T. Elijah Hawkes: Are our shooters gunmen or boys? Implications of seeing the kid within the killer
This commentary is by T Elijah Hawkes of Middlesex, an educator and author. His most recent book is “Woke Is Not Enough: School Reform for Leaders With Justice in Mind” (2022).
When children are killed by adults or other children, it is a sign that the family, community, or society has a problem. Killing children isn’t how the life cycle is supposed to turn.
Yet in the headlines of any given month, one can find stories of a parent killing their own children, police killing a child, soldiers shooting children deemed enemy, one nation’s army with my nation’s support bringing devastation to the children of another land. And there are also the stories of children killing children in schools.
What is troubling in all of this — and what paradoxically gives me some degree of hope — is this dreadful notion: that police and armies, for all that they protect an “us,” have been killing other people’s children throughout the history of human civilization . And sick and desperate parents have killed their children throughout time. And armies have committed war crimes since the dawn of nations.
I don’t mean to be complacent about such bloodshed. I simply mean to say it’s part of a terrible human inheritance and tradition.
In contrast, what is new and perhaps more preventable is this phenomenon of children killing other children in our country’s schools. By my reading of history, this is new. By my reading of contemporary society and politics, it is preventable. And that prevention will require martyrdom.
But those martyrs will not be kids. They will be politicians and other adults willing to self-sacrifice — to lose an election or career — for what they know in their heart is right, and for the trust of children they cannot continue to betray.
I’ve written this all before. The last time was in 2018 when I was a school principal doing my own investigation into an alleged homicidal threat. Alas, when school shootings occur these days, many of us can recycle, word-for-word, the thoughts we had in the aftermath of the last one.
In 2018, when I wrote of martyrs and sacrifices, I was thinking of politicians taking a stand for gun control. But now I’m thinking about other policy considerations in the wake of the mass murders in New York and Texas. And I’m thinking about the age of each shooter: 18.
We can call these killers “gunmen,” but we can also call them boys. The “man” in “gunman” speaks to adulthood, independence, and personal responsibility for an act that is theirs, not ours. “Teenager” or “boy,” on the other hand, speaks of childhood and implies the collective adult failing whenever children do terrible things with the tools and ideas we’ve given them.
When a society’s children do harm, the adults of that society have to look in the mirror. How well did we know these children? How well supported were their caregivers, including the teachers and counselors who saw them every day at school? What did their schools know about them beyond English and math scores? How well did their educators know their thoughts and feelings? How many adults in their world could sense their emotional state? How well did their peers trust the adults, such that they would tell us if something was not right?
In the days after the Texas shooting, little is being shared about the teenager who killed the elementary school children. We know a bit more about the teenager who committed mass murder in a Black neighborhood in Buffalo, New York.
Relevant to this discussion of schooling, we know that when the Buffalo shooter spoke of murder-suicide at school, the police were notified and they determined he wasn’t a threat to himself or others.
This invites questions: What additional resources could have been brought to bear? What relationships were needed — in that moment and in his past — to gain a deeper understanding of his feelings? How well did we know this boy’s ideas — about race, nationhood, and himself?
The second thing I’ve discovered about the Buffalo shooter and his schooling has to do with the course catalog at his high school, which explains the topics and themes of the classes students take.
How a school’s classes are described speaks to the school’s priorities for learning. In the course catalog of the Buffalo shooter’s high school, one will find only one mention of the word “democracy,” just one mention of the word “freedom” (in a studio art class), and there is no mention of the word ” racism.” This suggests that the curriculum is silent on important matters.
How can we care for children as citizens if we don’t know their thinking about our nation’s history and their own place in it? How can we care for children when we don’t have resources — in addition to the police — when children speak of violence?
I’m not blaming any educator for what happened. I know full well the painful feelings that come when you are surprised by suicidal or homicidal ideation of students you thought you knew well. I am saying, however, that we need to increase our support for the educators who are responsible for the emotional and intellectual welfare of our nation’s children.
A debate about gun control and gun rights will dominate the policy discussions in the weeks to come, but there are additional policy priorities we need to have in focus.
It is time for a colossal investment in the professionals who care for children, including educators. In this village that it takes to raise a child, we need more adults who know the children well and can help them when they are showing signs of danger to themselves or others.
Educators, like all professionals, have a moral compass that guides them in their work. They are also guided by incentives and practical supports. We need to act quickly.
At a time when educators are leaving the field, we need more of them. In an era when the needs of kids are becoming more complex, we need educator training suited to the challenge. In a time when there is pressure to silence discussions of race and identity in schools, we need to conduct these conversations with deeper resolve and care. And in a time of inflation and rising health care costs, we need to compensate educators and caregivers better for their work.
Murder by teenagers is preventable. When enough adults know the children well — and when their peers trust us to respond with care — we can discover distress and prevent harm from happening.
The question is whether our nation’s leaders will support those who support children with the same fervor as they do those who make weapons of war. Where will Congress put the next $40 billion? Substantial investment in our educator infrastructure requires leadership at the national level. The men we call gunmen were children just yesterday. Support for those who support children will make us all more safe.
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