Prior to this tragedy, I've been wrung out emotionally when it comes to my job as a school psychologist. In my 16th year, many of my efforts end up feeling futile. There have just been too many heartbreaking situations and I'm just burned out. I'm weary of people harming children, either physically or emotionally. I'm tired of hearing some parents putting their children down in ways that I know will affect them horribly. I'm sick of calling CPS only to have my efforts fall flat, have the children recant their stories, and then refuse to talk with me anymore for fear of the consequences. This school year, I put a great deal of time and energy into a tiny one, and had made progress, only to hear she was being reunited with her biological family. I can't see the future, but history indicates this will not bode well for this youngster and it breaks my heart. I have had a parent answer my inquiry about her pregnancy with her child with, "Well, I drank a lot. I was trying to abort him, but it didn't work." I have to not only restrain myself from killing some of these parents with my bare hands, but I have to listen to them intently and give them suggestions on how to parent. I've said this before: Children are God's biggest gift to us. The fact that so many spit on this gift and stomp it into the ground makes me crazy. I recently said to my husband, "God is testing me. I'm either supposed to prove how well I can actually do this job, or I'm meant to do something else." His response was, "I don't think God would put a child in need in your path for the purpose of scaring you off. I don't think it works that way."
Since Columbine, my biggest fear has been a school shooting. Columbine happened early in my career and I didn't have children of my own yet, but it certainly did change school culture. Other shootings followed, and when I had my own children it made it even harder for me to fully process them. As school psychologists, we have received tons of crisis intervention training and our schools all have lock down procedures. We have drills regularly, and have actually gone into lock downs when crimes were being committed in the same neighborhood, just as a precaution.
Then Friday happened. Some things you simply cannot prepare for.
I was at work on Friday morning, testing a sweet young man for learning disabilities when I glanced at my phone and saw some mention of Connecticut. Once our testing session was completed, I got on my laptop and went to MSNBC.com. I'm not going to lie, I truly started to freak out when I heard it was an elementary school and that children were shot. I shut my door and watched a little more. I drew my blinds, started to shake and literally felt like I was going to vomit. At the same time, I was trying to stay calm because I didn't know what the fallout would be at my particular school and if someone else freaked out, I would be expected to be the one to jump in to help. I was worthless the rest of the day, I hid out in my office and counted the minutes until I could go home. My services weren't needed, thankfully. I know myself and I know I could have done it if I had been needed, but I hadn't flipped out this badly over something since 9-11 and that scared me. I haven't cried this much in a long time. I didn't learn that their school psychologist was among the dead until the end of the day. That shouldn't have affected me that much, but it did. I'd had talks with Mike about what would go down if there was a school shooting at work, and if children were in danger and I could intervene, I might not come home. I couldn't NOT shield little ones with my body, and I wouldn't even think twice about it. Then my children wouldn't have a mother. That's Nightmare #1.
Nightmare #2, of course, is that a shooting would occur at my own children's school, and I would have to live with the unthinkable...waiting. Waiting to hear if my babies were safe, or not. To be perfectly honest, I haven't been able to think that much about Sandy Hook from the parent's perspective. My brain just can't go there yet, and brain, I thank you. I know I will eventually, I already have! In my imagination, when I can't sleep, I had thought about this awful possibility, way before last Friday. I don't know what it is about motherhood that makes it almost innate at times to imagine the worst, but we do and I know I'm not the only one. The one thing I did think about as a parent was those precious little bodies having to lie there in those cold dark classrooms because it was a crime scene. What would it be like to not be able to hold your child instantly once you'd heard they'd been taken? That's purely horrific. Yes, their souls had moved on, but to not be with them? It's unimaginable.
I've thought a lot about the first responders, and the adults involved in the incident. I think about the principal, the school psychologist, and the teachers who paid with their lives trying to stop it. I've thought about the policemen and investigators having to enter a classroom full of dead children. I've thought about the governor telling those parents who hadn't been reunited with their children that they wouldn't be. And I've thought a lot about all the children who survived and the lifelong effects this will have on them. The thing that has jacked me up the most is thinking about all those children being terrified. The kids who were shot must have been so completely confused and scared, and that haunts the shit out of me. Seeing their beloved 1st grade teacher die trying to protect them must have seemed like it wasn't really happening. I know young children very well, and their inability to comprehend what was going on, while being terrorized makes me want to go in a corner and sob. No child should ever have to experience that kind of fear, and it makes my stomach hurt.
