Opinion: School leaders are only hope of ending gun violence

Gordon State College dean says schools must act because politicians won’t

Joseph R. Jones is dean of the School of Education and Applied Sciences at Gordon State College, a public college in Barnesville. In a guest column, he talks what schools can do about preventing more school shootings in the absence of a comprehensive political response. Jones researches homophobia and bullying in educational environments and creating safe schools. In 2014, he was awarded a prestigious award from Auburn University and the National Anti-Bullying Summit for his scholarship and service.

By Joseph R. Jones

On a recent news report about Uvalde, Texas, I listened to an account of the last few moments of one student’s life. The little girl was shot in the back, and the bullet traveled through her kidney. She bled to death.

The reporter’s words took me back to being a high school English teacher at a professional learning session entitled “Stop the Bleed.” At the session, a police officer told us, “It is not if a shooting happens, but when it happens. You need to learn how to place a tourniquet to stop a student from bleeding out. You may need to step over your students you know will die to place a tourniquet on a student across the cafeteria who has a chance of living.”

His words still haunt me. I remember raising my hand, “So, you mean I am to step over my student and allow him or her to die alone so that I can place a tourniquet onto a student I have never met? Is that what I heard?”

His response still shocks me, “Yes, Dr. J. That is correct.” He said it with such conviction and ability. In that moment, I prayed that I would never have to make such a decision.

The next year, as my door was open and my students working in groups in the hallway, a young girl ran down the hallway screaming, “He has a gun.” Immediately, I pulled all of the students into my room and locked my door. I covered the door’s rectangular glass window. I gathered students in the corner while they texted their parents and cried silently. The school went into lockdown.

My students and I watched as the front of the school was surrounded by every law enforcement officer in the county. I stood there attempting to calm students while remembering the officer’s words from last year, praying that our school was not the next statistic. It was one of the most terrifying moments of my life and profession. It was a moment that most Americans will never encounter (which is also a reason there has been no change).

The weapon turned out to be a pellet gun, but the emotionality of the moment is still with me. It is now part of my college’s teacher preparation courses. I never believed that one day classroom preparation would involve readying teachers for school shootings. Yet, this is the state of American education.

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Joseph R. Jones (Courtesy photo)

Credit: Courtesy Photo

Joseph R. Jones (Courtesy photo)

Credit: Courtesy Photo

Combined ShapeCaption
Joseph R. Jones (Courtesy photo)

Credit: Courtesy Photo

Credit: Courtesy Photo

The purpose of schooling is to reimagine society and positively influence it. Schools are responsible for creating a better society, framed upon the ideals of humanity. Given our current political climate, schools must once again solve a challenge within the broader society.

According to The Violence Project (a national non-partisan organization funded through the National Institute of Justice), “98% of mass shooters identify as male,” and a majority are white. More than 80% were in a noticeable crisis before their shooting, of which some include abusive behavior, isolation, and increased agitation. Moreover, hate-motivated mass shootings rapidly increased since 2015.

The Violence Project examined data specific to school shootings: 91% of shooters were a current or former student, 87% were in crisis, 80% were suicidal, 78% leaked plans ahead of the shooting and 50% of the shooters specifically targeted someone.

According to the research, there are some important findings for schools. First, educators at all levels must create inclusive educational settings. It is imperative that every student feels valued and affirmed. Further, all students need to feel a sense of belonging to the school culture.

Secondly, educators must teach empathy. We want to believe that most students have the ability to empathize with others, but from my experiences as a high school teacher and college professor, students lack empathy. Recognizing others’ pain and experiences can be powerful tool in creating a safe classroom.

As a teacher educator, I regularly address topics associated with mental health, but I will devote more time to preparing future teachers to understand the role it plays. Such discussions have primarily been regulated to graduate students in school counseling programs, but teachers who interact daily with students need to be prepared to recognize signs and symptoms.

Another aspect is creating an environment where students feel safe sharing concerns. Students are immersed in social media, and many are aware of school events before they occur because of social media. Students are also surrounded with student gossip, most of which teachers never discover. They need to be encouraged to share information. Schools should shift away from a culture of silence to a culture of responsible citizenry.

Finally, we must examine how males are socially normalized. I argue males’ beliefs about violence are socially constructed differently than their female counterparts. Researchers suggest males are less empathetic, which implies that male students should be targeted when attempting to develop empathy within the student body. There are reasons why most mass shooters are white males, and schools must examine those reasons and socially constructed beliefs of masculinity, especially white masculinity.

As I stood in my classroom, my view vacillated between 30 students crammed in the corner and the police officers outside my windows. In that moment, I hoped they would save us. I hoped that I would not have to stop the bleed. In that moment of crisis, my mind was completely focused on my students and their pain. With another shooting, my mind is once again focused on students and my role in combatting the problem.

Schools must do something because our political leaders are not attempting to make any reasonable changes. Until they do, schools must save themselves and our society, as we always must do when irrationality is accepted over intellectualism.