Notes from a Principal the Day After Violence in Another School
When something inexplicably evil happens, we often want to look around and blame someone. It’s what allows us to look in the mirror before we go to sleep at night, and say, “How could they?” instead of “How could we?” Blame is the vehicle we use to remove ourselves from the equation- to remove any responsibility that may belong to us, and, instead, shake our finger in disapproval at anyone other than the eyes staring back at us in the mirror.
I had some of these feelings last night, after learning about the slaughter of innocent children and a teacher, at school. And as I scrolled through social media, I saw that many others had the same reaction. Blame. Anger. Sadness. And judgement. So much judgement.So many messages that sounded like, “If you believe ____, then you’re part of the problem.”
I couldn’t help but picture myself, and my days of leading my staff and students through lock-down drills, as a Principal. Early in my career, our approach was to be quiet and hide. We taught kids how to cower in corners, and stand on toilet seats if they were stuck in the bathroom. We taught them to be silent and try to become invisible, in the very place where they should feel safe to explore and come alive. We taught kids to wait for the adults to come and save them- and open the door for no one. As years past, and more violence in schools occurred, our approach changed. It became more about creating defense buckets- with golf balls, bats, and long-range wasp spray. We still taught children to disappear in corners and become invisible- but only until the intruder entered- and then, we were fighting back. By the time I left the profession 5 years ago, we were teaching kids to run like hell away from the noise if it was close- to go outside and keep running until they were safe and adults could come and find them- and if they were trapped inside the school, to lock in, hunker down, and disappear until it was time to grab the defense bucket and fight back.
In ever scenario we ran, the message was, “do what you have to do, but listen to the adults, follow the plan, and know we will do whatever we can to save you.”
As I washed my face in the mirror last night, this is what sat with me as I stared at my reflection- “The adults will do whatever we can to save you”.
I thought about what we talked about and planned in our safety meetings. I always tried to hold back the tears when telling my staff that our plan was to minimize injury and casualty. To MINIMIZE. Not ELIMINATE. Because I knew the truth, just like they did. I also knew the gravity of what I was asking them to do: Be ready to sacrifice your life for the kids in your classroom.
Now, I look at the people that become nameless and faceless representations of evil in these real-life nightmares. And the only thing I can think of is, where were the adults that were supposed to help them, before they got to this point?
I wonder if their mother or father was present. If they had a foundation that held them accountable for their actions, and words- to SHOW them that they mattered in the world. I wonder if their homes were filled with violence or addiction, if they were involved in team activities with supportive coaches and mentors, or if they were left to a screen and a device that gives them access to a world their brain, emotional maturity and life experiences hasn’t prepared them for. I think about their sleep patterns, if they have someone to help them complete homework that is hard, and someone to remind them about daily hygiene and the importance of finding space to develop a trust and rapport with their most precious and sacred inner voice. I wonder if they know God. One that loves them and fills their hearts with potential, grace, and forgiveness. I think about the hopelessness that must exist in a mind that finds themselves face-to-face with a gun and their grandmother, one that is willing to pull that trigger, to end that life, and then go to find un-expecting souls in a classroom, and determine that today is the day that their world would change, by witnessing unimaginable horror and grief, or simply end.
I wonder if the evil and sickness that exists in a young man capable of killing was created out of trauma, or chemical imbalance, of from feeling so powerless and unseen in their life that this felt like the only way to be present, in control, and finally visible. I wonder if he knew the companionship of community, or ever had a best friend. I wonder if he played violent video games, compared his life to others on social media, and searched for ways to escape the hell that must exist in your mind, if you are someone that is capable of this.
When senseless violence happens we often say we will not talk about the “shooter”, or the “driver” or the “bomber”. We will not give a bigger stage to the PERSON that is capable of taking life, without cause, without care, and without the ability to turn back time, and make a different decision. And if you are reading this, you may wonder why I am focusing on this…
The truth is, I can’t look at the faces of the kids in the squares that we share on social media, anymore. I can’t think about the fact that the teacher did exactly what I asked of my staff- to be ready to sacrifice their life beyond late night conferences, and worrying about lesson plans, preparing for standardized tests, recess duty and a child they know isn’t okay, but not quite sure what to do to help them. I cannot think about the round cheeks flushed from recess, and the teacher’s deep breath as she fearfully understands what the noise is that she hears…the blood spattered on art projects, carefully placed on a patterned bulletin board. I cannot think of the parents that searched frantically for their children at the reunification check-point, the weight of a holding a terrified child, or the suffocating terror and heartache of not being reunified, at all. I cannot think about that any more.
