Navigating the new normal in our schools
It started out like any day at Oxford High School in a small Michigan town. Careening teachers attempting to educate our youth, while the students occasionally learn something between naps and sneaking a peek at their phones. This is a scene played out every day across America. Sadly, on the morning of November 30th, that image was shattered for these students.
At approximately 12:50 PM, a 15-year-old student walked into a bathroom with a black backpack and came out holding a Sig Sauer pistol. He then began shooting indiscriminately into classrooms, eventually killing four, horrifying a small town, and shattering those families forever.
This marked the 29th school shooting in America in 2021. It’s difficult to imagine becoming immune to school shootings, but we may well be there, or close to it. No matter what side you stand on the gun issue, we all fall squarely on the side of protecting our children, and something must be done.
Madisyn Baldwin was a 17-year-old senior. She was described as artistic, a wonderful sister, and a “beautiful, smart, and sweet loving girl.” She had already been accepted to several colleges and received academic scholarships from a couple as well.
Tate Myre was a 16-year-old Junior. He had recently been named all-region as a tight end and linebacker on the football team. He was described as being an incredibly well-liked, funny — “ sarcastic, joking person”.”
Hana St Juliana was a 14-year-old freshman and a multisport athlete. Her coach described her as being exceedingly dedicated and focused on getting better at volleyball for someone her age
Justin Schilling was a 16-year-old junior on the high school bowling team. He was known as a great student and a "tireless worker with three jobs that he juggled along with his studies." Justin was also an organ donor.
Seven other students, as well as one teacher, were shot and sustained varying levels of injuries. All are expected to survive.
Why is this happening?
In the days following the Sandy Hook Shooting, I spoke with my 65-year-old mother and asked her earnestly, “why do you think this seems to be happening so much”? She responded with a folksy, but poignant “When I was a kid, they locked the crazy kids up in a home, and threw away the key".
It took me a few moments to realize the implication of what she was saying. It left me pondering, did we once separate children with signs of mental health issues? If so, where are these facilities now? Did we simply just decide to allow these dangerous individuals in the general school population? Even the Kennedy family stowed away JFK’s sister Rosemary in a home for the clinically insane.
There hasn’t been a very consistent “why” from shooter to shooter. However, one thing in common remains crystal clear, mental health issues.
Before any proper discussion of a sensitive nature can begin, one must start with knowledge of all of the facts, void of emotion. Emotion doesn’t solve problems, neither do ulterior motives.
So let’s start with a few ideas that are in the public domain, the first being: “Are school shootings really happening at a higher rate than any time in history”?
The answer isn’t as cut and dry as one would expect and requires analysis. To answer the question directly, no, they are in fact not increasing. The recurrences peaked in the early to mid-90s, much in line with higher homicide rates nationwide. There were four times as many students killed in schools in the 90s as there are today. We are seeing a minimal increase the last couple of years, but it’s too early to call this a long term change or just a blip
School shootings are not an epidemic, despite every fiber of our being telling us they are. In fact, the chances of being killed at school have decreased significantly since the 1990s, where the phenomenon met its apex.
There are between 20-30 mass shootings every year in the United States (mass shooting is defined as 4 or more victims), and only one of those takes place at a school. It’s vital to note the distinction between mass shootings and mass murders. Mass shootings do not always end up with a high number of actually dead. Also, to add some color to the discussion, more children are killed in pool drownings and bicycle accidents every year than in school shootings.
So why does it feel like our schools are spiraling out of control and the next mass death of our nation’s youth is constantly just around the corner? The primary driver behind this is simply perception. We have far fewer shootings in total, but increased mass shootings. Ten individual bullied children reaching their boiling point, taking their dad’s revolver to school, and killing their tormentor, doesn’t make national headlines. However, one disturbed young man shoots 4, killing 2, draws the attention of all of the mainstream media’s talking heads. Absorbing the public into frenzy and discourse of mental health and gun control.
A positive happening is that our schools are much safer than they were 20 years ago, but is “safer” good enough? We can laud improvement, and we always should. But we as a country are still quite distressful compared to our fellow first-world peers around the world, as indicated below.
Now that we established a clearer understanding of school shootings in the US, let’s take a look at what is triggering them, and what; if anything can be done to stop them. If asked, almost every American would give you their opinion on why we are still experiencing this level of violence. The two primary causations that are given of course revolve around familiar villains….gun control and mental health
The Case For Guns
It’s the guns, right? As the revered college football broadcaster Lee Corso would say, “not so fast my friend.” In the first two centuries in America, gun ownership was nearly double the current rate. Yet, the homicide rate wasn’t nearly as high. Since the earlier discussed apex of violent crime in the 90s, we have seen a drastic increase in firearm purchases, and a drastic decrease in homicides by gun, as evidenced in the chart below. There doesn’t seem to be a direct inverse relationship between gun ownership and the homicide rate.
