Over on the home page today I wrote about a rather embarrassing and consequential government failure. The Department of Education wildly overestimated the number of school shootings in the United States in part because a few school officials simply made mistakes in filling out a government form.
It’s important to report these failures and to be accurate in assessing the actual risk, but I fear we’ll do little to ease the actual fears of parents across the land — and it’s not just because those who exaggerate the threat have a larger media megaphone. I’d suggest another, simpler explanation. We’re hearing disturbing things from our own children.
Here’s what I mean. If you’re the parent of high school-age kids, and they attend a high school of any size, I’d be willing to wager you’ve heard your child talk about “the guy who’s going to shoot up the school” — or, if the language isn’t that explicit, you’ve heard them express concerns about a student who is deeply troubled and makes other students nervous. Almost every high school has kids who don’t fit in, who lash out or make threats, or who simply strike other kids as “odd.” When I was in school, the student response was often remorseless bullying, tempered only by the (vague) fear that they might harm themselves. Now it’s different. The fear is they might harm others.
So you have parents at dinner tables and football games hearing off-hand comments like, “Brian is coming off suspension. Everyone says he’s our school shooter.” You’ll hear strange things about Snapchat stories or “finsta” feeds (short for “fake Instagram” feeds, alternative accounts where kids — and this is putting it mildly — don’t often express their best selves online), and you’ll wonder if anyone is paying attention. You might also wonder if your kids are simply blowing the normal stresses and dramas of high-school life wildly out of proportion.
But even so, you’re left with a conversation about specific kids and specific dangers. Combine that reality with the lockdown drills, increased school resource officers (the presence of armed guards can sometimes increase the perception of a threat), and enhanced school security, and a large number of parents are left with the terrifying thought. It can happen here.
Well, it can. But it almost certainly won’t. Yet that won’t stop your kids from sharing their stories, and when they share their stories, parents can’t help but think twice. The media can accurately report the threat, but math and statistics are meaningless compared to the perceptions created by your own child. Only when school shootings recede into a distant (and terrible) American memory will that psychological dynamic materially change.