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'Generation Columbine' has never known a world without school shootings

February 23,2018 01:12

Call them "Generation Columbine." Born during the first few years of the 21st century, our youngest Americans, from high schoolers on down, have never known a world without school shootings. The 1999 massacre at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo ...and more »

Greg Toppo  |  USATODAY

Call them "Generation Columbine."
Born during the first few years of the 21st century, our youngest Americans, from high schoolers on down, have never known a world without school shootings.
The 1999 massacre at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., took place before virtually all of them were born. These students have grown up in Columbine’s shadow, with locker searches, locked schoolhouse doors, bulletproof backpacks and active shooter drills.
Just as their grandparents feared polio and their parents feared nuclear war, these young people arrive at school each morning fearing death by high-powered rifle.
By one estimate, this generation has attended class through more than 200 school shootings since Columbine, which have effectively altered their sense of safety — psychologists would call the collective dread of rampages a “threat to your assumptive world.”
And now there is Parkland.
“It seems like there's been shooting after shooting, and the adults in power right now aren't doing anything,” said Paloma Mallan, a student at H-B Woodlawn High School in Arlington, Va., as she marched Wednesday in a Washington, D.C., student protest for tougher gun laws. “It could be us next. It could be one of our friends.”
Paloma's classmate Miranda Baltaxe also marched in the event, part of a nationwide effort after the massacre last week at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. “Thinking about how it could be you is really scary,” she said. “You're reading these texts that kids are sending to their parents, and it's like, ‘Well, what would I send?’” 
In Palm Bay, Fla., about 500 students at Heritage High School walked out of class on Wednesday in solidarity with students demanding that state lawmakers enact stricter gun control, safer schools and more mental health supports. 
“We shouldn't have to go to school and be in fear,” said Aniyah Smith, a Heritage junior. “We should feel safe.”
'These things happen every day'
Connecticut psychologist  Eric Schleifer, who specializes in treating teenage boys, said the 24/7 news cycle and the ubiquity of mobile news change kids’ conceptions of the bad things that are possible in school.
“Even 20, 30 years ago, unless it was a huge catastrophe, news was sort of local,” he said. “Now there’s just this sense that these things happen every day, all the time. My question is: How are kids able to process that?”
Until they’re teenagers, most children — especially boys — don’t have the capacity to process events as traumatic as a school shooting so they avoid thinking about it, Schleifer said. “They get this information, and then they tuck it away somewhere in a box,” he said. And eventually they begin avoiding nearly every stressful situation and potential disappointment. 

“I get a lot of kids who are just not doing their homework because it’s stressful,” Schleifer said. At the same time, many of his young patients feel upset with themselves for being so anxious since from the outside their friends and family members don’t seem as stressed.
In the past two years, he has seen “a huge uptick” in patients as young as 6 with “full-on anxiety and panic attacks,” students who simply can’t bear to go to school. “I did not see that seven, eight or nine years ago.”
He advises parents to talk to their kids about loss — their own personal loss. 
“What I often say to parents is, ‘Can you make the experience of loss more normal for kids so that they have the sense they’re not the only one to feel it?’”
News coverage of school shootings makes young people feel vulnerable even if they don’t know the victims, said David Schonfeld, a developmental-behavioral pediatrician in Los Angeles. In the face of such coverage, he said, adults should reassure children that schools are relatively safe places — and that there’s a lot being done at school to keep them as safe as possible.
But we shouldn’t be telling kids not to worry, he said. 
“We should ask them what they’re worried about,” Schonfeld said. “If we keep saying, ‘You shouldn’t be worried,’ then we’re telling them we don’t take their concerns as legitimate, and that we can’t deal with their concerns.”
Schonfeld, a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics Disaster Preparedness Advisory Council and director of the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement at the University of Southern California, said young people often turn to groups like street gangs precisely because they know that adults can’t protect them. They clearly see the dangers in being in a gang, but they also believe that their peers “are a more likely source of support than the adults that fail to protect them.”
208th shooting since Columbine 
Students are, for all practical purposes, quite safe at school. In the years from 1999 to 2013, homicides, bicycle accidents, firearm accidents, falls and swimming pool drownings accounted for 31,827 of the total 32,464 reported deaths, while deaths in school shootings numbered 154, or fewer than 0.5%, according to James Alan Fox, a professor of criminology, law and public policy at Northeastern University.
Put another way, a young person in the U.S. is nearly 11 times as likely to die in a swimming pool than in a school shooting. 
And most students say they feel safe in school. In a 2015 survey by federal researchers, just 3% of students ages 12-18 said they were “afraid of attack or harm at school” during the school year. Slightly fewer, 2%, said they were afraid of a similar attack outside of school. 
Yet the strain of school shootings can’t be underestimated. 
An ongoing analysis by The Washington Post estimates that since Columbine, more than 150,000 students in at least 170 primary or secondary schools have experienced a campus shooting.
The deadly attack last week in Parkland, Fla., represented the 208th school shooting since Columbine, according to the Denver-based news outlet Westword. That works out to more than one shooting per month, every month, for nearly 19 school years.
“What we want to be able to say to our kids is that this is something that really doesn’t happen, it’s an anomaly, it only happens once,” said Schleifer, the Connecticut psychologist. “We can’t say that anymore. You can’t put this thing in a box anymore and say, ‘This only happens on the other side of the world.’”
Journalist Dave Cullen, whose 2009 book Columbine remains the definitive account of the attack, continues to tour the U.S., reading from the book and speaking to student groups. Asked whether he thought he’d still be answering students’ urgent Columbine questions nearly a generation after the attack, Cullen said, “Not in a million years.”
As he was writing it, Cullen thought young people would be gripped by the narrative of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, two seemingly ordinary kids who somehow did the unspeakable.
But nine years later, he said, students are just as interested in Columbine’s survivors. 
“They really want to know what happened to these kids and how they got through it,” he said. “They tell me it feels like their life.”
After one public reading, he recalled, a teacher approached him with about 10 students in tow, saying the students couldn’t sleep because they wanted to know what happened to Patrick Ireland, a wounded student whose rescue through a broken window captivated onlookers nationwide on April 20, 1999. (Ireland survived.)
This week, Cullen is in Tallahassee, embedded with post-Parkland student protesters for a planned series in Vanity Fair. Speaking by phone from the Florida Capitol, he said students these days tell him they go to school with a kind of vague dread about being shot.
“Nobody feels like it’s imminent, like they’re going to die tomorrow,” he said. “But they do feel like it’s imminent for somebody.”
 Contributing: Marilyn Icsman, USA TODAY, Caroline Glenn, Florida Today. Follow Greg Toppo on Twitter: @gtoppo


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