When Going to School Causes Trauma: Guns, Drills, and Kids

The question was asked quietly from the back seat, “Mama, will a bad guy ever shoot me?”  It was from my 5 year old on the way home from school last week.  He is not a quiet child, so this question felt different.  His brother was sitting next to him and drives home from school are generally about Minecraft, Star Wars, or bickering about who gets to hold what toy.

I was taken aback, I wanted to provide comfort and reassurance, I was curious about what prompted such a question, but mostly, I was profoundly and viscerally struck by the reality that I could not, in good conscience, state factually that, no, a bad guy with a gun will never shoot you, honey.

I know what my son needed in that moment was reassurance, so reassurance was what I offered.  I kept the gut punch of reality to my adult self.  “Mama and Daddy work really hard to keep you safe, honey, away from bad guys with guns.  We live in a safe home in a safe neighborhood and don’t come in contact with guns.”

All of that is true, but the other truth is that an American’s chance of being shot and killed with a gun by assault are 1/315.  We know this through data collection and research, but that research is hard to come by.

In 1996, the Dickey Amendment, an NRA backed piece of legislation, forbade the Centers for Disease Control from funding or performing any research about gun violence in America.  That changed in March 2018, but the government still has not funded any major studies.

Outside resources and entities like Everytown for Gun Safety have tried to make a dent into the issue.  They report that in 2018, almost 2,900 American children and teens will killed by gun violence.  Another 15,600 were shot and injured by guns.  And a whopping three million kids witnessed an incident of gun violence.  Just in 2018.

Those numbers are staggering to me.  And when I see them and try to digest them, it starts to make sense why my pre-k 5 year old asked the question he asked.  That ish trickles down.

About an hour or so after we got home, I checked my email and saw in a chatty note from his school that the kids had been involved in a “safe room drill” earlier in the day.  In between news of summer camp schedules, spring break dates, and info about Mr. Smarty Pants performing his Big Balloon Show next week, was a brief description of approximately fifty 3-6 year olds being guided into a “safe area of the school, away from windows and view.”

And there it is.  Dots connected.

With the rise of mass and school shootings in America, educators and administrators across the country are scrambling to prepare their teachers and students should the worst happen — a bad guy with a gun, as my child calls it, pulling the trigger.

Photo taken by Sheila Quirke in Chicago, Illinois in February 2018, days after the Parkland shooting.

Connecting more dots, after I got my sons settled down with an after school snack, I was scrolling through Twitter when I saw this Tweet, detailing what teens are now experiencing as just part of day-to-day life in this new America:

https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js

I’m not gonna lie, it was all a bit much for me last Friday afternoon.  Click through the link to see an anonymous kid describe what happens these days at the local laser tag place, why kids no longer eat potato chips a certain way, and the new use school districts have found for staplers.

What that child who wrote about being a teen in an American high school today  described is trauma.  That child is traumatized.  We are raising a generation of children who experience trauma merely by going to school.  That shame is ours to own.

And it isn’t only students.  Last month it was reported that teachers in a Monticello, Indiana elementary school were traumatized and physically hurt after being fired on with plastic pellets by local sheriffs during an active shooter drill.  You can see that story here.  Yesterday, a friend posted that a local suburb in Chicago would be conducting an active shooter drill for first responders that would include a military grade tank.  The community of Plainfield was notified ahead of time.  “Do not be alarmed,” they were told.  You can see that story here.

Well I am alarmed.  I am furious and I am alarmed.

When did we decide that it was more important to be prepared for school shootings than it was to prevent them?  When did we decide that SWAT drills with military tanks rolling down our suburban streets were okay?  When did we decide that it was normal for kindergarteners (like my son) to walk through a metal detector security gate  every day and that was nothing to be concerned about?  When did we decide that bullet proof backpacks were something worth investing in?

None of this is normal, but it has become normalized.  We are numb to it now, this new America of mass shootings.  Bit by bit, the news of them hits us less hard.  The next one, and there will be a next one, will be just another in a long and growing list.

I cannot assure my son that a bad guy with a gun will never shoot him, but I can guarantee, I feel it in my mother bones, that the way to help these kids is not to traumatize them with preparedness drills.  The help our children need is a government and culture that stands up and says enough.  Enough.

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