Monday, April 16, 2007

Slapping a Bandage on a Bullet Wound

I have been prompted by today’s school shooting and Kevin Wignall to break off the blog holiday, again, and post.

The events of today are tragic and beyond comprehension to most people. However, it is human nature to try to make sense of the senseless. This is what we all do. In the wake of the news soon comes the question on everyone’s mind: Why?

This isn’t news. I blogged about this months ago, in the hours following the reports of the Montreal school shooting. You can see how fresh the post was relative to the news: The number of dead was reduced in that case. Unfortunately, today, the first report was one dead.

Then 21. And now, it is believed 33 are dead, including the gunman.

I would encourage you to read Kevin’s post, because I am really processing my thoughts on a few things he touched on, and do not want to do him the disservice of rehashing what he has already so aptly stated. However, there is news today that I want to look at, in relation to what Kevin said about the environment of US high schools and universities.

We are approaching the anniversary of the Columbine shooting, and Kevin has elaborated on that as well. There have been reports of planned recreations of the massacre over the years. Today, news that in Calgary a fourteen-year-old was arrested after his parents alerted police to the fact that they believed their son was planning a killing spree in his school.

The article includes quotes from Diane Lang. What many Americans may not know is that, a matter of days after Columbine, there was a school shooting here in Alberta. Diane Lang lost her son. He was the only fatality, which is why fewer people know about it. The way school shootings get reported makes it seem as though one death just isn’t enough for it to be taken seriously, unless it’s a slow news day.

I do not say that to dismiss the extreme tragedy of losing 32 people, or 13, or any other number. It’s just that, in my opinion, one is too many.

As I started to state on Kevin’s blog, I don’t believe that gun control is the root of the solution. People always debate gun control when these events occur. While I am not commenting for or against the right to bear arms, what I am asserting here is that addressing gun control is the equivalent of treating the symptoms instead of curing the disease.

I had tried on Crimespace today to start a discussion about supportiveness, but somehow it got skewed off my original intent. Part of the reason was that I was trying to be vague enough to not identify anyone I was thinking of when I made the post. But really, what happened was, I relayed something a while ago to an author that I thought they’d appreciate. They didn’t, and took my head off for the effort.

Last night I couldn’t sleep, so at something like 2 or 3 am I was reading blogs and such, and saw a review of a book by an author I know. I forwarded it to them, then started kicking myself, wondering if they too would berate me for bugging them with it.

Instead, their reply made me aware that they were having a hard time lately, and I felt like shit. Where the hell had I been, that I hadn’t realized…? Of course, it made me think, again, of the fact that we authors live solitary lives, and we don’t check in at an office every day. Who sees when you’re having a hard time? Only those you let see. And what this often means is, unless we tell someone we’re having a tough time, nobody knows.

It made me think that we’d do better for each other if we found little ways to encourage each other. Reality is, we get so hell bent on our work that we can focus on it almost to the exclusion of all else. I know authors who flip out if you email when they’re writing. I don’t. I might not get back to you right away but I always appreciate people who think of me enough to drop a note. I love hearing from friends, but some of you guys go to work or school and have plenty of social interaction. My world is pretty limited to the computer, especially since the time of Evil Kev's* car accident: I’m grounded. I talk to the cats all day.

This ties in to what I see as the root issues behind school shootings, and in fact, many other things. When I did Wordapalooza back in January I focused on school shootings as part of the discussion, and one of the teachers there had been working in Taber, at that school, the day Jason Lang lost his life. I worked in education: I can’t imagine any teacher who hasn’t thought at some point about whether it could happen at their school.

Kevin is right in alluding to the hell that high school is for most people. I’ve always talked about things with candor. I was bullied in school, for years. I had a knife pulled on me in elementary school – not something I ever told my parents or teachers about. When I was 14 I was assaulted, ultimately ended up in the hospital, suffered permanent damage to my jaw and that doesn’t touch on the emotional impact of such an event. It was determined that my school could not ensure my safety and I was transferred to a high school in a different town.

