Co-authored by Leanne McEvoy, a mother of two and advocate for children’s mental health and well-being who is passionate about making sure kids have solid emotional foundations to navigate life. She holds a Master’s degree in Clinical Social Work with a concentration in children and families and has advocated for improved policy and legislation around school safety.
This is a true story shared with me but something similar might be unfolding near you as well. Recently, a ten year old boy’s life was seriously threatened by a classmate who specifically stated she could kill people because she had access to her father’s guns. The mother of the boy being bullied, someone I worked with in the past on policy advocacy, is understandably fearful as she knows from my situation that threats can culminate in cold-blooded murder.
The school told her they weren’t able to share how the bullying was being addressed due to privacy laws. She asked my advice and filed a personal report with the police. According to the school, they also filed a report with the police who subsequently said they visited the home of the female student and verified the guns were locked up. The school told my friend that the girl is receiving services and that is all they can share due to the privacy laws.
Ironically, I’ve been in the same situation, even after the tragedy at Sandy Hook. My older son’s life was threatened at his high school. I called the police after what I felt was an inadequate response by the school and this culminated in being told that the student was ‘getting help.’ My employees have also encountered similar scenarios, including one that involved a rumor of a planned school shooting in her child’s middle school. In each there was bullying involved, as well as police involvement, and seemingly determined outcome.
In situations such as these, there are so many questions that remain unanswered. What are the services and are they being accessed? Has there been a comprehensive, independent, psychological evaluation? Is there a mental health diagnosis, and if so, is that person on medication? What are the specific supports in place? Does this student belong in a more secure school setting? What is their home life like? Who is personally responsible and accountable?
I believe that if we led a more community-based, connected lifestyle there would be so many more voices weighing in, more eyes on the situation, and more help readily available. Today we are cut off from information pertaining to our personal situation and we tend to operate in independent silos, each with its own responsibility. ‘It’s being taken care of,’ says the administration. In today’s disconnected world, do we trust this? What exactly does this mean? What is the follow up, and follow through, if any? I never heard another word from Newtown High School about the situation with my older son. Luckily, it didn’t end up on the news like the last time for my family.
We need to ask, and answer these important questions because lack of follow up, and follow through, added to circumstances that resulted in the murder of my six year old son in his first grade classroom alongside nineteen of his classmates and six educators. Sandy Hook was preventable. It’s the same story playing out over and over again across America — a young person, feeling lonely, isolated, bullied, knowingly, or unknowingly neglected by those around them, planning and then carrying out a massacre. In situations that I’m familiar with, schools had not embraced social and emotional learning as a daily activity and as part of their culture. Research has shown that social and emotional learning not only reduces and prevents bullying behavior, it fortifies young people with the essential life skills they need to facilitate meaningful connections and healthy relationships as well as to flourish academically.
There are organizations like YouthTruth that survey students and stakeholders to help improve our schools. It reports that bullying is on the rise. One in three kids are now bullied and the majority of bullying happens in middle school. This was my experience with my two sons. The one is obvious, he’s dead. My older son experienced bullying as well, as did his girlfriend. A social media post, misunderstood by her classmates, resulted in a group threatening and harassing her continuously. The administration’s solution was for her to leave school for the rest of the year, even though it was December and the school year was only half over. Perhaps they felt it was an easier solution than to address and resolve the issue. She courageously refused.
Kids that bully, more often than not, have been bullied themselves. Bullying isn’t just for kids either. It’s not surprising that kids who bully are more likely to have been subjected to the same at home, they learn the behavior somewhere. Or they can turn on the TV, and watch a show that likely contains violence and inappropriate behavior, or simply see some of our politicians interact. We are setting the example for our children. Are we facilitating anxiety, isolation, and fear in our schools because threats like this go unaddressed, are not taken seriously, or are not resolved? Ultimately it is our responsibility to keep our kids safe. They need to feel secure in order to be present and learn.
Obviously, violence is never the answer. Education and awareness are. Schools that embrace social and emotional learning and character education give their children, and educators, the skills and tools they need to manage their emotions and resolve grievances before they escalate. These essential life skills enable them to validate their feelings and then turn them into something productive, not destructive. These are skills and tools that we’re not born with, we have to learn them. Every day the news shows us that adults are lacking in these essential life skills.
There is something we can do. The good news is that we can learn these skills and benefit from them at any age! We are responsible for the safety, health, and well-being of our children. We can facilitate this by making sure that our children’s schools have a comprehensive, year-long social and emotional learning program taught with fidelity and embraced by all. Parents can bring the programming and resources into their homes and brush up on these skills as well. Life gives us an opportunity to practice our social and emotional intelligence every day! Communities can partake as well and support the efforts of homes and schools. We must all do our part to create the world that we want to live in — one that is safe, empowering, and peaceful.