On August 31, a twelve-year-old boy walked into a classroom at North Scott Junior High School in Eldridge, Iowa armed with a .22 caliber Smith & Wesson handgun. He ordered his classmates to get down on the floor, pointed the weapon at his teacher’s face, and pulled the trigger.
Twelve years old. My youngest child will be celebrating his twelfth birthday in a few days. I cannot fathom any scenario in which my son, or anyone his age, could have such blatant disregard for human life. The very notion that someone so young and innocent could ever reach such an emotionally damaged state makes me physically ill.
Thankfully, the child forgot to flick the gun’s safety off, and the teacher was able to disarm him. Police later discovered the gun was fully-loaded with a round in the chamber. There is little doubt that the child intended to end his teacher’s life. Prosecutors charged the boy with attempted murder and have filed a motion to try him in adult court. If convicted, he could spend the remainder of his ruined childhood in juvenile detention. When he turns eighteen, a judge would have the option of dismissing his case or sentencing him to adult prison.
Twelve years old. Fred Rogers once said, “Whether we’re a preschooler or a young teen, a graduating college senior or a retired person, we human beings all want to know that we’re acceptable, that our being alive somehow makes a difference in the lives of others.” In many cases of school shootings, there exists a common theme; a gunman has, for some reason, come to feel unwelcome and unneeded in society. They feel removed from their peers. They are not an accepted member of the greater group. They feel unimportant. When a child feels that their life has no significance, it becomes natural to feel that life in general has no significance.
Mister Rogers also said, “Love is at the root of everything—love or the lack of it.” Perhaps the child in Iowa came from a loving and supportive home. Perhaps he suffered from a mental illness. Both scenarios are entirely plausible. But when we as a society witness school shooting after school shooting, often at the hands of our young people, we must ask ourselves if children are receiving the love and encouragement they so desperately need and deserve.
When I substitute teach, the subject of love frequently comes up during class discussions. I tell my students that we, myself included, are a family—a school family. I remind them that while family members sometimes argue and get angry, they still love one another. School families are no different. We have our disagreements, but we still care about each other. I worry that for some of my students, “I love you” is a phrase they don’t hear often enough.
I try to help each child in my life understand that they matter. Everyone, no matter their background, has a right to love and be loved. Taking inspiration from Mister Rogers, I also tell kids that it’s perfectly normal to feel sad or frustrated at times. It’s okay to feel angry. But it is important that children know how to express their emotions in a safe and constructive way. When we fail to convey these lessons to children, tragic consequences may follow.
School counselors, like the wonderful women employed within the Southern Boone school district, know how important it is to have spiritual and mental health support in place for students. A recent study showed that there are now more armed school resource officers in our public schools than guidance counselors and social workers. The American School Counselors Association recommends a ratio of no more than 250 students for every counselor in our schools. Currently, the actual ratio is 444 to 1. Enrollment at SoBoCo Primary school topped 450 students this school year, yet my dear friend Karri Amelunke is the only counselor on staff. Karri, and her counterparts at the district’s other schools, have a vitally important job. They, like Fred Rogers, teach children how to express themselves and manage their emotions in an appropriate way. These professionals make a tremendous difference for vulnerable young people whose lives might otherwise take a turn similar to that of the young boy in Eldridge, Iowa.
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos wants to allow schools to spend federal dollars on arming teachers. I believe a better use of those resources is to fund more mental health services and school counselors. If we can do a better job of showing our children that they matter and that they are loved, then perhaps we won’t have to show our educators how to shoot them.