Hoping to stay alive on the front line

I risk my life every day when I go to work, like everyone else who does what I do for a living. We aren’t police, or fire fighters, or soldiers. We are educators. When a school shooting happens, we give the students a day as though nothing bad had happened. The next day, we come to work and do the same thing. That’s the job. The odds are heavily against a shooting happening at our school, but the same odds were against a shooting happening at the school where it just happened.

Further, I work with students who have disabilities. I assess students who have severe emotional and behavioral problems. I assess students for risk of suicide, always keeping an ear open for risk of homicide, too, because those two sometimes go together. All I have to do is be perfect forever. If I ever miss a call, make a mistake, respond too slowly, and it leads to killing, I hope that I am among those killed. I don’t see how I could live with myself, having any responsibility for that.

Further, I am a trainer in the ALICE (alert, lockdown, inform, counter, escape) model of surviving a mass shooting. I don’t get much demand for this skill. I don’t know why.

Further, I am a disaster mental health volunteer with several agencies. So far, there hasn’t been a mass shooting in my area. When – not if, when – it happens, my phone will light up and I will go out and try to support others who are dealing with the carnage. That’s a volunteer job that I do.

I don’t think about school shootings and other mass shootings all of the time, but I do some of the time. I try to be ready, as though anyone really could be. Please let me tell you some of what I think about.

Mental health

Politicians love to blame shootings on mental health problems. It creates the illusion of control, which I will talk about later, and it’s a red herring. That’s easy to figure out. America has more mass shootings than any other country in the world, so if the problem is mental health then we have more serious mental health problems than any other country in the world. It’s that simple and that wrong. We are about the same as most other countries when it comes to mental illness.

Persons with mental illness are not inherently violent. The vast majority of them are law-abiding, just as the vast majority of gun owners are law-abiding. In contrast, though, persons with mental illness are much more likely to be the victims of crime.

We could probably argue in the other direction, that many criminals show at least some symptoms of mental illness. Their behavior is not adaptive.

No matter what, the mental health system in this country is underfunded and built on antiquated laws, as I will describe next. When politicians want to blame mass shootings on mental health problems, they should put those claims within the context of a plan to fund and improve America’s mental healthcare system. So far, I haven’t heard that the money and the cabinet-level mental health leader are coming. I’m assessing first graders for suicide risk and second graders for homicide risk. There are serious mental health needs that go unmet in this country, but dismissing the shooters as mentally ill misses the point: why do mass shootings happen more in America than anywhere else?

Antiquated laws

Here in Pennsylvania, when someone is dangerous to self or others, we can temporarily suspend that person’s right to informed consent, which is to say, the right to refuse treatment, for 72 hours. We do that under the Mental Health Procedures Act of 1976. Yes, 1976. The bicentennial year. We are working on Internet-era problems with a tool created in the era of AM radio, rabbit-ear television antennae, and department store catalogs. This law is outdated. There are problems with this law and it needs revision. Right now, I don’t know of any deaths that can be attributed to those flaws, though there may have been. Either way, why can’t we skip the whole killing part and go straight to a reasoned, thorough overhaul of this law?

The federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) governs the discipline of students with disabilities. This law is more recent but it dates back to 2004, with no current plan to revise it. Under IDEA, if a student with a disability violates the school code of conduct, and the violation can reasonably be regarded as a manifestation of the student’s disability, then the student can be suspended for a maximum of 10 consecutive days or 15 cumulative days in one year. If the act was possession of drugs, or a weapon (under federal instead of state law), or it led to serious bodily injury, then the student can be suspended for 45 days, then the student returns to school.

What is serious bodily injury? It’s worse than a fracture, worse than clubbing a teacher over the head. It’s almost killing a person. Remember that weapon is defined by federal law, not state. Here in Pennsylvania, brass knuckles are a prohibited offensive weapon, meaning that no one can own them, but federal law does not regulate brass knuckles. Putting this together, a student could come to school and break a teacher’s nose and orbital bone with brass knuckles. He (could be a she) would face state juvenile charges. If the student had a relevant disability, and had already been suspended for 15 total days in that school year, the student could not be suspended at all. After release from juvenile custody, s/he would be back in school, back in the room with that teacher, bigger and bolder than ever, unless the school picked one of a few very expensive alternatives. Granted, that’s not a mass shooting incident, but that is a student who was just reinforced for being violent, who just learned about gaming the system, who was just encouraged to be more violent in the future. That’s the law of the land.

Arming teachers

I have to start this section by saying that I am not anti-gun. I’m a former NCAA competitive shooter. I have a CCW permit in Pennsylvania. In 2017, I had three training sessions and classes in shooting and self-defense, two from law enforcement friends of mine and one official NRA course. I know that if a shooter ever comes to the school where I work, I will wish that I had a gun, but I do not want to be armed and I do not want teachers to have guns.

Why? Here are a few reasons:

1. Even police sometimes misplace guns. Guns in school means that they will be lost or left unsecured and students will get them.

