Tuesday, January 21, 2014

It only gets better if we make it better

Many years ago I read a story about Susan Klebold, the mother of Dylan Klebold. Dylan, who she doubtless prefers to remember differently, was one of the teenagers who shot up Columbine High School in 1999 and ushered us into a new phase of American history -- the time of school shootings.

I don't remember much of what she said, but one point has stuck with me -- that she wasn't really allowed to grieve. She not only had lost her son but she'd lost the 17-year-old she thought she knew. Besides that, she was overcome with sorrow at the grief he had brought to others.

But people saw her as the mother of a monster. And no decent human being grieves for a monster who inflicted so much pain on other people. It's the same reason we talk of the 26 victims of the Newtown shooting, even though 28 people died at the shooter's hands that day.

I thought of Susan Klebold last week as I was standing outside of Berrendo Middle School in my hometown of Roswell, at a press conference on how we became the latest bullet point in a long line of school shootings, listening to community leaders talking about praying for the two teenagers who were shot and thinking of my old dentist and a close friend of my mother's -- two people I had known for years -- as they coped with this event much differently. They, you see, are the grandparents of the 11-year-old who brought a shotgun hidden in a duffel bag into the middle school and started shooting. He shot two of his classmates before a teacher walked up to the boy and asked him to put it down.

Who is praying for him?

I understand the knee-jerk reaction to pray for the victims and not the perpetrator, but it is both simplistic and wrong-headed when dealing with children. Fortunately, my community responded in a bigger way, but society at large still sees these tragedies in black and white, good and bad. In reality, emotional outbursts such as these are much, much deeper than a bad guy and a good guy.

Here is what, in my mind, is black and white:

The two children who were shot on Jan. 14 at Berrendo Middle School did not have it coming.

School should be a safe place for every student, teacher and employee.

We need to pray for everyone who was affected.

Things need to change, or nothing will change. Sound silly? Reverse it: Change nothing, and nothing will change. That is exactly what is happening in our society right now. Nothing is changing because we are doing nothing.

Many thoughts have run through my mind in the last week as rumors swirled, people talked, people didn't talk, and dueling storylines hit the public. What I feel like we need now more than anything is to actually have a discussion about a thing or two. Maybe, with a little more gumption than our elected leaders have shown, we can stop the next school shooting.

We need to talk about bullying.

I have heard that the shooter was bullied, that there is no evidence of bullying, that the victims were chosen randomly, that the shooting was about a silly spat. I have heard that bullying is a problem at Berrendo Middle School and that it is not. For now, I'm going to assume that it is a problem, because I've been in middle school. If it is true that the shooter was bullied, and that his parents talked to the school's administration and nothing happened, then the school failed the shooter. And worse, the administration -- there and at every school -- is failing its students every day. School needs to be a safe place for kids. Bullies need to be stopped -- and that includes finding out why bullies are bullies. Too often the school bully is the victim at home or elsewhere.

Regardless, bullying victims need to be heard when they speak up. They need to be listened to. They need to not feel that there is only one way left to deal with it.

They do not need to "man up" or "deal with it," as numerous online commenters have rather scathingly suggested. First, one could argue that shooters are manning up and dealing with it, but far more importantly, no 11-year-old should have to man up and deal with abuse. No, bringing a gun is not the appropriate response at all. No physical violence is. However, shaking it off is not how to deal with bullying either.

We need to talk about guns.

And I mean, really talk about how to keep guns out of the hands of people who shouldn't have them. The Second Amendment does not give anyone the right to collect an arsenal or to not be responsible with their guns. For every shooting that likely would have been prevented with better gun handling at all levels, that blood is on society's hands as well. We simply cannot look at shooting deaths as collateral damage to our rigid, unswerving view of the right to bear arms. I have read enough about the Framers to be able to say with some confidence -- no, this is not what they had in mind when they wrote the Bill of Rights. The early Americans worried about the government having too much control. Well, our government has lost control of everything because money and influence speaks louder than values and innocent lives. The Second Amendment is not a weapon.

We need to talk about mental illness.

Something snaps in a person's brain, be it adult or child, when shooting a group of people is singled out as the best option in a situation. I'm not a doctor or a psychologist and will not even attempt to get into this, but I have done enough research to know that mental illness plays a huge role in suicide, which isn't a far cry for many mass and school shooters. Mental illness is a real issue. It's not a sign of weakness, it's not a sin, it's not a reason to be ashamed, and both society and insurance companies need to stop looking at it this way.

We need to talk about how and where to get help.

Thinking out loud to a friend after the shooting, I expressed an idea that had been bouncing around in my mind: depressed, bullied, hopeless females shoot themselves. Depressed, bullied, hopeless males shoot others. Neither one is OK.

I have studied suicide much more than I have school shootings, but history has shown that the two are often more related than we would like, so the lessons may still apply. A suicidal person tends to get tunnel vision and sees only this one way out of his or her problems. He doesn't see the people who want to help. Teenagers especially are prone to this; they don't have enough life experience to know that they can get through this hard time, that middle school or a breakup or strict parents or getting cut from the football team aren't the end of the world. They don't see past the crisis. This type of thinking may lead to catastrophic outcomes such as shooting oneself or others.

If a hurting teenagers knows where to go for help and knows he or she has an advocate, violence will not be the response.

We need to make real changes.

In the Albuquerque Journal today, the family of the boy who was critically injured at Berrendo Middle School said we need to stop looking for someone to blame. I agree. Blame gets us nowhere in this case. Instead, we need to look for what we can do -- individually, in our families and schools, in city councils and state legislatures and Congress -- to stop this from happening again. I have heard the argument that you can't stop a person hellbent on destruction. I'm calling bullshit. We don't live in "Final Destination." These tragedies can be prevented -- through better laws, leaders taking more responsibility, people getting help. Dozens of small things could have thwarted the shooting at Berrendo Middle School last week, and dozens of small things could stop any school or mass shooting. But we all have to take responsibility, not just for ourselves and our families but for the kids in our church group, our neighborhood, our particular sphere of influence. These kids need us to be adults and to make hard choices. That may be uncomfortable or unpleasant. Tough.

We need to feel their pain.

Imagine you are an 11-year-old. You don't fit in at school. Maybe you have friends, maybe you don't. You feel isolated. When you speak up about your difficulties, nothing seems to change. People make promises, but nothing changes. Every day you grow increasingly miserable. You can't, with your 11 years of experience, see a future that is any better than your present. What do you do?

We need to make it better.

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