There was one other thing that happened, for me, that may have made a difference. My original high school guidance counselor recognized the impact this had had on me emotionally and didn’t ignore it: I was referred to Children’s Aid and became a case file. CA has had its share of knocks in recent years about failures where kids have died, but I feel I had a good social worker who helped me with other things that had happened prior to the specific assault that was being addressed in this situation. Colleen tried to intercede with family counseling, and any failure to see progress there wasn’t for lack of her efforts. She was able, rather astutely, to pinpoint problems I was still suppressing.

This is the key. When people express any vulnerability at all, so many others are willing to jump on them and use it as leverage to attack them. In our society, particularly with boys, we tell them to buck up, be a man, a tough guy… Boys don’t cry. What do they do with their feelings? We don’t encourage boys to talk them through and we dismiss them or frown on them when they get emotional.

I say this as someone who worked in education, and dealt with children from the age of 1 to 15 over a number of years: It’s systemic. It starts early. And it’s a real problem.

Face it: So many kids are being raised in daycares here, and the ratios aren’t ideal. When there’s a problem in the room supervisors are glaring in, expecting staff to deal as quickly as possible. Solutions are pushed, not always explored.

For example, you would think that if there are repeated incidents between children that eventually a face to face meeting between parents and staff would be established to work through the issues. I did a lot of ‘in daycare’ support to children, so although I wasn’t responsible for an entire class and didn’t work for the facility I had a responsibility with my child. In my case I had a close working relationship with the parents and that involved daily reports and full disclosure of all areas of concern. It was a delicate balance to strike, because parents would become aware of ongoing daycare issues the facility staff weren’t informing them of. The reality is, the daycares just don’t have the time or resources to handle the problems they see.

Add in other dilemmas. I’ve worked with violent children, something else I’ve discussed on here in the past. However, there is policy about diagnoses before a certain age for children. I have known parents who’ve refused the autism diagnosis for their child because they didn’t want their child getting labeled. The result? The child doesn’t get funding. I have seen this happen with children with conduct disorders and oppositional defiance disorder as well… and these kids are already demonstrating unhealthy levels of aggression as young as four or five years of age. I’ve reported children who’ve abused animals… and nothing happens. Most of us here know the road that can lead to, and when you add in other extreme behaviours (drawing all pictures in black with red blood, and assaulting facility staff) there’s cause for concern.

And the solution? Maybe medication, but not counseling. That takes time. Takes money. Don’t want Johnny pulled out of class occasionally either because then Johnny looks different and classmates will pick on Johnny.

So we put pride and convenience ahead of the best interests of kids. We are failing our kids, on multiple levels.

This is where it starts. In an ideal world kids would have healthy relationships with their parents and be able to talk to them about their problems. We all know it isn’t an ideal world. Kevin refers to parents praising kids, even when their children have done something wrong. This, too, feeds an unhealthy self image. I have worked with children who’ve been aggressive, hostile, posed a danger to themselves and others, and then said, “You can’t do nothin’ to me, na na.” They know you can’t touch them. And in one case, where a child proved a repeated danger, the parent said we had to stop calling her to pick him up from school because she’d lose her job… and the decision was to do nothing. Should a school ever be forced to have a student on site who poses a threat to himself, staff and other students? Of course not, but there we were.

There are a lot of things that happen – or don’t happen – long before a person picks up a gun as a solution to their problems. I had ready access to guns and it never occurred to me to take one to school.

In my eyes, the real problems stem around the fact that we’re letting kids be raised second-hand, are too busy to deal with them when we do get them home, and in so many cases kids are an item on a checklist. Having kids is what you do. You never stop to consider if you’d make a good parent or not, or how prepared you are to deal with all the issues that families face. And so kids get slotted in to boxes, expected to fill a certain role, pressures to succeed or live up to family expectations, and then go to school and get pressure there as well. Teachers are often overworked and can’t deal with class sizes, and there are so many issues to address anymore. One classroom I worked in had 25% of the kids diagnosed and receiving additional aid. There were two other children who should have been assessed but we didn’t have the time or means to get that done. We were tapped, working from behind, in crisis management mode.

