What is the nation to do when the lives of 20 precious and innocent first graders can be violently taken in the presumed safety of their neighborhood public school? What of the lives of the heroic teachers and administrators who perished trying to protect their students? We grieve, as perhaps we have never grieved a school tragedy before. Sadly we have too many for comparison. The deadly rampages from Columbine to Virginia Tech to Sandy Hook really must come to an end. But how?
Violent deaths at schools have actually declined significantly over the last two decades. The most recent rates are a third lower than in the early 1990s. Homicide among young people, regardless of location, has dropped by nearly half. Youth suicide has declined over the last decade. Connecticut has among the very lowest rates of homicide and suicide in the nation. We are making progress protecting our children. And, the very place where a suicidal killer brought unspeakable horror and sadness is one of the last places in the country where this would be expected to happen.
Yet, Sandy Hook was not a completely random unpreventable act either. Let me suggest two answers. The perpetrators of these horrendous mass murders are by all accounts deeply despondent, so much so that their deeds inevitably end in suicide. The hopelessness that leads young people to embrace suicide is a mental health issue of the first order—and the harder lesson to learn here. There is an easier lesson. While youth suicide rates have declined over the last two decades, attempts at suicide have remained constant. The rates of consummated suicide have also remained constant by all methods except one: deaths by firearms have fallen sharply.
Firearms are nearly always lethal in suicide attempts, other methods much less so. Pure and simple, we are losing fewer young people to suicide today, not because they are any less despondent, but because firearms are less available for them to take their lives. The statistics here are dramatic. Less access to guns, leads to fewer suicides. However guns are limited is for gun control experts to determine. But there is no question that troubled youth would do less violence to themselves and others if guns were not on hand when hopelessness and fantasies of violence overcome them.
What about youth hopelessness and depression? The last two decades have seen progress in diagnosis and treatment. But not enough. Consider suicide rates, the ultimate indicator. From the 1950s through the 1970s, the suicide rate among males 15-24 tripled, among females it doubled. The recent progress in reducing suicide rates does not bring us anywhere close to levels the nation once enjoyed. Experts have identified likely causes of the long-term trend—broken families (let’s not call them non-traditional), weakening community ties, declining religious bonds; in essence the stuff that is often called social capital, the relationships that make human beings feel wanted, supported, loved, purposeful. This is familiar territory, hardly controversial. And it does not minimize the importance of other sources of depression or mental illness. The Sandy Hook shooter may have been afflicted in ways that have nothing to do with his social capital.
But social capital is something that our schools might help the nation do something about. I’m an educator. I have no answers for why we have become a nation that is “bowling alone” as Harvard professor Robert Putnam famously described it in his study of the nation’s anomie. But schools can do a lot to help students feel wanted and supported. Part of helping students learn is helping them feel safe to make mistakes, to show their weaknesses, to know they are loved regardless of their academic, athletic or social strengths and weaknesses. Our elementary schools tend to be pretty good at this—and the love that Sandy Hook tried to show its students was painfully obvious.
But our middle schools and high schools are generally not very good at emotional reinforcement. Maybe it’s their size. Maybe the teachers, with their subject specializations, have too many students to know them well. Maybe the kids define the culture and not the adults. But as we consider how to improve our schools academically, we must simultaneously consider how to improve them culturally. In a society with shallower roots and weaker bonds, our schools must be places where all students are embraced, protected and guided. Our schools cannot change the gun laws, but our schools can be havens from the social forces that lead our children to lose hope.
Photo Credit: AP Photo/Julio Cortez