By now, we’ve all heard about and grieved over the school shooting last Wednesday at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School that took 17 lives. It was horrific. Once again, the pattern was similar to many past school shootings:
- The perpetrator was a young male.
- The gun was an AR-15 rifle.
- His parents were unable to guide him. (They were gone)
- He was mentally ill.
So, is there anything we can do besides grieve together?
One of the positive aspects of this story has been students wanting and demanding change. They are planning a “March for Our Lives,” a big demonstration in DC on March 24. They have set up a website and are talking to fellow students all over the U.S. Not only will students and others march in DC, similar demonstrations will happen nationwide. 11th-grader Cameron Kasky said to ABC, “People keep asking us, what about the Stoneman Douglas shooting is going to be different, because this has happened before and change hasn’t come? — This is it.”
If this isn’t leadership in it’s truest form, I don’t know what is.
It’s Time to Become Proactive
I fully recognize this issue is complex. Simple solutions are insufficient, like merely keeping guns away from people with mental health issues. Nikolas Cruz easily passed a background check and was able to buy the gun legally. The students are already starting to act. Let me start a list of ideas for us to act on as adults.
- Offer Social Emotional Learning, focusing on empathy & conflict resolution.
An increasing number of K-12 schools have introduced social emotional learning into the curriculum. Many find it essential because at-risk students are unable to function well in class without the social skills to interact with others. I believe we will soon recognize this as a required skillset just like reading, writing and arithmetic. In fact, as I survey the landscape, I believe we must teach soft skills with an emphasis on empathy and conflict resolution. Too many students have little idea how to look someone in the eye with whom they disagree and speak civilly to them. Our phones have fostered incivility. There’s even a term now for how we can snub someone next to us by staring down: Phubbing. It’s snubbing with your phone. Both teachers and employers are asking for better soft skills in students. I believe this subject should be as common as the academic courses we teach.
- Require 21st century parent preparation.
What I’ve suggested above used to be the responsibility of parents. Moms and dads took it upon themselves (when I was growing up) to impart courtesy, ethics and values. Today, I find too many parents unready or unwilling to prepare children with this kind of a moral compass. Some superintendents have told me the parents are requesting the teachers do it since they don’t have time. What if we found a way to require parents and guardians to receive “basic training” to lead in today’s uncertain times? What if we found effective incentives for such training? What if we offered guidelines for technology and for teaching life skills to a young generation who is inaugurating new cultural norms and realities? Too many parents have become “snow plow parents” who only defend their child; “karaoke parents” who want to act like and befriend their child; or “dry cleaner parents” who want to drop them off like clothes to be cared for by a professional. We must equip them with new skills.
- Furnish social media boundaries for minors.
In his book The Inevitable, author Kevin Kelly said it best: “Smart technology is introduced so fast, it outpaces our ability to civilize it.” Part of our challenge is we’re unaware at what social media is doing to our kids. According to data from Monitoring the Future, the more time a teen spends on a screen, the less happy they become and the more likely they are to experience depression. One would assume if they’re connecting with peers on social media, they’d feel less lonely, but the opposite is true. For example according to psychologist Jean Twenge, “8th graders who are heavy users of social media increase their risk of depression by 27 percent, over teens who play sports, meet face-to-face or attend religious services”. If you track the rise of anxiety and depression among students nationwide, it directly parallels the rise in social media use. Risk begins at two hours daily or more. I believe adults must be more intentional about monitoring social media hours and interactions.
- Improve the ratio of counselors to students.
Both secondary schools and universities are reporting a growing number of students requesting mental health care—and schools often employ an insufficient number of professionals for the need. We live in a new day. The average ratio of counselors to students in American secondary schools is nearly 1 to 500. The ASCA recommends twice as many counselors. Why is this vital today? Not only do we have homicides, we also have suicides. A big increase in suicides. Again Dr. Twenge shared a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, that there is a steady incline in suicides since smart phones became available, meaning kids began connecting on a screen rather than in person. On those screens, cyber-bullying occurs, sending kids into a tailspin sending suicides way up. In fact, “46 percent more teens killed themselves in 2015 than in 2007.” If we do nothing, we’re like ostriches with our heads in the sand.
- Provide better tracking of mental health symptoms.
Nikolas Cruz is a teen with clear mental health issues but somehow slipped through the cracks. We may never spot every problem teenager, but we must employ technology to improve our current tracking systems. For example, what if we noted each time a student posted or displayed potential trouble (like Cruz did). Then, a caring adult (counselor, guardian, coach, etc.) pursued a relationship with him or her. It is common knowledge that teens in relationships with caring adults are far less likely to commit crimes than those without them. This won’t magically solve every problem, but I believe it would certainly lead to a significant drop. There is no life change without life exchange. Conversation. Belief. Affirmation. Direction. We must build bridges of relationship that can bear the weight of truth. Sometimes hard truth. It must begin with tracking their habits and lead to touching their heart.
Let’s take some steps before we hear about another unnecessary tragedy.