All I can think about, is where were the adults in this man-child’s life that were supposed to save him, before he made us question and blame and mourn why we weren’t able to save the rest of them?
We are asking the wrong questions. We are blaming the wrong things. We are being short-sighted, and hasty in our anger. We are avoiding the accountability that lies in every single one of US.
We talk about mental health and support in schools, without asking people that actually work in them what they see and what they need. We continue to ask parents to do more and more with fewer resources. We ask them to support their own mental health and the health of their kids, while glamorizing dealing with our stress and anxiety with substances that numb us to ever finding a solution. We act like isolation for any reason should be championed, and is a duty, rather that the very poison that has made us the most anxious and detached people our country has ever known.
As parents, we all know who the kids are in our schools that push others to the edge- that in their own insecurity, attempt to isolate certain kids and make them feel small. We also know the kids that are isolated… and fail to raise kids in our own homes that are willing to risk being “uncool” in order to stand-up to, or stand by someone that needs it. We ignore the fact that even the bully kid needs help. That they torture people out of their own self-hatred- something that they leak on everyone else, until replaced with accountability and self-compassion. We also know when sometimes our kid, is “that” kid. The one that needs to be held accountable for a side of them we don’t want to admit exists- because we are more afraid of what that means about us, than open to the opportunity to create space for growth within them.
We convince ourselves that giving our kids unlimited screen access, not checking their devices, and not waking them up early for church, or family time- or anywhere that builds community- is good for them, even when we know the truth is that it’s easier for us. We sit on sidelines of sports games and blame refs or coaches, instead of looking at our kids and asking them what they learned, and how they want to grow. In doing so, we encourage victimization, instead of accountability. We remain consumed with distractions- with pointing out victimization and promoting the idea of voicelessness, rather than working to find ways to reach our kids and help them understand how to develop courage and confidence, through connection and knowing our purpose.
Instead of doing the hard work that adults are meant to do…. we have filled our schedules, grabbed our phones, and decided that sitting in the anger, fear and discomfort of this, while yelling through quotes and memes to strangers on the internet, is all we need to own. Because that’s easier. And safer. For us. For the adults.
But it’s not what is going to save our children.
As a former teacher and principal, and as a mother, I beg you to reexamine the questions you are asking surrounding this horrific tragedy. We need to go back to the root of what is killing our kids. And if we do that, we find the devastating answer, the one we are all trying to avoid: it’s US.
When you look out at the world of adult helpers, we need to recognize our collective responsibility- to start asking the people inside the walls of the schools, what they need to educate the whole of our kids. And parents, we need to stop looking around like the responsibility of creating people that will be the next generation of decision-makers, community members and Americans, belongs to someone else.
It’s become popular to say- we can do hard things. But, I often wonder exactly what we are willing to struggle for, and through. But the rage, fear and dismay that exists around us after an atrocity like innocent children and their teacher being killed at school, tells me one thing:
WE are the adults that will do whatever we have to, to save our children. It’s US. We are the one’s we have been waiting for. If we start listening, and start asking the right people the right questions, I know we can do it. We need each other, so let’s start acting like it. Our kid’s lives literally depend on it.
Erin Flood View All →
Mother, Wife, Teacher and Believer.
You are 2,000% correct! As a retired third grade teacher, I have had the very same conclusions many years ago, and therefore focused on the emotional health of my students throughout my teaching career. Home support, guidelines, close supervision, and all of the things you discussed are critical to a child’s development. Thank you for saying what many don’t want to admit! Look inside the homes of these offenders. The answers are often there. In the cases of impressionable internet radicalization, someone still wasn’t paying attention to what the child was doing on the internet. Supervision, support, love, guidance, communication are are crucial needs of children!