Coming Soon to a School Near You?
On the popular Cult of Pedagogy website, Jennifer Gonzales recently wrote that “this is the worst school year ever.” Based on what I’ve seen, heard, and read over the past three months, her assertion appears to be correct. In case you’ve been living under a rock and want to know why it’s been such a bad year, please refer to “Teachers Are Not OK, Even Though We Need Them to Be” (Will, 2021) or Gonzales’s blog post, “Teachers Are Barely Hanging On. Here’s What They Need.”
But the 2021-22 academic year hasn’t been the worst school year for every teacher in America. For many former and current educators, the worst year was probably the year in which a fatal shooting took place at their school. Although I could find no statistics for teachers, one database estimated that more than 311,000 students in K-12 have been exposed to gun violence at school since 1999 (Cox et al., 2022). The tally continues to grow.
In the privileged communities where I was raised and went to school, I didn’t know anyone who had been shot. I never heard about anyone’s friends or relatives getting shot. It was like Frank Zappa’s offbeat song, “It Can’t Happen Here” (Zappa, 1966). For the first 36 years of my life, I was sheltered from gun violence. Then I changed careers and became a teacher.
All Too Common
In my fifth year as a first-grade teacher at Evansdale Elementary School in DeKalb County, Georgia, an English teacher at DeKalb Alternative School was shot to death in his classroom (Kirchner, 1996). The victim’s spouse was our kindergarten teaching assistant. My wife, a fifth-grade teacher at Evansdale, recalls the bereaved woman being escorted down the hall by our principal and counselor that day. The teaching assistant and her husband had three children. We attended the funeral later in the week. It was a trying time.
The shooter suffered from paranoid schizophrenia. Though his parents were aware of their son’s condition, they failed to secure their handgun. Following the student’s recent enrollment at the alternative school, he came to believe that his English teacher was someone to be feared. The shooting was a preemptive strike prompted by the word “adversary” appearing on the student’s vocabulary list. Found not guilty by reason of insanity, he was committed to a state mental hospital.
The slaying made the national news because it was the first fatal school shooting of the 1996-97 school year. More killings were expected and did occur in the coming months. On April 20, 1999, the Columbine High School massacre took school shootings to a new level.
About a year after I started working in the central office of Virginia Beach City Public Schools (VBCPS), a 17-year-old student at Landstown High School—a few miles down the road—was arrested for plotting “a massacre for the ages,” as he had written in his journal (Davis, 2011). The student was obsessed with Columbine and, along with two other teenagers, planned to commemorate the massacre’s 10th anniversary with a killing rampage at Landstown. Fortunately, another student reported the threat to the police and tragedy was averted.
During the period from 2000 to 2015, at least 40 individuals were charged with Columbine-style attacks (Drash, 2015). In the 20 years that followed Columbine, over 100 people were killed in similar slaughters on school grounds (Pierson, 2019). Three months ago, four Pennsylvania teens were arrested for planning a large-scale attack at their high school. The students sent text messages to each other saying they wanted “everything to go down like that,” a reference to Columbine (Ravikumar, 2021). They scheduled the attack for the 25th anniversary of the Colorado massacre.
By May 2019, I was in my 12th year working at the School Administration Building in the Virginia Beach Municipal Center. May 31st was a typical Friday, and I needed to get a couple of things done before the weekend began. An hour or so after lunch, I walked to the building next door to check on a previously placed order at the city’s print shop. About two hours later—shortly after 4:00 p.m.—I left work early for an eye doctor’s appointment. Following my appointment, I saw that my wife had called and texted me numerous text times. My phone was on silent mode during my time with the doctor. Heather was relieved to hear my voice as she told me there had been a shooting at the Municipal Center.
Based on information from news reports, I found out that multiple people had been shot to death in the building I visited just a few hours earlier. The killing spree was underway at the same time I was walking to my vehicle in the parking lot adjacent to the Building 2 lot, approximately 100 yards away from where the first victim was shot in his car. The killer used a handgun equipped with a legally purchased sound suppressor, which might explain why I didn’t hear any shots being fired. I’m still not sure why silencers are readily available to the public.
Thirteen people, including the shooter, were killed. Twelve of the dead were city employees. Additional details came out several days later (Miller, 2019).
In the aftermath of a fatal shooting, the lives of each victim’s relatives and close friends are changed forever, while everyone else goes back to whatever they were doing beforehand. Until I started writing this post, I hadn’t thought of the DeKalb Alternative School killing in years. The Building 2 shooting crosses my mind whenever I hear that there’s been another massacre. But the victims’ families think about their loss every day.
Nearly two years after the Municipal Center shooting, the Virginia Beach Police Department released a 47-page report of the incident (VBPD, 2021). The report stated that “the overarching question regarding motive remains unanswered; the shooter... left no note nor any other account that would explain his actions. There were no common characteristics among the victims who were killed and injured relating to their age, race or gender.” The FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit (BAU) also investigated the mass shooting and shared its conclusions with VBPD. Among their key findings was this: “BAU assesses the shooter was motivated by perceived workplace grievances, which he fixated on for years” (FBI, 2021).
