Student action can prevent shootings

“Most importantly, do you guys feel safe when you come to school?” social science, English, and AVID teacher Andrea Champoux asked her homeroom students two weeks following the school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

Her question was met not with a yes or no; rather, the class responded with an extended pause, an uncomfortable silence that lasted just a bit too long. The students stayed still, their eyes shifted to the floor, to their hands, to anything that would avoid eye contact with the teacher for the fear that they would get called on to share how they felt.

The answer wasn’t and still is not as simple as a yes or no.

When one student finally broke the silence, he replied by saying, “I guess, but not really because you can never really know what will happen.”

This lack of confidence in safety is exactly what the Poway Unified School District (PUSD) Board of Education, along with other school boards around the country, are tasked with trying to eliminate.

During the PUSD school safety community forum, March 6, hundreds of people gathered in Mt. Carmel’s performing arts center to hear about what PUSD is doing to address school and student safety. For two hours, members of the PUSD board took the main stage to cover four topics: prevention, preparedness, response, and recovery.

They talked about topics ranging from installing video surveillance systems, to keeping the lights on campus longer after school hours to having a designated PUSD tip-line that goes directly to the police department. Almost every question a person could think of regarding school safety was brought up.

While the forum was meant for any and all PUSD community members, it was evident that the audience lacked student participation. Out of the nearly 700 people who attended, only a handful of the crowd was made up of PUSD students. While it was commendable that the board took steps to inform the public about what PUSD has done in terms of physical measures to make the school safer, the forum neglected any significant call to action for the students.

Yes, there was discussion about how we should encourage students to speak out and if they “see something, say something.” But a topic that seemed to be glossed over was that a great deal of power lies with students.

During the “prevention” segment of the forum, PUSD counselor Fran Halmerson, discussed mental health support. She explained that encouraging things such as empathy, emotion management, communication skills, bullying prevention, and inclusiveness can all factor into the prevention of school shootings. Programs such as Character Counts, Rachel’s Challenge, and No Place For Hate were mentioned. But while these programs have the good intentions of trying to instill a sense of morality and community in students, they target too large of an audience (usually an entire student body). With a total number of nearly 2,400 students at Westview alone, the overarching messages of the aforementioned programs are often lost.

Take Unity Day as an example. For two days out of the entire school year, the sophomore class of that year is filed into the gymnasium, where the students are encouraged to “break boundaries,” set aside differences, and see eye-to-eye with one another. The students acknowledge that the world is hard, so why not make it easier by being there for one another and take a moment to hear someone else’s story rather than trying to push each other down. During those two days, some meet people they didn’t already know, some reconnect with lost friends. Students feel a sense of community within their campus.

But not long after, maybe a month, a week, or even the next day, students forget. They return to sitting with their cliques during lunch, judging everyone who is not in their groups and walking past the kid who eats lunch alone.

What many fail to realize is that simple actions like these, which subtly ostracize others, in turn can feed into the motive of a school shooter as 75 percent of the school shooters were tormented or bullied, according to San Diego County District Attorney Summer Stephan. But while it’s important to note that an even larger percentage of bullied kids do not become school shooters, after Stephan studied all the past school shootings in America, she found that in 90 percent of school shootings, the shooters were in fact a student at the school they executed the shooting on.

“What does that tell you? Someone is a parent of that kid, and someone is a teacher of that kid, and someone is a friend or knows that kid. So we can’t feel like we are not in control, because we are,” Stephan said.

Parents and teachers can tell their kids to not exclude others, but they can not force inclusiveness among student bodies. Words do not mean much if there is no action taken. In contrast, students do have the ability. On and off campus, students have the ability to create relationships with one another, but with this, they can also reject them. In 93 percent of the shootings, the shooter told someone or did something to alert others that they planned to execute the shooting.

“In 70 percent of the cases, they told two people, not just one,” Stephan said. “So what does that tell us? That tells us that we absolutely have the responsibility to look at the signs, to learn the signs, to report. It’s a moral responsibility that we do that, and we can’t think about protecting someone or covering up.”

So, it is more than “see something, say something,” it’s about who you say it to. We can’t assure safety, but we can take control of the situation—especially students. Though a student may not have power while a shooting is actively taking place, in many cases, they hold the power to prevent the shooting from happening in the first place through the creation of community.

Keeping the lights on campus after school hours, maintaining one entry point, and having all staff wear a badge on campus are all commendable actions taken by PUSD to make the school a safer place. But not even metal detectors can prevent someone from bringing a gun onto campus if they wanted to. Taking physical measures towards school safety are ultimately short-term solutions to the prevention of school shootings.

As the saying goes, guns don’t kill, people do. Behind every shooter is a person. And it’s time to realize that we ultimately have a great amount of responsibility and a great amount of power to help prevent future tragedies.