Last week, on Valentine’s Day, a terrible tragedy happened in Florida. I’m sure it wasn’t the only tragedy to happen that day, but it’s the one that was on my mind the most after I heard the news. Another school shooting, this time leaving 14 students and three teachers dead.
I’ve seen sources claim it was the 18th school shooting since January 1, 2018, and other sources claim that the number is exaggerated. My stance on the matter is: Who the hell cares what number on the list this school shooting was? Whether it was the first or the hundredth one, it is still one too many.
There were school shootings in the news when I was a teenager. Many happened before then, though mostly on college campuses, such as the tragedy on the campus of The University of Texas-Austin on August 1, 1966, during which 16 people lost their lives and two others died by the same killer earlier in the day.
The first shooing I recall really hit close to home because it was near Jonesboro, Arkansas, in the state where I still live. The killers were little boys, aged 13 and 11 at the time. I remember crying a bit after I heard about it. One female teacher, age 32, and four little girls, aged 11-12, were killed that day, March 24, 1998. Due to laws at the time, the boys could only be held until their 18th birthdays in a juvenile facility for the state charges, and an additional three years until each boy’s 21st birthday. Both killers are free today as far as I know, and both have had continued trouble with the law. Had they been old enough to be tried as adults, the Jonesboro prosecutor at the time went on record to say that the death penalty would have been sought.
After the Jonesboro shooting, I learned that in late 1997, October 1 and December 1 to be exact, there were school shootings in Pearl, Mississippi, and Paducah, Kentucky, each leaving three people dead. Those weren’t publicized as much in our state, or I just missed them somehow. It doesn’t mean they were less tragic.
Next was Springfield, Oregon. I still remember the killer’s name, but it has no place here. This boy killed his parents the day before he fired shots at his high school on May 21, 1998, where he had been suspended, pending expulsion due to possession of a loaded, stolen handgun being found in his locker. The death toll was four people (his parents, and two students at the school). There were 25 injuries, which was much higher than the 10 or fewer injuries reported from the previous school shootings. Things were getting worse. I cried about this one, scared that something like that might happen at my school.
I think many people around my age remember where they were when they found out about the deadliest high school shooting (at the time) in the US: Columbine High School on April 20, 1999. This occurred about a month before I graduated. I was in the cafeteria at my high school all day decorating for prom, so I didn’t know until my younger sister, Kelli, met me there at the end of the day and told me.
Later, I watched in horror as the television stations replayed footage of the evacuations and the aftermath of the shooting, including the announcement of the suicides of the killers, who were seniors at the school. Twelve students and one teacher died that day, and 24 other people were injured (not including the deaths of the killers). Everything about the whole incident terrified me. Seeing photos of the victims afterward, flashed on the television screen was heartbreaking. That was back before I had regular access to the internet, so I only saw the news on TV or in newspapers and magazines. My journal entry for that day began with “A tragedy occurred today.”
The unfathomable tragedy at Columbine caused changes to police procedures to be followed during events of an active shooting. It also caused an influx of attempted copycats due to the fame of the two shooters, whom I will never mention by name. They don’t deserve fame. I would rather remember the victims who died and the ones who survived. The people who were forever traumatized by the events of that day.
The media blamed video games, satanic worship, witchcraft, goth-clothing and heavy metal music for the uptick in school shootings. There were just as many articles calling those theories bullshit. Although I didn’t play many video games, I read stories about witchcraft, dyed my hair black on more than one occasion and listened to metal. I adored (and still do) the 1989 cult-classic movie Heathers, which featured gun violence, suicide attempts and explosives in a high-school setting with little-to-no remorse, but I still knew the difference between fantasy and reality. Maybe that stuff affects people who are seriously mentally ill differently. Or maybe society just needed a reason why—something or someone to blame.
Bomb/shooting threats arrived at my school, Glen Rose High School in Malvern, Arkansas, on April 28, 1999, only eight days after Columbine. I have newspaper clippings in my senior memory book. I knew both of the boys, who were 16 and 17 at the time. We weren’t best friends or anything, but I’d had interactions with each of them because of yearbook or some other school function. I would never have thought either of them would make such threats.
The threat of explosive devices based on a phone call the 17-year-old had placed to a friend the night before, who reported him to school administration the next morning. The 16-year-old had a hit list with names of faculty members and students he wanted to kill Columbine-style. Both boys were charged as adults with terroristic threatening (a felony) when it was determined through the investigation that neither boy intended to carry out the threats.
At the time, I was anxious as we were evacuated, especially when some students around me were having panic attacks about the possibility of someone opening fire on us as we were all huddled together on the football stadium bleachers while we waited for the bomb-sniffing dogs to do their work. I closed my eyes and prayed silently for our safety. I asked my deceased father to stay there with me. I was afraid. Later, on May 4, when another bomb threat was called in, I was pissed about the pranks according to my journal entries around that time. We all had to be searched before we were allowed on campus that day, including my 11-year-old sister’s backpack.
When I was a junior in college in 2001, 9-11 happened. It wasn’t a shooting, but it was senseless terrorist violence that cost so many lives.
