A Sense of Belonging

It's been about 9 days since the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida that claimed the 17 lives shown in the photo for this post and if there is any silver lining to that horrific event it's that people have not quickly forgotten about it by continually discussing why it happened and what we can do to prevent another similar tragedy from still happening. Many people I know have already contributed to that discussion by posting stories and/or their opinions about gun control, mental health, or proposed solutions such metal detectors in schools or arming school faculty/staff. I have stayed pretty quiet until now since this issue is very heavy and I want to read as much as I can from others, not only on my Facebook feed but from various media outlets and whatever Google searches I have done about the 2nd Amendment, people who are for or against gun control, previous school shootings, mental health, and so on before I post my thoughts.

While I believe there should be some restriction when it comes to purchasing guns (which the White House has made claims it will do like stricter background checks and banning bump stocks) and that we need to do more as a community to diagnose and then treat those who are stricken with mental health disorders, I think we are ignoring another important part of life that should be discussed: a sense of belonging. Being a high school teacher myself for the past 13 years and becoming a father about 15 months ago, I hope I can provide a somewhat unique perspective. I have mentioned this often to my wife last week and my brother this week that the one glaring common denominator of these mass murderers is the lack of belonging to any particular group.

Based on my high school teaching experience and of course reflecting on my own experience as a high school student about 25 years ago, I have noticed that students usually fall into these circles: academic, athletic, social, artistic/music/theater, or community service/justice. All of us need to feel like we belong to something and have a purpose. We are, after all, social creatures. For me it was academic, my wife community service, and my brother it was social. We thrived in those arenas and that makes sense given our career paths. I would not be one bit surprised that the Parkland shooter Nikolas Cruz didn't belong to any of the groups I listed. Those are the ones I really worry about, not the kid who struggles academically but has success elsewhere. Even the alpha males/queen bees (as annoying and frustrating as they can be) don't concern me as much as the loner kid.

The more I think about this, this has been happening for some time. I would say at least for the past 25 - 30 years. In fact, the rock band Pearl Jam sung about it in 1991 in the song Jeremy. This song was one of the more popular songs of the 90's and represented a distinct shift of the big hair bands of the 80's (who sang primarily about partying) to the grunge artists from the Pacific Northwest who had darker and deeper lyrics (and a different sound). After reading the lyrics, you will discover that Eddie Vedder (lead singer of Pearl Jam) is singing about a teenager who felt alone and wanted to do something to get noticed. Sadly he brought a gun to school and even though he only killed himself and not others, what he did in front of his teacher and classmates will be forever seared in their minds. Witnessing something like that can be awfully hard to recover from, just like those students and educators who survived the Parkland shooting and have to live with the pain and fear that Nikolas Cruz brought to their community.

It can be tricky to identify that loner kid in a large school setting who can't find his or her place but apparently students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas suspected that Cruz would be the one to shoot up a school and even local authorities and the FBI were informed about him. There were some pretty strong indicators. Maybe we tap into the technology available to us by creating a database for our students (there is quite a lot of information we can input about kids and still maintain some sense of privacy) and school administrators and police are alerted when a particular teenager / young adult meets the criteria of a would-be shooter. The Chicago PD and Illinois Institute of Technology have already been doing something similar for trying to spot out those who are in danger of becoming a victim of homicide via gang violence. It would take time and money but so did protecting us at airports after 9/11. We can do it but just have to get it done.

Perhaps we can go low tech like this one teacher I read about who simply asks her 5th graders at the end of each week to write down the names of four classmates who they would like to sit next to for the following week and to nominate one student who they believe has been an exceptional classroom citizen that week. This teacher looks for patterns such as who is not getting requested, who can't think of anyone to request, who never gets nominated, and who had lots of friends and all of sudden don't have any. I would argue that this exercise should be done earlier like in the 1st or 2nd grade. We should do more to help those kids who struggle to find a sense of belonging before it's too late.

Again, I am glad people are talking more about this shooting and not just forgetting about it too quickly. I think people are scared and fed up. We are looking to the government to solve this (like gun control and treating mental health) but we also need to look at ourselves in our own communities and stop politicizing this issue. While I agree that restricting access to guns and treating mental illness are essential, we can't ignore the opportunity to truly get to the root cause of the problem which is helping our youth establish a sense of belonging. It starts with parents and teachers paying closer to attention to the kids in front of them. It pretty much always has been that way but we seem to forget that, like we seem to forget about mass shootings shortly after they happen.