Are we able to accept that at least a few dozen kids a year will have the desire and the will to commit mass murder against their peers, but will simply lack the means to carry it out? That’s the unspoken message I hear after every school shooting when the right calls for more armed guards and teachers and the left calls for more gun control. If these measures would reduce the body count (and that’s a big “if” which remains to be proven), it would indeed be a welcome improvement on the current situation. But to me, the scariest part of these attacks is not that an attacker isn’t killed more swiftly by school staff, or that an attacker doesn’t have to resort to a pipe bomb or plowing people down with a car. The scariest part is twenty years after Columbine we’re still raising kids who want to murder their classmates and likely die in the process. The February 14 attack in Parkland, Florida forces us to face this reality once again.
There are three levels where we can address social problems like school shootings: the causes, the enablers, and the preventers. Armed guards and teachers would be preventers. It’s questionable whether armed teachers or guards are actually effective; Parkland did have one armed guard but he did not encounter the shooter during the attack. And having a plethora of adults able and ready to kill students at a moment’s notice would have numerous costs, not all financial. But even if it did work to prevent shooters from accomplishing much, is that enough? Are we alright with a couple kids a year coming that close to mass murder, but instead killed by staff in front of their classmates on school grounds?
So what about the enablers? Guns are the most visible one, but the school itself gathers hundreds of targets into one location. If we got rid of guns would these killers turn to pipe bombs, car ramming, knife attacks? In principle I have no objection to gun control, though I question the effectiveness of efforts to limit access to guns. But perhaps we should also think about decentralizing schooling and not having these visible targets exist in the first place.
This brings me to causes. Mental health issues are a common denominator with school shooters, but so is alienation both at school and at home. Again I’d suggest decentralizing schools and really radically revamping the school system to make it more humane. School staff act “in loco parentis,” but for legal, cultural, and economic reasons they do not and cannot act like real parents. Your math teacher will not give you a shoulder to cry on or take you away from the other kids for a game of catch or an ice cream if they see something is wrong.
From a very young age we remove children from a familial environment and put them into an institutional one. Over half a kid’s waking hours are spent in this unnatural environment where the adults have a very limited responsibility to engage him on a superficial level, and where peers who have no responsibility or interest in his well-being have a far more dominant role in determining his socialization. It’s an unhealthy and unnatural set up.
So when a child like the Parkland shooter acts weird and scary, the other kids make him a pariah and joke how he’ll be the next shooter. The adults may have a parent-teacher conference or two, perhaps giving a detention if he acts out. At home the parents have been encouraged by the culture and simple human weakness to consign the raising of their child to the school, and the child’s school life is opaque to them unless he is unusually talkative and self-aware. Meanwhile modern technology and recreation culture continue to drive a wedge between parents and children, and of course modern life fractures any larger community so everyone feels like the kid across the street is none of their business. Decentralizing schools and putting them back in the hands of parents and communities would help reform the social support network that catches kids suffering from mental illness and alienation before they reach the breaking point.
As a society we need to address these root causes, and as a party we should be looking for policies that enable and encourage solutions at the root. I strongly believe in policies that make schools smaller and closer to the parents and community. We need more charter schools, private schools, and homeschool cooperatives aided by the state in obtaining funding and resources. And for a public option, have decentralized neighborhood public schools rather than regional mega-schools.