I’ve also dealt with social services on child removal situations and it is excruciating. The paperwork and legal issues are staggering, and they will deter lesser beings who don’t want the headaches. Spend six months removing kids for sexual abuse, neglect, physical abuse and then walk back to the classroom and realize you’ve still got the child with asperger’s who hasn’t been receiving due attention, and the two dealing with divorce, and the three ESL students who’re struggling with their reading and you can understand why I got to the point where I never felt I was doing a good job. For every one sign of progress there were ten signs of failure.

This may sound like another excuse to get back on my soap box about it, but I really don’t believe that tightening gun laws is the solution. It’s the band aid. The solution has to come with more mental health intervention earlier for young people. When schools are struggling with budgets counseling staff are often cut. Focus on those three R’s and everything else is a luxury. Sounds great from an academic standpoint but a lot of children are coping with extreme situations at home, at earlier ages. The gap between the haves and have-nots widens and the taunting and school teasing issues compound the problems. From the time I was in grade one I had a girl routinely try to steal things from me at school. She stole my Christmas present in grade one. I told on her. I still remember she said, “I had all my stuff in it too” when she had to give it back.

End of issue for the teacher, but not for me. She was one of my constant oppressors on the playground at school all through my elementary years.

As much as I admire the Lang’s for speaking out about school bullying and trying to bring awareness to the issues as a result of their son’s death, the reality is that until there’s funding and education to change the way people think about working on healthy conflict resolution this will still happen. I mean, look at us. We can’t fathom the thinking that goes in to martyrdom, why some people believe it’s okay to kill others and yourself. Is it really so different? Young minds are being conditioned from an early age to think that violence is an acceptable solution. This is reinforced by parents who ignore their whining, fighting children and fail to grasp what really happened and make an aggressor give what they stole from the other child back (I sympathize with how hard it is, believe me) and teachers who do likewise by turning a blind eye to problems. Or the solution to complaints at recess is ‘walk with me’ but they don’t deal with the bully who moves on to the next target. And when the bully is getting that snack out of your lunch kit or your milk money or peer validation for their behaviour, it’s being reinforced.

And the bullied see that violence produces results, and following the rules doesn't solve the problem.

Unless you counter the conditioning to aggressive behaviour with alternatives other kids begin to see that’s what works. I’ve mentioned working with violent kids, and I have seen other kids throw temper tantrums out of character for them and admit later that, “It works for X to get attention.” In their minds, X misbehaves, X gets attention from staff, X wins. Therefore, if they want attention from staff they should misbehave.

We do a poor job of talking up role models, of giving guidance and nurture to youth.

Anyway, before this descends further into a rambling mess that lacks any cohesion, I’ll say one last thing. First, in no way does this justify the actions of any school shooter.

But I understand what it is to be afraid to go to school. I understand having repeated assaults at school escalate to the point that I had to be transferred to a different high school.

And I understand wishing I’d had the guts to hit back, to find a way to defend myself, to take the power away from the people who made my life a hell. And when I acknowledge those feelings I had back then, I begin to see how short the road is between feeling that way and looking for a weapon. If I was attacked now, and I had access to a weapon, I think I would defend myself with deadly force. Nobody knows until they’re there, but I have no desire to be a victim again. (By this, I mean if I was being attacked as an adult - adult to adult. I can't imagine taking a weapon to school, and don't carry one now either, but I do know how to fire a gun. I'm just saying that I wouldn't let myself be victimized now.)

Maybe what made the difference for me was having one person to talk to, so that I didn’t feel it was hopeless. I survived high school by being friends with a lot of adults.

When you’re a teenager the angst is extreme. Everything seems so much more important than it really is, but try telling a sixteen-year-old girl it doesn’t matter if she doesn’t have a date to the prom or a nerdy boy not to worry, he’ll fill out in time to play football in college. We have all these external measures by which we validate people’s self worth, and in order for some to be popular others must be geeks.