The general public doesn't know about teachers. They've gotten bad press for being lazy, ill prepared, mean, unfair to students, dismissive of parents...let me tell you about teachers. Yes, I have my favorites for sure, and you know who you are, but I cannot think of a single teacher who wouldn't have done everything in their power to protect their students during a catastrophe. They'd put themselves between a bullet and your child, general public. It hurts to think about the teachers of that school who survived, because no matter what they did do, I'm sure some of them are feeling horrible. Some may feel like they failed by not saving more kids and their colleagues. It doesn't matter how impossible the situation was, they wish they'd done more. But how could they have? I certainly wasn't educated about what to do while being shot at when I was in graduate school. Which brings me to my personal opinions about all the things people are arguing about, people's undying quest for blame.
I have people in my life that own guns who I care a great deal about, and I respect their right to their opinions. Make no mistake though, I. HATE. THEM. I will always hate guns. I will never own a gun. They terrify me. I grew up in LA and didn't know a single person who hunted. To me, guns mean violence, guns mean innocent people getting shot, guns mean gang activity. Nothing will ever change that with me. I'm not stupid, there's no chance the 2nd amendment will/should be amended, but what I believe would help is a ban on assault weapons. Who needs those to shoot a deer? People say to me, "But then the criminals will get them illegally anyway, and the public won't be able to buy them legally." Possibly. But the shooter at Sandy Hook took his own mother's guns, that were bought and registered legally. He actually tried to legally buy another but there was a 14 day waiting period. He used the assault rifle to murder all his victims, and the pistol only to take his own life. If his mother hadn't had an assault rifle, or had them inaccessible to him, perhaps this wouldn't have been as bad. If he'd had to wait 14 days, maybe he would have reconsidered. We'll never know. Here's the thing: Crazy people aren't going anywhere, and we can't ban them. What's easier to ban from society, a human being or a piece of metal?
I don't know many people who wouldn't agree that our mental health system needs a major overhaul in this country. Since I've been a psychologist, mental health resources have been cut time and again. State hospitals have closed in droves in California. The truth is, we don't know very much about the shooter. The only thing we know is that he had Asperger's Syndrome, which has no links to violence. Asperger's kiddos are socially awkward and have difficulty communicating, and are often very intelligent. That kid had way more going on than we know about. I read he was somewhat impervious to physical pain, which isn't a symptom of Asperger's. He had constant supervision in high school, and got lots of services in high school. Did he get into illegal drugs? What happens when an Asperger's kid takes meth? We just don't know. When kids graduate and become adults, a lot of those services and support stop. It would have been up to his mother to investigate possible ongoing supports, and it was likely to be incredibly expensive. You can commit an adult to a mental hospital, sure. And they can sign themselves out in 48 hours. A psychologist can hear a great deal from a patient, but can take no action unless the circumstances are incredibly specific. Are you going to harm yourself, do you have a plan, how are you going to do it, when are you going to do it? Are you going to hurt someone else, what is their name, how and when are you going to do it? We have to get this much specific information before we can do a damn thing, otherwise it's a breach of confidentiality. I don't know what will happen from here. I think the likelihood of that young man having another disorder is incredibly strong, even if it was undiagnosed. We may never find out.
Our Media Culture
The speed in which social media has changed our world truly scares me. Journalists get information from Twitter, which is beyond absurd to me. Rumors appear to be the norm. The day of the shooting, there was so much misinformation released it was shameful in my opinion. He had his brother's ID, okay that was an honest mistake. What about the information that his mother was a teacher at the school, which proved to be untrue? That should not have been a difficult fact to check. I'm still not clear on whether or not the shooter attended Sandy Hook, the jury seems to still be out on that. Again, it shouldn't be a hard fact to check. Perhaps that's been cleared up today, I don't know. I've been avoiding the news, which leads me to the next problem. Our culture and media absolutely sensationalizes these horrors. I was concerned when I saw parents on the talk show circuit already. It's a mistake. It hasn't even been a week yet, and the magnitude of what has occurred and the loss they've suffered won't hit them for awhile, and they're clearly still in shock. However, they're adults and can make these decisions themselves. What made my blood absolutely boil is when I briefly saw a child survivor on Dr. Oz today. I hate him anyway, but I was so angry at the parents, the producers, pretty much anyone who made that happen. Those children should not be on television by any means. Period. They're all very likely to experience Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, are probably having a very difficult time even processing their own loss, and they're being whisked away to Hollywood already? It's shameful, harmful, and wrong. Someone should have stopped them. The networks that are clamouring for these children to appear on their shows need to take a serious look at themselves. As of yesterday, at least, two of the children who died still didn't have photos released to the press. I don't know the reasons why, but if their parents did so to protect their children in the mere days after this tragedy, they have my absolute respect.
