Thursday, September 14, 2006


Hard news, to hear of another school shooting. And once again, the shooter was not a berserker pushed suddenly over the edge to run amuck with bare hands or whatever weapon came to hand. Once again, the shooter took time to gather weapons and go to the school.

Fifteen times since 1975, someone has gone to a Canadian school with a gun and an agenda. And that's not even counting the time in 1977 when my high-school principal was knifed by a former student in the school parking lot. By the time the shooter begins to fire, there's usually not much anyone can to to avoid multiple injuries, death and suicide by cop. Usually the shooter is a student.

When it's an adult, he's not able to be steered from his crime, because of chronic mental illness and long-term distress. One Canadian school shooter was a husband unable to adjust to a divorce, another a professor who didn't get tenure. The male pronoun is used on purpose here, because almost all school shooters are male. Chronic mental illnesses take a while to fester, and are usually due to multiple causes.

But when the shooter is a student, the acuteness of his mental illness is usually a response to the student's experience at that very school. And from this fact, I draw some hope. If we improve the experience for most of the students (if never absolutely every one of them), we might make shooting up the school seem less possible.

We've already learned how to prepare schools for these emergencies once they do happen. General emergency preparedness helps cope with fire or earthquakes as well. At Dawson College, everybody reacted absolutely right. The students ducked and ran, helping each other escape. The teachers were alerted and instantly decided whether it was right to evacuate the room immediately, or lock the door and bunker down as well as possible.

The police have learned through experience that it's best not to wait for the SWAT team, but engage the shooter immediately; they drew his attention and fire. The nasty event came to an abrupt end about four minutes after the first shot was fired. The careful search for any possible accomplices was both necessary and thorough.

So, we've learned how to prepare schools for these emergencies. Now, what we need to do for our schools is how to help the students have better experiences at school. It may be one of the determining factors in making school shootings less likely. And if not, well, there is no excuse for any school tolerating bad socialization among its students. There is certainly no reason we should accept bad socialization as a major or minor factor contributing to school shootings.

Where mental illness is due to genetics or diet or personal trauma, it has to be treated on a one-by-one basis. But where frustration and lack of social connections and loneliness are factors, we can improve those for almost everyone. From an institution's zero tolerance policy on bullying to an individual's effort to smile and share pencils, we can each improve social interactions at schools. It may not have seemed worth insisting on, for the one-third of students who leave Canadian schools with lingering emotional scars, or the few who commit suicide (how many last year?) If we do it to reduce the chance of one in a million students coming to school with a gun and an agenda, we may not reduce school shootings to zero -- but we will definitely improve school experiences for many students.

“It can’t happen here!” students were heard to scream as they fled Dawson College. That denial is natural. But we have to learn to deny that these things can happen, not only where we are, but ever. Our instant, natural protest has to become the one that says this event just can’t happen at all, not just that this danger can’t happen to me.

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