Anyway, it’s just my 2 (likely incoherent) cents. I believe we have to get to root issues. Part of the reason is that not every child who’s bullied picks up a gun – we’ve had one case where a girl committed suicide and, in a landmark ruling, one of her tormentors was convicted of uttering threats and criminal harassment.

This is the kind of innovative action we need on the side of the law – we need people to take these behaviours seriously.

And we need to take the very legitimate feelings of kids seriously too and start listening to them before it’s too late. Dysfunctional families, emotional abuse at school and feelings of alienation compounded with a lack of healthy coping skills is a deadly combination, and the way society is going we're only going to see more of it, not less.

* Kevin is this post refers to Kevin Wignall - Evil Kev has been referred to as Evil Kev to try to avoid confusion. Of course, I could just call Kevin Wignall Wiggie...


angie said...

Yep. You've nailed the majority of the reasons why I completely burnt out of the mental health field. I can't tell you how destructive it was to watch kids go back to abusive families, sex offenders go back into the homes of their victims, etc., etc., and know that the kids who weren't currently in crisis weren't going to get shit in terms of services. Horrible, heartbreaking, sick, sick, sick.

I still favor gun control, though. With access as ridiculously easy as it is in the U.S., it's entirely too simple to have a meltdown and be able to get your hands on fucking assault rifles. Sorry. I know it's not the answer, but it sure as hell couldn't hurt.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Yeah, I don't want to touch on gun control, though, because it becomes the red herring that detracts from the root of the issue. I mean, how do you solve domestic violence, take away a man's hands? Whatever else, we won't solve the problems until we start addressing the root, which stems back to lack of proper nurturing and guidance and teaching kids about conflict resolution.

A proactive mental health care system integrated with daycares and schools could make a significant difference in affecting domestic violence as well as things like school shootings and other random, senseless acts of violence. I'm not saying it'll create a perfect world, but it's what we need to do.

All the laws in the world won't fix the broken people our society is producing.

Louise said...

Has anyone stopped to think, perhaps the Government’s intrusion on family life has proven to children that their parent or parents can’t do anything if they act out and therefore these children are out of control?

Could it be the Governments proverbial hand tying of parents today, or the medicating of our children with psychotropic drugs sometimes as many as 20 different drugs a day for children in “the system” or children as young as four years old? Isn’t it the psychotropic drugs that have recently been proven to be a possible cause for violent behavior or suicide?

Is it possible that the children who are killing at such a young age and at an alarming rate are children growing up with only one parent, because the other parent has been “labeled” the NCP and is lucky to have visitation rights if the other parent hasn’t used false accusations to keep them away?

Is it at all possible that the laws in place are causing loving children to become killing machines?

Is it possible that these killing machines could be loose in a school or park near you and yours!

Don’t you think it’s time America wakes up and figures out that soon enough it WILL BE you and yours and not just them and theirs, that are caught in the cross fire, and demand change NOW!

I am not saying that SOME children may need medications, and some parents do abuse their children.

I believe the laws in effect were put there with good intentions, but isn’t it time for a new crisp clean look at what the outcome has already done to society.

Louise Uccio

Randy Johnson said...

There is a lot of sense in your post. Gun control is NOT the answer. We, as parents, need to first pay attention to our children. Talk to them. Listen to them. It needs to start early or they'll learn there's no point in speaking up. I've a great nephew who has a condition there's no medicine for. He acts up a lot. My sister, his grandmother, spends a lot of time talking and listening to him. He's nine and very talented in several types of art. She encourages him more than even his parents do. My point is it starts with family. If they start early, it would give the teaching profession a leg up and take a lot of pressure off.

Olen Steinhauer said...

Sandra, this is really good stuff here, and insightful, bringing up things I hadn't necessarily thought about before. I also wonder about the role model issue--that is, media role models. Children are imitative creatures. They copy their parents, and if the parents are out all the time, they copy other teens, or come up with heroes. As a teenager I idolized a few tragic poets and British pop stars, all of whom were fey and unviolent.

