Despite the events in Chardon, Ohio, school shootings remain thankfully rare, and thus garner national attention. Yet each incident asks us to examine our communities and ourselves once more, to consider why it happens at all.
However, before the media starts pontificating about how this could have happened, turning to experts and theories and lists of symptoms to explain what is essentially inexplicable, lets take a deep breath. The most popular theory for such events was made famous at Columbine—that school shooters are bullied. It’s already resurfaced again in Chardon. But more recent examinations of Columbine find this wasn’t the case at all; that Harris and Klebold were actually the bullies, not the victims. Likewise and sadly, tens of thousands of teens are bullied each year. No doubt many fantasize about committing violence against their torturers, but few load a round in the chamber. Almost none pull the trigger.
Theories and lists cloud our reality, and limit our ability to help disturbed teens, thereby preventing future incidents. Trying to identify violent teens this way ironically yields both false-positives and false security, offering no substitute for the real and crucial connections we need to make with kids, and that they need to make with each other. Lists and theories are easy. Understanding is not.
I suggest a better intervention, one we can each practice every day without a list. One that needs no theory. Let’s consider anyone as having a potential for harm to self or others, given the right set of circumstances and stressors, with teens being especially vulnerable to loneliness, alienation, and destructive thinking. Only then can we see that the best response is to teach our young to value each other every day; to reach out kindly; to consider how we impact the lives around us; to take seriously our own individual power to harm and help. We can begin at home, by treating them the same way.
We are all interconnected and, to an extent, responsible for each other in our words and actions. Yet increasingly, teenagers follow adults in our society, showing a callous disregard for personal dignity and human suffering in favor of a perverted version of free speech that often comes anonymously and without personal responsibility. Texting, email, and Facebook make harsh interactions impersonal, as if writing it down and sending it makes it okay. Today’s political campaigns target cruel words carefully to get the most votes from angry, frustrated constituents. It’s unlikely our teenagers will display any better behavior than the adult role models around them and on national TV.
Yes, only the tiniest fraction of teens will respond to difficulties by killing their peers. But that fortunate statistic shouldn’t relieve us of the responsibility to help each other find a better way, to lead one another toward a sense of self-worth, and to emphasize the worth of others. No one is responsible for this incident in Ohio except the person who committed it, and I’m not suggesting otherwise. But the choices we make in our daily interactions belong to each of us. We need to teach our kids to make them humanely.
There will be plenty of time to find out what really went on in Chardon, how one boy could have reached the critical mass necessary to walk meticulously through the steps necessary to murder his peers. For now, dear media friends, report the story. Leave the commentary in the background until we understand the facts.