Once more, we are saddened to hear about the events in Florida. As social media again resorts to its default position of screaming in rage about everything, the Czar realizes there are a couple of questions not really being addressed anywhere.
If your default position on social media is to advocate banning firearms or confiscating them, you won’t win this argument. You won’t even score points: the Czar doesn’t mean you don’t take the problem of school shootings seriously—just that you don’t understand the issue deeply enough. You already know a ban or limit isn’t going to work—you’re going to need to confiscate all weapons in the country, legal, illegal, and those in the military and law enforcement’s hands. But you have the power to initiate legislation to do that right now, if you wanted. That’s in your power as a citizen. The Czar expects your proposal will go nowhere—not because of the NRA, or Donald Trump, or any other conspiracy theory. It will go nowhere because it’s not going to get support from your neighbors or be practical in any real-world way.
No, this essay is geared toward readers more interested in the causes of school shootings—in fact, today’s two questions are:
- Why are school shootings happening at an increased rate?
- Why can’t we stop them before they start?
You are not imagining things: school shootings are increasing. If you factor in all firearms hatefully discharged in schools, our country has suffered approximately one per week since the holidays. Whether these range from the wide-scale attack like in Florida or someone pulling a trigger in anger on a specific student, the result is the same: students wind up as victims.
The reader probably has a theory as to why this is, consisting of two, intertwined causes. And the reader’s likely theory is correct. School shootings are on the rise because (a) they are copycat crimes and (b) they are terrifyingly easy to do.
The Czar loves to bash the media for irresponsibility, and he really does take a twisted pleasure in doing so. But the reflex to blame the media for hyper-reporting school shootings—and thereby inspiring copycats to do the same—isn’t correct in this instance. The media certainly have a responsibility to report school shootings: they are major news. Parents, especially, want as many details as possible: who is the shooter, what was the cause, how was it done? The media should by all means reveal the shooter, show his face, his name, and reveal his age—and not, as some suggest, enforce a blackout of this information.*
Thanks to the speed at which news can disseminate, everybody hears about school shootings now. One may find this difficult to believe, but even 30 years ago, you might not have heard about a school shooting if only one or two students were victims—that was a local news story. Only the most spectacular shootings got coverage, and that coverage faded after a few days. Today, would-be shooters looking for inspiration are practically bathed in this information. Attempting to censor news stories will not prevent these kids from finding that inspiration in media coverage.
Blacking out new coverage of school shootings is as useful and worthwhile as the calls to ban all firearms in the country: well-intentioned, but utterly incapable of stopping anything. In fact, both ideas prevent useful results.
But why schools? As most people assume, correctly, schools are pathetically easy targets. Thousands of school buildings around the country were designed to be easily entered, wide open, and efficiently traveled. Florida’s shooter entered the school easily, pulled the fire alarm, and opened fire as students diligently filed out. The kids literally lined up for him.
Additionally, there is no denying the fact that schools are soft targets. Guns are prohibited around most** schools, and this means the shooter can expect no armed resistance. More so, firearms of any kind are actively denied in educational consciousness—if a kid chews a Pop-Tart into the shape of Oklahoma, he is suspended for creating the outline of a firearm. This is a neurosis that encourages paralysis among administrators and school boards: rather than schools addressing the reality that firearms exist and maybe ALICE drills should reflect that, the thinkers in education instantly resist any Platonic concept of firearms entering their imagination. This means many school districts themselves refuse to admit the reality, and therefore rely more on hope and a (non-religious) prayer to protect students. The way most individual school districts manage firearm responses is little more than ritual and superstition. That needs to change, or schools will remain forever soft.
Churches can be soft targets—as in North Carolina; lately, though—as in Texas—people can and do shoot back. You can bet that church shootings will decline for the near future. You should not wonder why.
Many schools are adapting: new schools are built with walled-in classrooms, doors that can deny entry, and exit-only doors in each classroom that allow students to rush out to safety without lining up in a fatal funnel. Mass notification systems can inform teachers and students—from multiple points—whether a fire alarm is legitimate, or if an incident has erupted inside one of the classrooms. You can’t enter these new buildings without visual identification (face and photo ID)—and when allowed in, you are directed immediately to a secure checkpoint where office staff can safely verify you before you even enter the office.
Still, that’s not enough. And that brings us to our second topic.
Stopping the Threat
School shootings can be prevented before they start. Not far from the Czar’s dacha, a nearby suburb’s police department arrested a high school student at his home. His confused parents were stunned to learn the boy had a small arsenal of firearms under his bed, and even had some home-made explosives of dubious efficacy. How did the police discover him? Fellow high-school students came forward to the school administration, using an established process, to warn that the kid was acting strangely, making chilling threats about killing others, and posting unhinged—almost incoherent—statements online about hurting other students. The school administration reassured the small group of students that their fears may be legitimate, and called the police to investigate. The arrest was made that afternoon, allegedly, since time is of the essence. There is no question among many locals that this was a definite, national tragedy averted, based on the statements made by the suspect after arrest.
The reason is clear—there are always signs before a school shooting. Although the media coverage enjoys portraying the standard law enforcement line “We don’t yet know the motive,” the fellow students are never surprised who did it. Even in yesterday’s Florida shooting, a student told press that the other kids always suspected the shooter would come to school one day with guns. You read that right—at least one student claimed that a few classmates knew this shooting was going to happen.
There are always signs. And the signs are usually a template: the shooter is a loner, who attempts to draw attention to himself with oddball clothing, isolated behavior, and general social frustration. Drug abuse by the student is so common that in cases where it doesn’t seem to be case, it may just be that parents and classmates simply were unaware of the abuse.