Later, there was the massacre at Virginia Tech, the deadliest university shooting to date with more than 30 victims. Then there were more, and more, and more. Then, Sandy Hook happened. Those 20 elementary school children who died in Newtown, Connecticut on December 14, 2012, were just getting started, six and seven-year-olds who still believed in Santa, the Tooth Fairy, and the Easter Bunny (still BABIES in the grand scheme of life). I was a mother then, with a baby and a child only a year and a half younger than the youngest victims. My heart still aches for those families of the children and the families of the six adult school staff victims.
And still, as the years passed, there were more shootings at schools, at nightclubs (Pulse in Orlando, 2016, 49 dead), and public concerts (Las Vegas, 2017, 58 dead). The list went on and on, and I stopped writing about my feelings on those tragedies. Conspiracy theorists claimed that Sandy Hook and some of the other school shootings were government hoaxes with paid crisis actors to portray the victims’ parents. The same thing is happening again with shootings that occurred this year.
This year (2018) there were shootings at Marshall High School in Kentucky on January 23, resulting in two student deaths and Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, resulting in 17 deaths, including three teachers. The youngest victims among these were 14 years old, the oldest was 49. The male teenage killers (who will go unnamed on my blog) were apprehended, but they have not been tried yet.
I looked at the photos and stories of the victims at Stoneman Douglas and Marshall high schools late Saturday night and early into Sunday morning, crying the whole time. I was reflecting on death because my family lost a dear friend the day after Valentine’s Day. This woman’s death was sad, and we’ll miss her, but she was 81 years old and had lived a full life. It was her time. She died peacefully with her family by her side. That’s how death should be, unlike the deaths at the schools. There was nothing peaceful about those children’s deaths. Those bright eyes captured in the photos, so full of life and hope. Now that’s gone for them, and their friends and family will never be the same. I thought of all the things those children could have done if they’d not had their lives stolen from them. What if one of them would have found the cure for cancer? They had their futures taken away because of senseless violence.
Have we as a society become immune to violence? I sure as hell hope not. I don’t care about someone’s political affiliation until the bickering from all sides gets in the way of helping keep these children and educators safe in the buildings that should be the safest places besides their own homes. Musicians, television, and movies have addressed this type of school violence. I have posted four examples below.
I remember watching Pearl Jam’s video for “Jeremy” (1991) on MTV during my 8th grade English class few years after the song’s release. It was about a kid who killed himself in front of his English class in 1991.
POD’s “Youth of a Nation” (2001) addresses school shootings.
One Tree Hill aired a school shooting episode on March 1, 2006.
Foster The People’s “Pumped up Kicks” (2010) is from the perspective of a troubled kid with homocidal thoughts.
There’s a ton of heated debate about gun control going on right now. I am all for law enforcement and US citizens maintaining their rights to legally own and carry guns for hunting and their own protection. But seriously, who needs an assault rifle capable of so much damage for hunting? I can’t think of a good answer. My husband, Jonathan, wrote to our representatives.
This is what he wrote:
“I do not usually write to my representatives. But my heart is aching and my soul is afraid for my own children after this latest school shooting in Florida. I am not going to tell you I think we need more gun control. This is not meant as a liberal agenda. I honestly do not have a solution as to how to stop the violence. What I do know is that all of us are doing a poor job protecting our children. What I do know is that the adults are not working together to solve this issue. The kids who have died were not republicans or democrats. They are simply innocents who have died a tragic and needless death. I urge you along with all others in Washington to stop shaking your sabers at each other. To come together as a unified government and try to find solutions that will save lives. We have reached a point in our journey as a country that political agendas need to stop and problems need to be solved. Thank you for your time and I hope you take a few minutes to really consider these words to help fight the problems and not each other.”
Mental illness is also a huge topic in the news. Angry commenters on articles say that white kids get off with mental illness pleas for school shooting while black kids involved in shootings go to prison. I’m sorry if I offend anyone, but I don’t give a flying f*ck if someone is white, black, blue or rainbow-striped; sane people don’t shoot up schools or shoot other people for sport. And mental illness is not an excuse for sending someone back into society when they’ve committed a crime so heinous. We need to open our eyes and pay attention to the warning signs so we can help people who are severely mentally ill before it’s too late. Check out this video.
I worry about the safety of my children. I pray for their safety daily. I watch them closely and speak to their teachers regularly. I talk to my kids to see if anyone is mistreating them at school to make sure they’re not being bullied. At the same time, I make sure they’re not the bullies. Their schools’ double entrances are locked down with check-ins required. I don’t know what else to do. I don’t think they know anything about it, really, but I know that the tornado drills they have might also be practicing for other incidents. Should my children ask me about school shootings, I will talk to them, and I hope my words will reach them.
Until something changes where school shootings are unheard of, I will continue to pray daily for the safety of our teachers and students and the law enforcement officers. Pray for the kids who are bullied or mentally ill, that someone will notice and do something before it’s too late. Pray for the kids who are the bullies, because something is hurting inside them too. Pray for the kids and teachers who are standing up to the bullies and giving voices and help to the beaten down kids.
I still believe there are more good people in this world than bad. Let’s stop fighting each other. Let’s stop the hate, the bickering, the political bashing and just do something to prevent these senseless tragedies from being a normal part of American culture.
-Brandi Easterling Collins