Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of articles taking a non-partisan approach to deconstructing the problem of school shootings, and discussing solutions.
Post Parkland: Are We Missing The Mark?
People love narratives, and why not? They help us cope with a sudden tragedy when the pieces of the puzzle are either missing, hard to comprehend or even when we find it hard to face facts. Here we stand looking down the barrel of days gone by, salt in our still-healing wounds questioning things we could have done, should have done or would have done had we not let narratives get in the way. But in trying to understand school shootings and how to move forward in their wake, are we missing the mark?
What follows will not be popular among Republicans, nor should it be. Likewise, it will not be popular among Democrats, nor should it be. But it needs to be said to serve as a voice of reason in the aftermath of an event that somehow divided us when it should have brought each and every one of us together.
Failures of Epic Proportions
The story begins in February 1996 when Barry Loukaitis, a ninth-grade student who was continuously teased, arrived at Frontier Junior High in Moses Lake, Washington dressed in black and armed with a rifle. By the end of this school rampage, two students and a teacher had lost their lives. As unfavorable and vile as this shooting seemed at the time, it was only the beginning.
Two fatal shootings occurred in 1997. In October, Luke Woodham, then 16, killed his mother, went to his high school in Pearl, Mississippi with a gun, and shot nine students. Two of them died during the rampage. Two months later, during the holiday season, three students were killed and five injured, as a Michael Carneal, fourteen, brought a gun to a West Paducah, Kentucky school and opened fire in the hallway.
In March 1998, the death toll reached five during a shooting in Jonesboro, Arkansas. The shooting occurred when Andrew Golden, 11, and Mitchell Johnson, 13, pulled the fire alarm and waited in a nearby woods for the student population to make their way out of the building. Once they had a clear view of the students, they opened fire and claimed the lives of four girls and a teacher.
Three other shootings occurred that year, including one at a Fayetteville, Tennessee high school parking lot on May 19th. Only two days later in Springfield, Oregon, two teenagers were killed and more than 20 injured when Kip Kinkel, then 15, opened fire at his high school. In addition, Kip’s parents were found dead at their home.
There aren’t always warning signs. Among these school shootings, only three of the killers showed signs of aggression beforehand. Barry Loukaitis, who opened fire at his school in Moses Lake, Washington, wrote poetry about killing with the “ruthlessness of a machine” weeks before the incident. Kip Kinkel, who murdered his parents, then some students at his school in Springfield, Oregon, told a class that he dreamed of becoming a killer. Finally, Mitchell Johnson, the gunman at Jonesboro, became more aggressive in nature after his parents’ divorce in 1994.
The public questioned the mental health of the individuals involved, but did nothing. People even accepted the findings as “normal.” In fact, Scott Johnson, Mitchell’s father, stated, “He started talking back and always pushed the limits. Mitchell saw a therapist on one occasion after the divorce.” However, his mother, Gretchen, asserted, “A therapist for what? This is a little boy who played football and basketball and loved school.”
All of this happened before 1999, the year Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold entered Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado. Columbine ripped open the wounds of those still healing and exposed a fear we never thought possible. Harris and Klebold entered Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado armed with several guns, explosives and knives and murdered 12 students and one teacher. They injured 21 additional people, and three more were injured while attempting to escape the school. After exchanging gunfire with responding police officers, the pair committed suicide. The blame game started, and heavy metal musician Marilyn Manson seemed to find himself directly in the crosshairs of social controversy.
Eric Johns, a member of the now-defunct metal band Simple Aggression, was quick to defend Manson at the time, “Perhaps the reasons for such tragedies are right under all our noses and we just don’t want to see it,” he said in an interview. “We don’t want to believe that the society we raise our children in is somehow flawed.”
The “Motor City Madman” Ted Nugent, an avid gun enthusiast, chimed in during an interview with Metal Edge Magazine following the attack:
“I think Marilyn Manson and the bloody video games are silly and inconsequential — if parents give guidance… In the absence of any real parenting, Marilyn Manson and the recent video games and movies all of a sudden mean something.”