What’s improved, though, is social media: increasingly, we see the shooters are moving away from quietly clutched, lined notebooks with scribbled messages and diagrams to equally incoherent tirades on social media—not because the shooter wants thousands of people to discover his plot, but because he really doesn’t expect people to read his crap, and he can access his material from anywhere. You will not be shocked to learn that the Florida shooter had an Instagram account that showed him with weapons and bizarre ravings. This was a big tipoff to fellow classmates that something was coming.
If the signs are always there, why is he emitting them?
The school shooter doesn’t come by his decision easily. He never wakes up one morning and elect to shoot children right after a hearty breakfast. Intricate plans are drawn up over weeks to maximize damage, scenarios envisioned about avoiding a response, and even a large variety of materials gathered, often from legal sources. In some cases, we know that trial runs are made to see how easily the school can be entered, what response time might be like, and more—just to ensure that the maximum casualty count can be maintained.
The school shooter feels trapped or imprisoned in a corrupt and, frankly, bullshit system…almost like a psychiatric patient in a ward. No one takes him seriously, no one pays attention to him, and no one worries about the pain he’s feeling. He feels powerless in this big machine, and even disrespected by the people pretending to care for him. Teachers, administrators, and fellow students are all caught up in this rigid, inflexible, and uncaring system: they are equally victims and equally complicit. Parents don’t care—they buy into how perfect the world of the school pretends to be.
You know what this school needs? An explosive, attention-getting act to show how horrible it all is. You can try a thousand different ways to fix the system from within, but it’s too powerful and fraudulent. However, one kid with a firearm—he could make a difference, right? Shoot his way in, shoot up the place, and then everyone would see how impotent the school really is. That’s how you do it—use violence as an agent of social change.
This may be difficult for most of us to imagine, but it’s pretty close—in one form or another—how his brain wiring sees it. Awkwardness turns to pain—drugs help for a while—but pain turns to frustration. Frustration increases the sense of entrapment, and then that turns to rage. Rage turns into a sense of potential empowerment, and that turns into violence. If you don’t follow this logic, skip Catcher in the Rye and go right to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
If you follow this, you understand that these kids follow a pattern so obvious that lots of classmates pick up on it. So why don’t they stop it, like they did in the Czar’s neighboring community?
Incredibly, it’s because that the shooters often kind-of have it right: the system is impotent to help.
In Florida, we discussed that one student claims a few of them knew the shooter was an imminent threat. But whom do the other students contact with concerns? Choices include a teacher, who doesn’t want anything to do with this—so the teacher refers them to the assistant principal. The assistant discusses their fears with the principal, but of course the two of them may not know even the student in question. They might talk to some of the weird kid’s teachers, and not get a real sense of concern from them, either. So they bring the kid in, maybe have him talk to the social worker—who isn’t trained for this sort of security risk—and drag the process out until, with luck, it all fades away as typical adolescent drama.
And most of the time, that is the case.
But until that process is completely revamped—as many school districts have recognized—the risk continues. What hurts about Florida is how preventable this was: the classmates recognized the risk, and the school almost certainly did everything they were allowed to, and it wasn’t enough.
Allowed to? If you aren’t related to an educator or someone on the school board, get ready for this: most school boards set the process for punishment and reward for students, and principals shall follow those requirements. Sexting? Three-day loss of phone privileges. Fighting? Two-day suspension. Throwing food in the cafeteria? Two-page report from Wikipedia on the cost of food production. These vary quite a bit: but the idea that principals have any real flexibility in doling out punishments or suspensions is a myth. It’s very often the school boards who set the levels of tolerance for misbehavior.
If you want to prevent more school shootings, you start with the school boards. Get them to understand that having the police department do an annual ALICE drill at the school isn’t effective prevention: it’s mitigation. Get them to see that the easy, open school layout is a soft target. Create a contact person, properly trained in identifying pre-violent behaviors, that students can come to with anonymous concerns about other students. Allow that person to work with the local police to do an immediate background check and quiet investigation without (a) embarrassing the wrongly suspected student or (b) political fallout from the board because “this sort of stuff doesn’t go on in our district.”
There are numerous methods to implementing such a plan—in fact, very competent consultants exist who do this sort of work for a small fee—but until the school boards realize they are first line of defense, and not the police, and not the kid’s clueless parents, and not the other students, schools will continue to be soft targets, and numerous warning signs will be dismissed.
Nobody wants school shootings to happen—not even the shooter himself—but the problem remains that schools themselves can do a lot more good in preventing them than any ignorant suggestions on social media about banning guns or arming teachers.
* It is sadly true, however, that the media unintentionally glorify the shooters by endless speculation of what motivated them, why their individual lives are so horrible, and why they needed to lash out. This is what tells the next shooter “This kid achieved the goal you want to achieve. People are now vividly aware of what he went through. They can be aware of what you’re going through.” The Czar might suggest the media report the story, provide the basic details, but not speculate on motive or provide a value judgment on the shooter. It’s doubtful this would have an obvious effect, but it could help downplay the attraction for the next shooter.
*Under-reported fact: the Sandy Hook shooter went by the middle school first, and sat in the parking lot waiting to see if a particular administrator was present. This administrator is a proponent of firearms, and when the shooter saw him exit the building and enter the parking lot, the shooter drove off and decided to switch to his fallback target—the elementary school—under the assumption he wouldn’t be able to out-shoot the administrator in question, if the latter was even armed at the moment (and evidently he wasn’t). Although other anecdotes support the idea that a mere possibility of an armed response from the school can deter a school shooting, the Sandy Hook shooter is a confirmation of this deterrence.