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School Shootings As ‘Teachable Moments’

The recent school shootings in Ohio, and Oakland, CA, asks us to consider not just the causes of such tragedies, but how best to respond to them. As the mother of a 14-year old at the time of the Columbine massacre, the backseat chatter I overheard while driving carpool then, made me think that in the aftermath of such tragedies, unusual portals of opportunity open a sliver.


Students sharing private thoughts


Whether or not these particular tragedies have connections to teasing, these events may be rare teachable opportunities for us to consider the repercussions of teasing, buying papers and bullying; for students, especially, to recognize principles of cause-and-effect; and acknowledge that the impact of marginalizing others does not evaporate into thin air, but exacts consequences. These moments may enable youth to articulate their normally private thoughts, and dialogue around these issues in unaccustomed ways.

In 1999, after Columbine, I suggested to local school and human relations officials that we organize an inclusive, town-hall meeting, expressly inviting students to contribute their input and brainstorming, viewing young people as a primary resource. I was unsuccessful, but I learned a Chicago Sun-Times columnist was spearheading such an event at a suburban community college.

The journalist was Jeff Zaslow, who tragically died in an accident recently, at 53 years old, truly in his prime. Later, Jeff coauthored the bestseller, The Last Lecture, and other books, including those he wrote with Captain “Sully” Sullenberger and Gabrielle Giffords. Jeff was a quintessential ‘Good Guy’, a title upon which just about everyone who encountered him agrees.

At the meeting, where hundreds filled the school’s auditorium, Jeff insisted that students have priority at the microphone, and should ‘cut’ in front of any adults, lined up to speak.


A potential killer changes his mind

A young man approached the mic, hesitantly and abashed, with his head bowed. He told a terrible, all-too-common tale of having been viciously bullied in school, tagged “gay”, brutalized in the locker room and elsewhere. He had had enough, and one day made the decision to leave school, retrieve a gun from his house, and exact revenge. He went home, ready to follow through on his plan, when thoughts of his positive relationship with his mother interrupted his momentum. Somehow, he managed to survive high school and was now enrolled at the college.

He related this entire story staring at the floor. He seemed oblivious to the thunderous applause he elicited, and he certainly wasn’t noticing that he was also receiving a standing ovation from the entire crowd. Jeff gently lifted his head. The amazement that registered on the young man’s face was beyond moving. He was genuinely stunned, and that brought more applause, and tears, too.


A standing ovation for a would-be perpetrator

Surely, there were people present who were both victims and perpetrators of bullying. It was extraordinary to witness this moment; to see someone receiving a standing ovation-wielding a special and rare power-for making himself vulnerable, for simply telling his story; as opposed to receiving notoriety and ruining his life and others’ in a rampage of revenge.

I believe there are still ripples reverberating from that event, changing lives in ways we’ll never know, saving victims and perpetrators from the consequences of violence. I believe such meetings are a worthwhile response to such tragedies. These are moments when kids may reveal important information, be able to give voice to their desperation–as the young man at the meeting did, or even admit succumbing to bullying to bolster a sense of vulnerability, without imagining the outcomes.

With the the suicide of Tyler Clementi also current, we grieve the senseless, irrevocable losses that can emerge from youth, insecurity, and impulsive choices, made by both perpetrators and victims. I imagine it is even worse to be the parent of a perpetrator than a victim, and parents of kids who commit suicide are both. The Ohio and California shooters may or may not have been bullied, but it’s certainly part of the climate in many such cases, and part of our cultural atmosphere.

We see pundits making fortunes holding sway on media “bully pulpits”. Texting and Facebook are potent tools in the arsenals of today’s youthful bullies. And mean-spirited comments string beneath most online articles, with writers competing to spew something nasty about almost everything and everybody.

I wish the shooters and students involved in these latest tragedies could have witnessed that meeting Jeff facilitated with such wisdom, grace and compassion; and might have reflected and paused. I wish a Youtube video existed; so everyone could share the experience I remember so well…a truly thoughtful response to a horrific tragedy, inspiring us to make the world safer and more humane, and to listen deeply, something at which Jeff Zaslow excelled, which we desperately need.

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