2. There is no such thing as an accidental gunshot. Guns don’t fire by themselves. A shot is either intentional or negligent. Even police fire negligent shots and the walls and floors and ceilings and furniture in a school will not stop bullets. Guns in school means negligent shootings that will kill students and teachers.

3. Students will know who is armed and that puts a target on those teachers. The student doesn’t have to bring a gun to school. Just bring brass knuckles and punch Mr. Smith in the face, reach into his jacket, take his pistol.

4. Guns in school makes killing a student a job responsibility, which is asking a lot of an educator. If there is any history of conflict between the student and the teacher, it will raise the question of the necessity of the shooting – was it professional, or was it personal?

5. Finally, it often takes many shots to stop an aggressor. Even New York City police only have an accuracy rate of 18% in shooting incidents. Those other bullets will go through floors and walls and ceilings and kill other students and teachers.

5A. If that is not bad enough, every bullet has a lawyer. A teacher who stops the aggressor, but also kills five other students, is going to be sued along with the school.

There are other details and probably other reasons but this is enough for me to not want armed teachers in schools. The whole idea feels like a way for gun manufacturers to increase sales, which happens anyway after mass shootings.

Women and children and money

Yes, I might as well talk about this, too. Mass shootings happen in malls and theaters and other workplaces, but schools seem to be a favorite target. Most school staff are women, making a middle-class income or lower. We know that our politicians, the wealthy men, are protected by armed guards, so they are safe, but I have to wonder how America would respond if law firms and stock brokerages were common targets. I don’t wish this on anyone, but is it easier to do nothing when the targets are lower-income women? If lawyers were being killed, wouldn’t their friends in government move rapidly to protect them? It doesn’t happen and I don’t know, but it seems to be a fair question.

Seeking a motive

This goes to the illusion of control that I mentioned earlier, and it makes no sense. After every mass shooting, there is an open exploration of the shooter and his history, seeking a motive. For awhile, he is the object of mass national fascination. I guess the reason for this is to find that mysterious something that caused him to kill so that we can stop the next one.

There isn’t anything. Every shooter is different. The problem isn’t bullying – the killers at Columbine High School were bullies. The problem isn’t being a loner – there are thousands of loners, thousands of teens who don’t quite fit in, but most go on to become functional adults and very rarely do any of them become killers. Unless you can find a factor that is always or almost always present in shooters, and is always or almost always absent in non-shooters, and we have been looking hard since Columbine, in 1999, haven’t found it yet, there is no reason to talk endlessly about motive.

We don’t learn much of interest, but we teach the next shooter, who already has a plan, that he will be the object of fame and fascination when he goes on his killing rampage. He knows it. He loves it. He’s not interesting to me, just the homicidal jerk of the day. There was one last week and there will be another this week or next.

The question of motive takes me to my next point.

National security
I won’t name any killers in this post. The names, death counts, and methods related to all mass shootings should be classified as secret for reasons of national security. Sure, the information will get out anyway, but then the authorities should fog the reports with misinformation.

Why? Because the next killer – and he is out there right now, planning right now – studies the previous killers, learns from their methods, sets the death toll as a goal to meet or beat. Here is a place where technology hurts the good guys. Anyone with a phone can get all of the details of a mass shooting within hours. Shut up about it. Protect the information to confuse the next killer.

Thoughts and prayers

The mass murder at Columbine High School happened in 1999. That’s 19 years of thoughts – of what? – and prayers – for what? It doesn’t take Americans 19 years to think of a solution. If you are a politician praying after a mass shooting, let me give you some spiritual guidance: God wants you to take that position and that power and use them to protect your fellow Americans. That’s called Brother Lawrence prayer and my answer takes care of that. Now go and do something useful, use your thoughts to find a solution.

It doesn’t have to be perfect. I would take a 50% reduction in school shootings. It would make me safer, and then we could build on that success to find ways to reduce the rate even further. Pass a law. If it doesn’t work, revise it, or repeal it and replace it. Perfect should never be the enemy of good and perfection should never be an excuse for inaction, especially when inaction permits murder, which is where we are now right now.


America is a scary, dangerous place right now. I don’t think that the answer is “more guns” or “no guns.” I don’t have the answers, but I know what some of the questions are:

1. When can we revise the Mental Health Procedures Act of 1976?

2. When can we revise the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 2004?

3. When can we treat school and other mass shootings as a threat to our national security?

4. When are we going to start acting like Americans and jump on this problem, treat it like the evil that it is, and pound it into the ground like Americans do, like we have been doing for over two centuries?

I will be at work again after the next shooting, and the one after that, and the one after that, unless one of those happens where I work, in which case I will probably die. If that happens then I hope that I die while protecting students and my colleagues. I pray that I have the courage to actually do what I hope that I will do, go down fighting, just like school psychologist Mary Sherlock did at Sandy Hook Elementary School. I want to die fighting rather than cowering. I want to soak up his bullets, make him take time to reload, buy time for others to escape. My life is dear to me. I will not sell it cheaply to the latest jerk with a gun. If it happens, I hope that it happens like that.