The scarier kids (the ones who, today, would be leaning toward toting pistols), who were also my friends, idolized military relatives who were likely scarred from tours of Vietnam, and they dealt with being ostracized by being claustrophobically militant, fantasizing about taking a gun to the whole school. I listened to some of these fantasies, but I remember thinking that this was just part of adolescence. And I think it is. The question is why has the fantasy entered into reality more and more often?

Not sure what I'm saying here, just wandering. But thanks for sharing your own horrific experience here. I argue at the Nomad that a certain level of violence is simply part of growing up, but I certainly don't mean the level you had to deal with.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Louise, very interesting points. I certainly know that the laws can impede those in authority - not just parents - from effectively dealing with problematic kids. You can't spank, if you restrain you'd better not have one staff member who doesn't support you... and so one day the kid goes off to the point where they pose a threat and get shot by a police officer. We have no intervention, no intervention and then the consequences are severe.

The main problem is that even parents need guidance. Nobody applies to become a parent. You don't have to pass a course first. Sadly. Governments sometimes meddle with the alleged intent of protection (ie child abuse) but it's easy to circumvent. In one removal case I worked the parent moved across city lines, which meant we no longer had jurisdiction to pursue her. It's extremely frustrating.

And I definitely agree about the medicating issue. Too many teachers support it first, because it helps them function, without considering the long term effects on the kids. If we invested more in education we could see the savings on the other side in the cost of lives, law enforcement, etc.

As a Canadian, though, I can sympathize with what you say about your society, but my commentary is generally focused at my own, as it's the one I've got experience with. We're similar, but not completely the same, and I'm definitely not as familiar with US intervention laws.

Randy, good for your sister. It's incredibly challenging, but that's the kind of relational, hands-on parenting that's needed. Medication is often not the answer. People think meds 'solve' ADD and ADHD - all they do is subvert symptoms for a period of time. You can't be medicated 24 hours a day. The result is that people use the meds as a solution often, and fail to teach those kids coping strategies.

In the end, those children are often worse off.

Olen, the media is a definite issue. Your question, why has fantasy entered into reality more and more, is an interesting one and could be the catalyst for a thesis. Is it because video games, computer games and tv are used as rewards and babysitters? Have - especially for boys - those things replaced the role of books in the developmental phases? Look at us now, 'virtually' communicating. More and more we deal with computer screens instead of flesh and blood people. Is this contributing to desensitization , to larger groups growing up without empathy and connection to other humans? Is it similar to issues faced when wild animals are abandoned or orphaned in the early stages of life? We've watched it here, where efforts are made to reintegrate a whale with a pod, for example, and sometimes the calf isn't interested, and sometimes the calf is rejected. In those cases the calf ends up dead, causing problems in their natural environment or in a zoo.

I wonder if, in some fashion, we're seeing the results of similar impact on people. We all know some people are more sensitive than others. If children have two homes with different parents, different rules and bounce between those environments and daycare are they growing up with the proper grounding they need to feel secure? I think this is where the problems start, for some. The girl I mentioned who bullied me all through elementary school was one of thirty kids in a class, and one of the only ones back then with parents who were divorced. It was 'odd' then. Looking back I think that a lot of her behaviour was attention-seeking, but I can see that in her case she was failed. Later, she got that attention from boys, and in the wrong way.

I do think that violence is a part of youth. It used to be that children grew up on farms and had experience with life and death and reality from an early age. And societies concocted fairy tales to teach the young. These stories were often scary and extreme. Today, we water them down. We soft-pedal even things like the risk of stranger abduction.

Kids worry more about being rejected by adults if they're honest so they suppress things and keep them secret. It's better to have a secure dynamic where a kid can feel they can be honest and talk things through without being lectured or treated like a freak.

Anyway... interesting thoughts from all of you. No simple solutions, though, and now the world will watch as a the people affected by yesterday's events try to cope. And a new group of kids will see that this is a way to get attention.

Erik Ivan James said...

The most was said by what you said in your last sentence above: "And a new group of kids will see that this is a way to get attention."

Sandra Ruttan said...

Unfortunately, J.


Trace said...

