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.

Hate in America, Or, You Know, Monday

Two days prior to a gunman bursting into Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life Synagogue where he killed eleven Jewish congregants, a Kentucky father wore an SS officer costume, accompanied by his five year old son who was dressed as Adolph Hitler in Owensboro, Kentucky’s “Trail of Treats” Halloween event.

There is so much wrong with that sentence I just typed that I don’t know what to make of it.  This is America in 2018.

What we know about the synagogue shooting is not pretty, but it is predictable.  A white man, armed with an AR-15, hopped up on anger and hate towards HAIS, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, stormed into the Squirrel Hill neighborhood synagogue where a bris was taking place.  He yelled “ALL JEWS MUST DIE,” as he shot into the group of worshipers.

Victims from the Tree of Life Synagogue shooting.

The gunman, his hate fueled by exchanges on the social media platform, Gab, a popular site for white nationalists/supremacists and neo-Nazis who embrace “free” speech, a site which has since been disabled, left a post that alluded to his intent, “Screw your optics, I’m going in,” he wrote.

The brutal irony of this hate crime/mass shooting occurring in the hometown of Mr. Rogers is a sad analogy to where we are in this woeful moment of American culture.  Squirrel Hill is approximately 40% Jewish, home to temples, synagogues, delis, Judaica stores — a cultural center for Pittsburgh’s Jewish community.

Roughly 500 miles southwest of Pittsburgh is Owensboro, Kentucky, the state’s 4th largest city, with a population of nearly 60K residents.  Last Thursday, the town sponsored its annual Halloween event, “Trail of Treats,” a local event where kids can dress in costume and merchants host trick or treaters.

I legit cannot bear to research if Owensboro’s “Trail of Treats” is a riff off of the Trail of Tears, but my increasingly cynical self fears it might be.  For folks not in the know, the Trail of Tears was the forced migration of tens of thousands of Native Americans from five separate tribes (Choktaw, Creek, Chickasaw, Cherokee, Seminole) into Oklahoma, legalized by the Indian Removal Act of 1830.  It is estimated that perhaps 10K of the 50K+ Native Americans relocated died of disease, starvation, and exposure during the forced journey.  The Trail of Tears passed through the western part of Kentucky, so, yes, it is possible this is the reference of the event.

And, just to out myself as ignorant and not knowing any better, when I was a young mother, I would jokingly refer to the toys my young toddlers left around the house as my personal, “Trail of Tears.”  Yeah, not good.  Horrible, in fact.  As a child, we had never really been taught about what the Trail of Tears was and how the US government was complicit in it.  I know better now.

But I digress.

Last Thursday, a local man brought his family to the Trail of Treats in Owensboro.  He was dressed as an SS officer, with quite an authentic looking costume, I might add, and he dressed his five year old boy as a mini Adolph Hitler, complete with armband Swastika and moustache.

The mother and father were indignant when confronted by others at the event, per their follow-up Facebook posts, where they both complained about the shoddy treatment they received by some of their fellow trick-or-treaters, and tried to justify and rationalize their choice of costumes.  The father wrote:

“….we saw people dressed as murderers, devils, serial killers, blood and gore of all sorts. Nobody batted an eye. But my little boy and i, dress as historical figures, and it merits people not only making snide remarks, but approaching us and threatening my little 5 year old boy. … Yes liberalism is alive and well. And we had the displeasure of dealing with the fruits of the so called “Tolerant Left.”

And, not to be outdone by her husband, the mother commented in a series of comments, railing against Jewish people:

“The Jewish community want us all to feel sorry for them to get more money and power.  They’re the ones who control the banks and mass media and the government at large.  The truth is the media is controlled by the Zionists.  The so-called “gas chambers” were de-lousing showers.  He [Hitler] created work camps, not death camps.”  

So, yes, this is where we are at in America in 2018.  More and more, it looks like Germany of the early 1930s.  Hitler did not come to power overnight, he played a long game with surgical precision.  He leveraged hate and fear and othering that we are seeing more and more of in America.

On a side note, while researching this post, I came across a piece of information that adds depth to the deep roots and longstanding tradition of American hate.  It turns out that Owensboro, Kentucky is home to the last public hanging in America.  In 1936, on the town square, a black man was hung after being convicted for raping and murdering a white woman.  News reports document hot dog vendors, popcorn, and children in attendance.  The crowd mauled the man’s body after he died.  Whew.