If gun ownership alone were responsible for this level of violence, then we should, in turn, see that extended globally. Any country with a significant firearm ownership rate, would in turn see equally high violence. However, that isn’t remotely the case. As you can see in the chart below, there really is no correlation. Sure, some countries with high gun ownership rates also have high levels of violence, but most do not. Leaving only one conclusion, guns are not to blame.
From, the chart above: Serbia, Norway, Austria, Bosnia, Iceland, Finland, And Cyprus are all in the bottom 25% for intentional homicides. Canada, Montenegro, and Macedonia are in the bottom 50%. Only Lebanon, Uruguay, Yemen, and the US are in the top 50% of intentional homicides, a little over 25% of the top 14 countries in the world for gun ownership rate.
The Case for Mental Health
Being a child today is, in most quantifiable ways, easier than at any point in history. Nevertheless, not in every manner is that true. America’s youth are living in the information age, the internet age, the cyberbullying age, and the information overload age. That’s a lot of “ages”, even for adults. We didn’t see the terrible news plaguing society in real-time growing up. One has to believe that all of this has a negative effect on development.
The internet changed everything for the entire world, and it certainly added a hellish dynamic to parenting. The bullying went global. Teens now spend an average of nine hours each day online. I was unable to obtain any discernable data on this, but that nine hours means nine fewer hours of social growth, which is essential at that age.
According to the University Of Michigan School of Mental Health, about one in seven US children have an untreated mental health condition. “Untreated mental health disorders can have a debilitating impact on children’s healthful growth and throughout their transition to adulthood,” says lead author Daniel Whitney, Ph.D., a post-doctoral fellow with Michigan Medicine’s Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation.
Treating these conditions early on could not only greatly increase success in adult life, but also even earlier in their teens. A recent study of 35 mass shootings in the US, showed that 28 had a mental illness diagnosis, and of those, none were treated. That level of correlation is difficult to not connect to causation.
America doesn’t have a school shooting epidemic, we have a mental health epidemic. Why are our kids suffering more from these issues than ever? In the 1960s we had an average of one counselor for every 250 students. Today, one school counselor exists for every 600 students. Counselors are integral to identifying and helping students who need help, to get it. However, solving the problem requires responsible parenting, which may be an even worse crisis, but we will save that for another discussion.
As a society we cannot, and should not begin to interfere with parenting in the home, the benefits do not outweigh the potential costs. So what can we actually do? Making our schools fortresses will not work, and in fact, may be more harmful and traumatic in itself, and there really isn’t any evidence that this actually works. We can’t have our kids going to schools and thinking that the boogie man is just around the corner. We want to relieve these students’ fears, not add to them.
So back to my mother’s comment, is allowing these children with mental disorders in the general population a large factor? I believe it is. There is no way around this other than to get these children help. We cannot do that by placing our head in the sand and wishing it away. This goes for adults as well. Since the 1960s we have replaced our mental institutions with prisons. These prisons do not rehabilitate, but rather exacerbate the mental condition that leads to incarceration in the first place.
Take a look below at the decline of psychiatric facilities in the US since the 1950s. Then take a look at the increase of prison facilities that began to rise shortly after.
Now many would conclude that maybe this was intentional and that for some reason the government preferred prisons to psychiatric institutions. Maybe it was more profitable, some would opine? There is no evidence of a nefarious or planned move. I believe our government determined that the institutions weren’t needed and then found themselves with a flood of problems. They attempted to solve them by building prisons instead of building back mental institution capacity, and it was a mistake.
The preponderance of evidence clearly shows guns are not the culprit. There is no evidence globally, that a population with large firearm ownership, leads to more gun violence, or violence in general for that matter.
Our problem is mental health and it’s severe. Overall the causes of these problems are one or more of the following: poor parenting, a decline of cohesive societal support groups like churches, a decline of the institution of marriage, and the near entire removal of our nation’s psychiatric facilities. All of these have to lead our country into a crisis. Now add social media, the downward pressure this puts on individuals to live up to unreal lifestyle standards and success.
We also have the near-constant barrage of provocateurs and cheap media scoundrels who have nothing to offer without controversy, therefore creating it. We have a desire to be a part of a group, it’s natural to our humanity. Our tribes are no longer the church or local civic groups. They are now are political in nature, and their results are rapid onset societal decay.
So what are the solutions for our children? Well first, and not just for our children, we need a return of nationwide psychiatric facilities. We need to drastically scale our spending on school guidance counselors. And quite frankly, parents need to become the adults in the room again. Ignoring the warning signs is no longer an option, and we need to get these kids to help and separate them from the general population until they can really no longer be considered a threat.
Our society is judged on, and its worth evaluated on how we treat the least amongst us, and those who cannot help themselves. We owe it to these people and God to not let them float eternally in a hell they cannot control. But instead, get them the help they deserve. Disintegrating into a society that does not properly care for these people, will lead to a cultural collapse in the end. The time has come to address America’s mental health epidemic.
Thanks for reading The Practical Pragmatist with Jeff Peeples! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.