I worked as a social worker and burnt out in a hurry. I worked with children and teens at a mental health facility as well. I got so depressed. We had them for six weeks, inpatient. After that, we didn't really have control over what happened to them. I just couldn't take it.

Worked with abused women, and with sexually assaulted women as well. Same deal for me. Went home, had crying jags. Felt like I was going to tear my hair out. For all the difference I was making, I might as well have been using a butter knife to fix a train wreck.

You're right. We need to get to the problem before somebody gets killed.

Laurie said...

Excellent post, Sandra, and excellent comments from everyone here. It does all start with family and proper parenting. I grew up in a very dysfunctional family, but I determined that I'd be different in how I raised my kids, doing things just about the opposite of what my parents did. In this society though, no value is placed on mothering, definitely no value in staying AT HOME to raise your kids - you're looked upon as some kind of unintellectual, stunted freak of a woman - and so many women return to low-paying jobs just to "get out of the house".

You're absolutely right about needing mental health intervention at the daycare, preschool, and school ages. When I worked in that field, I couldn't find a psychiatrist to take on my 17-19 yr old young offenders to save my life. The reason? They were too "long-term" as patients! I even cut one of our kids off his Thorazine because I couldn't stand to see him lolling in a chair in my office, totally unable to stand up from being so stoned. He was a violent kid with an unbelievable background. But it was easier to teach my staff how to "handle" him, than it was to see him mentally cauterized by the high doses his doctor had him on.

On the other hand, I do believe that medicating some kids works and is the answer. It all depends on your resources and what the diagnosis is - ADHD or whatever. But if a child can function without the meds and be handled by behaviour intervention, then that's the best thing that can happen. JMHO.

And while I'm on my soapbox, as an ex-police officer (Canadian), I have to say that gun control does make a difference. No one needs the kind of handguns that student had on Monday. For what? Guns are to shoot people, nothing else. Need it for "protection"? Give me a break. You're far better off with a can of mace and some judo lessons. If you don't have access to guns, you're not going to be able to use them when you're having some kind of meltdown. Period. And I've seen some scary guns in my time. None of which were to "hunt" anything besides humans or a 2 tonne elephant. I'm all for more stringent gun laws, and I'm in Canada! Make the penalty of having an unregistered, out of it's case gun as much as possessing narcotics. Two or three years in jail and add on not being able to drive, and you'd see less guns even up here. Okay, off my soapbox now! :)

You're right, Sandra, guns are a red herring. But, for too many they're the ultimate solution. I just spent too much time looking at shotguns and rifles during domestics, to have anything good to say about owning them.

You said everything I've thought for years, much more eloquently. Thank you!

Sandra Ruttan said...

Laurie, thanks for adding your insights. I doubt I did this much more eloquently than you could have, as you're quite capable.

I agree on guns... I think you know where I'm coming from. People jump on the 'gun control' bandwagon and ignore all the other factors, and don't realize they aren't actually solving the problem.

Although in the comment thread above I've cited one example where I wouldn't mind having a gun, although I know it wouldn't necessarily save my life. I'll add here when we went to the arctic we went to Liard Hot Springs. Anyone who's done their homework knows it's been home to some of the deadliest bear attacks and believe me, I get a big unnerved going to places like that. It won't stop me - you could hide from dangers in the world to the point you couldn't set foot outside your house - but still, a gun would have made me feel safer. Call me crazy...

It breaks my heart to think of those in need of counseling and intervention who aren't getting it. I agree with you about meds as well. Again, like control, meds are often seen as the first answer. And they are not always the best way, as you've identified.

The main issue I have with gun control and meds is that people think they're the ultimate solution. Medicate them, not my problem anymore. Take guns away, world is safer.

I don't believe that. The demons driving these people to the point of taking so many other lives will just prompt them to find a different way to do the deed. Sadly.

mcewen said...

It is a very complex issue trying to get the balance right. Thank you for your thought provoking post.

Anonymous said...

Sandra, who was that studly guy you had a picture of in a box a while ago? He was hot! If his name was Scott he'd be called Sottie-too-hottie! Totally babe-a-licious!