Jaysinn, a member of the Kentucky-based band Crush, wants to know:
“Why didn’t anyone show them some attention before this? Is this what one has to do to get some attention? If it is true that the music did play a part in this, how can the parents be so disconnected with their children that they aren’t aware that they have a hate-filled website, making bombs, or planning the mass-murder of their peers?”
Years passed, and many other shootings occurred, including one at Virginia Polytechnic Institute in 2007 by Seung-Hui Cho, 23, who went on to kill 32 people with a Glock 19 pistol and Walther P22 pistol before taking his own life. Like many before him, Cho began showing signs of mental instability during his adolescence, talking about suicide and murder during therapy sessions. However, the Virginia Tech professors who did take the time to notice Cho’s troubles “ended up doing little more than coddling him — rewarding his most troubling writing with grades of B and even A,” reported the Washington Post.
Just a few years later on December 14, 2012 in Newtown, Connecticut, 20-year-old Adam Lanza fatally shot 20 children between six and seven years old, as well as six adult staff members at Sandy Hook Elementary. Prior to driving to the school, he shot and killed his mother. As first responders arrived at the scene, Lanza committed suicide by shooting himself in the head.
The shooting prompted renewed debate about gun control in the United States, including proposals for making the background-check system universal, and for new federal and state gun legislation
banning the sale and manufacture of certain types of semi-automatic firearms and magazines with more than ten rounds of ammunition.
Ultimately, very little was done in the wake of Sandy Hook. The calls following the attack during a Las Vegas country music festival on October 1, 2017, were no different.
What Makes Parkland Different?
Fast-forward to February 14th, 2018 in the Parkland section of Coral Springs, Florida, when Nikolas Cruz entered Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School armed with an AR-15, murdered 17 students and left 15 others injured. When the issue of stronger gun control came up in the media, the high school students in Parkland jumped as if on command and issued tear-filled pleas while expressing anger and disgust at the NRA and President Donald Trump.
While at an anti-gun rally during the days that followed, Douglas High student Emma Gonzalez simply called, “B.S.” toward the organization known for their political clout and a president everyone loves to hate as tears streamed down her eyes.
Their anger is 100 percent justified, but given the facts emerging in Parkland’s wake, are they misguided this time around? Like many prior massacres on school grounds, there were warning signs — many of them — and this time they did not go unheard. Cruz had received mental health treatment but stopped going to a clinic, Broward Mayor Beam Furr told CNN and NPR. “We missed the signs,” said Furr, a former teacher. “We should have seen some of the signs.”
His social media posts also showed his love of weaponry. In the images, he sported dark bandanas over his face and beanies and baseball caps on his head. In one post, he wielded knives between his fingers as though they were claws. In another, he showed off a small black handgun. Cruz even appeared to have left an ominous comment on a Mississippi man’s YouTube channel in September. Ben Bennight, a Gulfport bail bondsman who goes by “Ben the Bondsman” on YouTube, said in a video posted Wednesday night that he spoke to FBI agents in September about a comment left on one of his videos by someone with the username “nikolas cruz.”
“I’m going to be a professional school shooter,” the commenter wrote. Bennight immediately reported it to FBI field agents in Mississippi, who visited him the following day for more information.
On Jan. 5, the FBI received a call on a tip line from a person close to Nikolas Cruz. The caller provided information on “Cruz’s gun ownership, desire to kill people, erratic behavior and disturbing social media posts, as well as the potential of him conducting a school shooting,” the FBI said.
Cruz even had a tortured history at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High, where he had been suspended for fights and having ammunition in his backpack. He was later expelled for “disciplinary reasons,” and was re-enrolled at a Broward school for at-risk youths.
The family who took him in immediately after his mother died told police he had threatened others with a gun months before the Parkland rampage, records show. But according to NPR, the school system overhauled its policies to reduce the number of children going into the juvenile justice system in order to curb what is known as the “school-to-prison” pipeline.
Under the program, non-violent misdemeanors would be handled by the schools instead of the police. Although the newly-implemented system helped many students, proper authorities were never notified of Cruz’s actions and comments.
Yet, according to a USA Today article, the Broward County sheriff’s office received 18 calls about Cruz’s violence, threats and guns:
Broward County deputies received at least 18 calls warning them about Nikolas Cruz from 2008 to 2017, including concerns that he “planned to shoot up the school” and other threats and acts of violence before he was accused of killing 17 people at a high school.
