I was a seventh-grader in a nearby Colorado middle school in lockdown for eight hours during the Columbine shootings on April 20, 1999 — 19 years ago this month. After the murders, people made all kinds of hypotheses about what could possibly possess two teenage boys to turn on their fellow students. The reasons people gave way back then were refreshingly free of the current, incessant scapegoating of mental illness: video games, violence in the media (“The Matrix” was still in theaters), bad parenting, even the role of psychotropic medications, which both of the perpetrators were either on or withdrawing from at the time of the crime.
The main reason I remember adults, teachers and school administrators giving for why Columbine was transformed into an execution chamber that day was this: their peers. It wasn’t stated outright, of course, but what else was I supposed to think when the only response of the adults around me was, “If only their fellow students had reported unusual behavior, maybe this could have been stopped”?
Never mind that the police didn’t follow up on a tip from one of Eric Harris’ formerly close friends because they “lost the report.” Never mind that a friend of the shooters bought the Hi-Point 9mm Carbine from unlicensed sellers at a gun show and that the sale was considered an illegal “straw purchase” because it was for someone else. Or that the gunmen bought a TEC-DC9 for $500 from a coworker who knew they were too young to buy assault pistols. Never mind that the boys wore swastikas for any adult to see. No, it was their peers who were at fault — not just for bullying them or, apparently, not befriending them, but also for not properly diagnosing and reporting red flags in their behavior.
My fellow seventh-graders and I were instructed by teachers and school administrators to “report suspicious behavior” of our peers. We were given zero guidelines on how to discern “suspicious behavior” from “normal teenage boy” behavior. We were also given no way to process the trauma. Instead of finding comfort in solidarity with classmates or connection with caring adults, we were suddenly viewed, each of us, as potential terrorists by adults and trained to keep a vigilant eye out to protect ourselves from each other.
Instead of finding comfort in solidarity with classmates or connection with caring adults, we were suddenly viewed, each of us, as potential terrorists by adults.
A different version of this victim-blaming is happening now. Some of the Parkland survivors organized an awe-inspiring walk-out a month after their school was terrorized by gun violence on Valentine’s Day this year and it’s admirable that so many young Americans took part. Besides, they can’t do the only thing adults seem to think is a “solution,” which is to vote out the politicians who support the NRA, as if the NRA isn’t adept at making converts and well-equipped financially to do so; what else are these kids supposed to do? And yet, they are being told that protesting the immoral inaction of adults isn’t the answer; reaching out to at-risk peers is. Twenty years ago, shooting sprees were kids’ faults for not turning their peers in. Now kids are to blame because they’re not friendly enough?
Twenty years ago, shooting sprees were kids’ faults for not turning their peers in. Now kids are to blame because they’re not friendly enough?
No. “Walk Up, Not Out” is a campaign of cowardice and control (of kids rather than guns) just as much as the exhortation to report suspicious behavior was self-serving on behalf of adults. Kids are not responsible for the unacceptable state our culture is in and it is shameful that they have to take responsibility to ensure they make it to voting age. We have so stripped our culture of any sense of loyalty or duty to each other (even that word “duty” sounds antiquated or like I have a military background), so packed the way we live full of individualism and self-aggrandizement, that we can’t see the choice to protect ourselves against a theoretical enemy, against whose regulatory and surveillance might guns are of very little use anyway, over protecting our young from a very real one for what it is: an almost incomprehensible moral and practical failure.
Megan Wildhood is a writer, advocate in the mental health community and published poet and essayist living in Seattle.
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