One month after the school shooting in Parkland, FL and students across the country refuse to let their safety concerns fade from the sociopolitical spotlight. They stand strong, together and with allies, as they continue organizing and participating in protests and walkouts.
In the aftermath of Parkland’s mass shooting, social media and news coverage spewed vague and vilifying portrayals of one “troubled” youth: Parkland shooter Nikolas Cruz. Neighbors, peers, and acquaintances jumped, literally at Cruz’s gun, to provide details into the nineteen-year-old’s “deranged” mind – with a history of animal cruelty, weapon obsession, and police intervention to show for it. Mental health found its incendiary base, as inaccurate reports perpetuated the stigmatization and re-victimization of the mentally diagnosed versus the mentally unstable.
Alienation Missing from Media Script
Information came in chunks, from national news sources. Cruz was awarded infamy over 17 massacred lives, while a slew of new school threats and violent incidents ensued. All despite past studies that surmise that inflammatory, shooter-centric coverage is culprit to a contagion effect, which undercurrents a cluster pattern we see with mass shootings throughout time.
Missing from the script was any trace of the trauma-informed approach that would ask the question ‘what happened’ instead of ‘what’s wrong’ with a violent offender such as Cruz.
What happened to those 17 victims is a direct result of what happened to Cruz. This statement is not cause for a shift in blame, but rather a look at precipitating factors of stress and loss that significantly impair brain development and functionality, especially in youth.
Cruz will continue to be held accountable for the lives he stole; he may even face the death penalty. The question becomes what can we do now, collectively and individually, to prevent and disarm violent persons and those at risk of becoming violent? How can we address the cultural conditions that breed these behaviors?
To really find solutions to the problems we face, America may need a dramatic shift from its legacy of standardized education and systems, which only marginally sustain the underprivileged, and alienated, leaving them wading against a current of success.
Inside the Mind
First, let’s lay speculation to rest. Violence is not inherently connected with mental illness. The American Mental Health Counselors Association reports that persons with mental illnesses are accountable for a mere 3 to 5 percent of all violence. In fact, mentally ill persons are 12 times more likely to be victims of violent crime when compared to the general public.
Shaming the mentally ill is an age-old scare tactic used in media to stop the buck – by smittenly boiling violence down to mental health and mental illness. And they’re not entirely to blame; trauma-informed theory and care practices only arose some 20 years ago, with a paradigm shift in how psychologists and social workers understand mental deficiencies.
Now it’s on educators, lawmakers, and mass media to push that narrative to the frontier. Rather than use divisive tactics to exploit the mentally ill, we should look internally. All of us are, in some form or another, mentally deficient. Our deficiencies can be exaggerated in any “right” cocktail of environmental conditions. In the case of Cruz, it is important to consider his identity paired with the precipitating factors to his unraveling.
What Happened? (Not What’s Wrong)
Like most mass shooters, Cruz was a white, hetero-masculine male experiencing significant loss, middle-class instability, and downward economic mobility – factors that align with common characteristics and tendencies of mass shooters, researched by the Department of Education and the Secret Service, and leading expert Eric Madfis.
Cruz and his brother were adopted. Each of their adopted parents are now deceased, the mother – one of Cruz’s only support systems – having passed away around this past Thanksgiving. Cruz was placed in an unfamiliar home setting with family friends, and expelled from Stoneman Douglas High School (for good reasons presumably), where he would later slaughter 17 students and faculty with his legally obtained AR-15 semi-automatic rifle.
In terms of trauma, these transitional circumstances equate to quantifiable loss and alienation that helped pave a path to the seemingly symbolic Valentine’s Day massacre. Already labeled a loner, with issues of obsessive behavior toward the opposite sex, Cruz was dejected from a privileged middle-class safety net. As an outsider, he was no longer entitled to a bright future under Donald Trump’s “great” American dream.
Local law enforcement was long aware of Cruz’s decline, having received 23 calls prior to the incident from concerned citizens. Beyond a flawed preventative system, this proves a flaw in responsive measures by Parkland’s local law enforcement and social services – which reflect U.S. systems at large.
Unhelpful to the cause were media outlets touting how bad Cruz was to his core. Without properly dismantling the sources for his tendencies and lonely life, Cruz was presented as the new poster child of mass shooters – an image for copycats to aspire to.
Students Work to Disrupt Historic Cycle
In the school week following the Parkland shooting, law enforcement agencies were inundated by a wave of violent incidents and threats on school campuses across the country, many of which turned out to be false alarms or hoaxes. The advocacy program, Educator’s School Safety Network, noted a near 400 percent increase in threats and violent incidents, tallying 50 reports per school day, compared with the average of 10 to 12.
In the past 25 years, an average of 10 students were annually killed in school shootings. An article in USA Today compares this figure to over 100 students accidentally killed while walking or riding bikes to school each year.
While current data shows an increased number in fatalities, mass shooting rates are no higher than they were during the Clinton and Bush administrations. Both presidents sought counsel after many multi-fatality incidents, which was catalyst to federal changes in school safety measures and the 1994 federal assault weapons ban, given expiration in 2004.
While these figures alleviate some concern, student activists refuse to fall silent in the face of political polarization and stagnation. They continue to disrupt the media’s tired script of mass shooter glorification, to keep Americans focused on the task at hand: figuring out how are we going to disarm those prone to violence, from top down and bottom up.
No More Wishful Thinking
There’s not much shift to note in the land of American law. Trump’s proposal to arm teachers, which would add more accessible guns to the mix, incites even more fear and arouses concern for abusive power opportunities – plus, some teachers don’t want guns. Meanwhile, our government backpedals on raising the legal age to bear arms.
Statewide, we’ve seen success with a bill recently signed to law by Oregon Governor Kate Brown, which will close loopholes that allowed violent offenders access to firearms. But unlike Cruz, mass shooters tend to have no documented histories of violence – rather they bubble under the pressure of a steadfast decline.
Clearly more is needed. And thankfully we have bright students (and soon-to-be voters) at the forefront of political activism. Student-survivors from Stoneman Douglas are leaders for the cause, lobbying against lawmakers and influencing major companies to abort relations with the National Rifle Association – a group which, thanks to John Oliver, evokes a proverbial wtf from viewers tuning in to their slanted NRATV network.
Through unified advocacy and alliance, we can all attribute to the changes we don’t just wish to see, but demand to have. Inclusivity and understanding are key in moving forward. America needs rebuilt, and it’s people need to demolish and upcycle untrusty pillars of “freedom,” “justice,” and “equality,” as they quake under classist agendas ingrained in our country’s culture.
To learn more about the Parkland, FL victims, visit https://www.cnn.com/2018/02/