The warnings, made by concerned people close to Cruz, came in phone calls to the Broward County Sheriff’s Office, records show. At least five callers mentioned concern over his access to weapons, according to the documents. None of those warnings led to direct intervention.
In April, 2016, an unidentified caller told police that Cruz had been collecting guns and knives. The caller was “concerned (Cruz) will kill himself one day and believes he could be a school shooter in the making,” according to call details released by the Sheriff’s Office.
A second cousin asked police to take away Cruz’s guns after his mom died Nov. 1st. “Nikolas is reported to have rifles and it is requested that (deputies) recover these weapons,” the dispatcher noted from the call.
To make matters worse, the Florida Sun-Sentinel reported that instead of rushing in, several Broward sheriff’s deputies waited outside the high school while Cruz went on his rampage, according to other officers on the scene. These allegations emerged one day after another deputy, assigned as a school guard, resigned for also failing to enter the building. In all, at least three deputies waited outside, including School Resource Officer Scot Peterson.
Two additional deputies are being investigated over whether they mishandled warnings about Cruz in the months before the shooting. The FBI has admitted it failed to investigate similar claims, and the Florida Department of Children & Families, which looked into concerns about Cruz, concluded that he was no risk to himself or others.
While Emma Gonzalez and fellow classmate David Hogg are leading students nationwide to walk out of schools in favor of stronger gun control legislation, are their calls of “Enough is enough” missing the mark?
They do seem extremely misguided and even disingenuous given the long series of failures which have come to surface in Parkland’s wake.
The narrative of “more gun control” just doesn’t seem to fit the bill this time around. Andrew Pollack, whose 18-year-old daughter Meadow was shot nine times, said during a listening session with President Trump that he wouldn’t rest until students are protected from future shootings:
“I am here because my daughter has no voice. She was taken from us. This shouldn’t happen. We need to come together as a country and protect our children. Not think about different laws. Not as different parties. We go to the airport, I can’t get on the plane with a bottle of water, but we leave some animal to walk into a classroom and shoot our children. We protect airports, we protect concerts, stadiums, embassies, the Department of Education that I walked in today that has a security guard in the elevator. One school shooting and we all should’ve fixed it. And I’m pissed because my daughter I’m not going to see again. She’s not here. We all need to come together and come up with the right idea. It’s not about gun laws right now. That’s another fight, another battle. Let’s fix the schools. Security, consultants, whatever you have to do. And then you can battle it out over gun laws.”
One of the attendees at that very same session didn’t give his name but voiced support for arming teachers. He said he lost his sister in the Florida shooting and told the president that the attack “could have been a very different situation” if teachers were trained to shoot:
“Law enforcement takes seven, eight minutes to get there” in an emergency. If a teacher or a security guard has a concealed license and a firearm on their waist they’re able to easily stop the situation. Or the bad guy — I’ll put it that way — would not even go near the school knowing that someone could fight back against them.”
Patrick Neville, who survived the Columbine attack in 1999, agrees. In his current role as minority leader in the Colorado House of Representatives, he introduced a bill that would allow people with a concealed carry permit to bring guns into K-12 schools, arguing that more kids would have survived the attack had teachers been armed:
“This act would allow every law-abiding citizen who holds a concealed carry permit, issued from their chief law enforcement officer, the right to carry concealed in order to defend themselves and most importantly our children from the worst-case scenarios.”
In order to move forward in a productive manner, we need to know where we are. Judging by the response of the media, the politicians and students, we are simply not sure of our location. All we know is that we are at a crossroad.
Do we heed the media’s advice and let the words of Andrew Pollack fall on deaf ears? Do we follow the controversial advice of Neville as someone who has lived through the ordeal? Or do we face our fears, ask the questions that need to be asked and confront a fatally flawed system that allowed a tragedy of this magnitude to occur?
Something is fundamentally and morally wrong with us if we allow our children to get killed and not ask, “What happened?” without jumping to partisan attacks.
Maybe we afraid that the answers will present inconvenient truths that challenge our personal beliefs or biases.