Everything is connected, folks.  Hate is an enormous tapestry that weaves together a young family in Owensboro, Kentucky with a gunman in leafy Pittsburgh with a black man killed on the public square for sport.  Right now, it seems, the looms are working 24/7 and the fibers that hold our hate are coming closer together, strengthening, bonding, intensifying.

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Acknowledging the hate we live among is hard, but it is important.  We must hold out hope and engage in work so that our love will trump hate.  Read about the victims from the Tree of Life shooting HERE and share some love and kindness today in their memory.  

Two Shots: A Murderer in My Neighborhood

On Sunday morning at 10:07 am, a 73 year old man, Douglass Watts, was just returning home from walking his dog.  He was shot in the head and the assailant ran away through a nearby alley.

On Monday night around 10:20 pm, a 24 year old man, Eliyahu Moscowicz, was walking on a path at a local park.  He, too, was shot in the head at close range.  Ellie, as he was known to his friends, worked at one of the grocery stores where I shop.  He was tall and had kind eyes.

On Tuesday morning, the Chicago Police Department revealed that the same gun was used to kill both men, per ballistics reports.

On Wednesday evening, at a community meeting to address the shootings, CPD First Deputy Superintendent Anthony Riccio stated, “We believe the individual lives in this community.  He’s somebody’s neighbor.  Somebody in this room probably knows this guy,” as reported by Jonathan Ballew in his Block Club Chicago article.

CPD Released photo of the suspect in the Rogers Park shootings.

I live two miles away from these murders, which occurred just blocks away from one another.  Some friends live a few doors down from where Mr. Watts was killed.  My husband and I know many folks in the neighborhood.

Those of us who live here have been cautioned to keep going about our daily routine, to not feel homebound, to get outside (but not  alone), to find someone to walk with, to be vigilant, to carry a whistle.

Oy, I think to myself, a whistle is not going to help in this situation.  And, right now, typing these words, I pause, wondering if the murderer might somehow see this post and target me, my kids, my home, my husband.

The random nature of these killings has me on edge.  A man is out walking his dog on a bright Sunday morning.  He is executed steps from his home.  Another man is taking an evening walk after one of the Jewish holidays.  I think about his family and how every year moving forward they will feel the weight of their loss as the high holidays near, as the days grow a bit shorter, as the air begins to cool, as the seasons turn.

I scroll through my Facebook feed and see the fear I feel mirrored in my friends’ posts.  “There seems to be a serial killer operating in my neighborhood,” wrote one.  Another shares a gofundme to raise money to bury the first victim, “We didn’t know this man, but he was our neighbor, and we are all reeling from this random act of violence in our neighborhood.”

The neighborhood boards on Facebook are full of people trying to process their fear, their worry, their concern, their terror.  Dog owners are looking for fellow dog owners to partner with for their morning and evening walks.  A black man offers to walk dogs with anyone who needs a partner, offers concern that there are stories the suspect is black and killing white victims, ends his post with #I’llwalkwithyou, pairing it with a photo of him holding his tiny dog.

Others worry that with a greater police presence and so many people and neighbors living in fear, people of color are at greater risk for others calling the police on them simply for living, working, walking in their own neighborhood.  The Alderman is sending out regular alerts, with information and updates.

There is a frantic spectrum of “This is nothing new and has always been the case in Rogers Park,” to “I love my neighborhood and my community.  Does anyone want to start a block club, or meet up for drinks tonight so we can get to know one another?”

Whew.  It’s a lot to take in.

The detail I keep coming back to, that I keep thinking about, is that the killer knows the neighborhood.  He knew where to run after he pulled the trigger that first time.  He felt comfortable enough on a Sunday morning to run through the streets and alleys after killing his first victim.  He felt emboldened enough to do it again the next day.

Last night the police released video of the suspect.  He has a distinct gait, his toes pointed out, like a duck.  Somewhere, close by, there is a man who walks like a duck and carries a gun and, when the spirit moves him, will shoot you in the head at close range.

As if 2018 wasn’t hard enough already.