Headlines with James Nelligan

It's been nearly two decades since the tragedy at Columbine high school shocked a nation and ushered in a previously unimaginable scenario for students, parents, faculty and school administrators. While the deadliest school shootings belong to other parts of the world, nearly 40% of all mass shootings at schools have occurred in the United States, in recent years, an exponential increase in frequency. The Florida tragedy comes a little more than a week after the last mass school shooting. 

This disturbing trend closely correlates with a number of other significant social changes.  The influences of traditional social institutions, those that attend to the needs of families and promote community, are fading.  Children spend more time inside and alone than in years past. There is an outsize dependency among young people on social media (as surrogate for traditional socialization mechanisms). There are dramatic increases in the number of children and adolescents affected by anxiety disorders and depression, and similar increases in rates of suicide among adolescents and young adults. While there is debate as to causality, the convergence of these disturbing trends gives educators, healthcare professionals, and governmental officials pause. What, if anything, can be done to change the tide? 

In the coming days, educators, activists, law enforcement officials, and politicians will inevitably focus their attentions on the issue of gun violence. While alarming and a priority national concern, in this particular case, gun violence is likely a symptom, more than cause. A child with healthy self-esteem and positive relationships does not walk into a school and commit such atrocities.

Mental health is the prime mover here. The inner life of children and adolescents is complex and multivariate. Thoughts and feelings shape perception, and therefore color one's interpretation of experience, for better and worse. Normal adolescence is a rollercoaster ride, further complicated by our national dependency on social media. As educators, what we can say with certainty is that children spend too much time online.

The secret lives students conjure and cultivate in cyberspace live without the benefit of traditional emotional and social supports and restraints, let alone adult oversight. For some children, the allure of the avatar and the power of anonymity sow and foment attitudes and behaviors that undermine healthy emotional and social development and, in their extremes, are wholly destructive. For children and adolescents already struggling with their mental health, the damage can be immediate and total.  Continuous feedback loops, all those likes and dislikes, direct and subtle cruelties, precipitate emotional fragility and victimhood. They also encourage a raft of ugly behaviors in our send first, think later cyber-culture. Most of us accept the old adage that it takes a village to raise a child.  In our new age, are you sure of the village raising yours? 

Of course, social media and all of that time online are exacerbated by the traditional adolescent code of silence.  The desire to play with language, exercise counter opinion, explore taboos, and try on the vagaries of adulthood, free from the prying eyes of parents and teachers, is nothing new. However, a collective unwillingness to expose problematic thought and behavior, to "rat out" fellow teens, even when such thought and behavior illicit real concern, has to be addressed.  See something, say something must be our new mantra. It's too late to connect the dots after the fact.  As proof positive, a local student from another school is receiving the help he needs, and a real threat is averted, precisely because people spoke up. We need to speak up, all of us.

Here at Baldwin, we will learn from this tragedy. We must do more than adjust our drills and safe words, or add a few cameras or guards. We will need your help to break down the invisible barriers and the code of silence. We will need your help to mitigate the negative cumulative effects of social media. We will all need to be role models for healthy levels of technology usage.  Turn off, and tune into our lives. 

For educators, this is personal, because we love your kids just as we love our own, and we want every child to thrive.  For me, it's particularly personal, because my cousin's daughter was in one of those classrooms, and she will live with the scars of that tragic day. No other children or parents should have to.