The discrepancy concerning the shooter’s motive did not go unnoticed by internationally famous record producer, singer, songwriter, and entrepreneur Pharrell Williams, who grew up in Virginia Beach. Pharrell sent a letter to the city manager at the beginning of October 2021. In the letter, he called out the “toxic energy” of the “gatekeepers and the powers-that-be” of the City of Virginia Beach.
During my time working with the city, I witnessed this toxic energy in the form of racism, cronyism, and opinionism on many occasions. Several of my colleagues who worked at the central office have also described the atmosphere as toxic.
On the Monday that followed the Building 2 shooting, I was a bit late to work. The tragedy was still weighing heavily on my mind, so my plan was to keep to myself and try to get through the day – that’s the way I process loss.
But the powers-that-be in the VBCPS central office had other ideas. People stationed at tables outside the School Administration Building informed arriving staff that we had to paint a rock and write a message on it before going inside. I got out of this by lying and saying I’d do it later. Later that morning, someone I’d never met came to my cubicle to tell me there was a poster on which everyone was supposed to write a note to the victims’ families. It took me a long time to think of something to write. I don’t remember what I wrote – only that it didn’t include the phrase “thoughts and prayers.”
In the afternoon, an announcement was made for all central office staff to assemble outside for a group picture. No one ever said that the activities were optional, yet a few of us skipped the photo op.
While the events described above—plus others I didn’t mention—may have helped many of my co-workers deal with the tragedy that had occurred in the building next door just three days earlier, they demonstrated the organizers’ complete lack of understanding about the grieving process. For some of us, forced participation in surface-level activities was crass. Rather than uniting and healing, it reminded us of the toxicity of our work environment. For me, the decision whether or not to retire in the near future was made a whole lot easier.
That’s Not All, Folks
With an average of about two per day, the US set a record for the most mass shootings in 2021. The Oxford High School shooting in Michigan on November 30th was the 651st incident in which at least four people, not counting the perpetrator, were shot this year (Santucci, 2021). There were 611 mass shootings in 2020 and 417 in 2019. These statistics came from the Gun Violence Archive, whose charts, maps, and reports make for some grim viewing.
As of December 16th, there had been 32 shootings with injuries or deaths in American schools in 2021 (EdWeek, 2021). Only five of the shootings took place at an elementary or PK school; three of those happened outside the building. Elementary school shootings are rarer and less deadly than those at secondary schools. The outlier was the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Connecticut that left 28 people dead, including 20 first graders (Ray, 2021). Despite the Sandy Hook shooter’s history of mental problems and “profound emotional disabilities” (Griffin & Kovner, 2014), the 20-year-old had access to the murder weapon, an AR-15 assault rifle, as well as 30-round ammunition magazines and other weapons at the house he lived in with his mother.
In a national survey conducted just over a week following Sandy Hook, 58% of Americans said that laws covering the sale of firearms should be stricter (Gallup, 2021). The sample comprised a significant percentage of people who reported owning a gun or living in a home in which there was a gun (43%). The percent agreeing that gun sale laws should be stricter peaked at 67% in March 2018, about a month after a 19-year-old former student killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida (Chuck et al., 2018).
In the Parkland slaughter, the shooter legally purchased an AR-15-style rifle one year prior to the rampage (Jansen, 2018). More than a month before the fateful day, a close friend of the killer’s family called police and the FBI with specific information about the expelled student, including her concern that he “might shoot up a school.” The FBI took responsibility for not forwarding the information to a field office or to any state or local agencies for further action (Bowdich, 2018).
The Sandy Hook and Parkland massacres led to laws that increased prohibitions on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines in the Constitution State, raised the firearm purchase age from 18 to 21 in the Sunshine State, and expanded background checks in both states (Clatterbuck, 2019; McDonald, 2021). While federal legislation designed to prevent further gun violence seems unlikely, states continue to enact laws that either help or hinder efforts to decrease the number of shootings. The correlation between the strength of gun laws and gun death rates per 100,000 people in states comes as no surprise (Giffords Law Center, 2020).
Mass shootings are a uniquely American problem that has become normalized in our society (Stevens, 2021). Because we can’t wait for federal or state lawmakers to act, schools and school districts must take common-sense measures to reduce the threat of gun violence. What can we do at the local level to combat gun violence in schools? I don’t claim to have all the answers, but my next post does include three recommendations for districts to consider. Please check the Edjacent blog on or after January 2, 2022 and look for “Three Ways to Reduce Gun Violence at Schools.”
I invite your questions and comments. If you have a story related to this post, feel free to share it in the “Leave A Comment” section below.