where senators and governors boldly lie about election results. Where parents, urged by astro-turf organizations, mob board meetings to protest the teaching of facts and requiring masks in a deadly pandemic. Where thousands of brutal insurrectionists attacked our most sacred building and democratic processes, led by the President of the United States.
Also this: the Oxford HS shooter lives in a state where a gang of angry young men conspired to kidnap and execute the Governor, fantasizing about taking her to a remote location and ‘putting her on trial.’
None of this mitigates the reprehensible behavior of this teenager. He is fully responsible for what he did. But it’s worth thinking about the unique context of growing up in America, the people respected as leaders in this nation, the ruthless tactics used to acquire and maintain power and ‘freedom.’
As Eugene Robinson said: I wonder if the people of Oxford, Mich., feel they have more freedom today than they did before Tuesday.
There are kids like [Ethan Crumbley] in high schools around the world. But only in the United States do we enable them to express their teenage angst by bringing guns to school and opening fire on the students, teachers and administrators they see as their tormentors. Only in this country do we make it easier for youths to get their hands on a handgun or an assault rifle than to work up the courage to ask a classmate out on a date.
This is not new. Kids have been threatening violence, mayhem and self-harm in schools for decades. My (nice/white/suburban) school district was plagued, off and on for years, by a series of bomb threats. Legislation alone is ineffective, although strong restrictions on possession of firearms would be a good start.
That leaves us with the broad recommendation that we need more attention to mental health, everyone’s favorite ‘solution’ to the problem of social violence. I always wonder just what people think enhanced mental health services look like, in schools. Who’s in charge? What do they do?
I am a strong believer in school counseling, but anyone who’s worked in a school knows that counselors—if they even exist—are stretched over multiple responsibilities and way too many students.
The urgent, squeaky wheels for counselors are often standardized test administration, scheduling and college applications, not dealing with individual students’ bitterness or rage. If we had ten times as many qualified counselors, it would only be a band-aid on mental health for children. Compared to other nations, we have miles to go.
Rick Hess and Robert Pondiscio portray social-emotional learning efforts as ‘perilous’—pointing out that teachers aren’t trained therapists. They fret about all the trigonometry and Brit Lit that won’t be learned, all the drooping test scores, as teachers strive to nurture their students’ emotional health, before tackling the periodic table.
I would argue that public school teachers in America understand the simple fact that kids can’t learn when they’re anxious, depressed, or hostile. Everyone’s running their own informal, ad hoc SEL program, all the time.
It’s called caring about your students.
* Per Bridge Magazine, over 150 school districts in Michigan shut down, as a precaution.