Where was God?
The people in my life vary wildly, from A to Z. To me, that stands for Atheist to Zealot...ha ha, I'm so clever! Anyway, I did wonder where God was the day of the shooting, and felt too rattled to even pray. On Sunday at church in quiet prayer, this is what I prayed: "Make it stop, make it stop, make it stop..." There's been a lot online lately about the relevance of prayer in school and what happened, and it's pissed me off something horrible. I feel strongly that faith, as well as other personal things such as sex, should be taught at church and at home, not at school. Those subjects are the parents responsibility. My children have faith, strong faith. They pray for those who aren't here anymore, they pray for the sick, and they pray for people who are mean to them, which isn't easy. They may pray in school, I really don't know. The reason I don't know for sure is because prayer is an intensely personal thing. I rarely pray out loud, and if I do it's usually a whisper. When I read what Mike Huckabee said recently, I truly felt as though I could punch him in the face: "We ask why there's violence in our schools, but we have systematically removed God from our schools. Should we be so surprised that schools would become a place of carnage?" Ummm, yes sir, YES we should be surprised, and horrified, and angry, and outraged. I read an article a couple of days ago by Rachel Held Evans, which I found to be brilliant. In a nutshell, she said that God doesn't need our permission to enter anywhere, and who exactly do we think we are again? It's the height of arrogance to presume that we know where God is and where He is not. How does Mr. Huckabee know where God was last Friday? How does he know prayer did not take place? As a matter of fact, one of the teachers has said that one of her students suggested that they pray and they held hands as a class and they prayed. How does he know that those beautiful kids there didn't pray every single day they went to school? Just because the school didn't mandate it doesn't mean it didn't happen. The God I know doesn't behave like a sullen teenager who wasn't invited to the party and chooses to light the venue on fire for revenge. I read one response that said God only goes where He's wanted. I disagree completely. God goes wherever He wants to go, but mostly where He is NEEDED. We don't always know what that looks like, but here is how I think He was there on that horrible day. God was in those incredibly brave women who sacrificed their own lives to save countless other children. He was in those policemen who had to face unfathomable horror as part of their jobs. He was in that lovely neighbor who took several of the terrified children into his home and gave them juice and some of his grandchildren's stuffed animals to try to comfort them. Most importantly, God did not forsake those angels because there's no organized prayer in school. I understand, but don't agree with, the point Huckabee was trying to make. However, he had horrific timing, wasn't thinking about the families of the lost, and was just 100% wrong. I have the feeling he'll pay dearly, and I hope he does.
As the days lead up to Christmas, my prayers and thoughts are with all the families involved. Facing this holiday and trying to plow through for the other children in some families is going to be excruciating. I can't imagine how hard that will be. My thoughts are also with the shooter's remaining family, because the pain they must be in has got to be unreal.
I don't know why this happened. I have to hope that some good will ultimately come out of it. Maybe it needed to be this gruesome, heartbreaking, and awful to wake us the hell up as a country. We are better than this and God needs better from us. More kindness, more mercy, more reaching out to the marginalized people in our society. Help those who have nothing, offer to babysit, mow a lawn, pay for someone's meal. I know that sounds cliche, but I do believe that love and kindness can and will overwhelm the darkness. During the break that I'm on for the holidays, I plan to try to relax and recharge, because like it or not, this is where God wants me to be too. Everyone can do something. I'll end with one of my very favorite quotes:
"Do your little bit of good where you are; it's those little bits of good put together that overwhelm the world."
-Bishop Desmond Tutu