The first anniversary of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting tomorrow is a good time to reassess what steps we have taken both to prevent a repeat and to help the community and the country heal. We should use this time to conduct a frank appraisal of what we have done—and what we commit to doing.
As a member of the Sandy Hook Advisory Commission, which recommended school safety and children’s mental health improvements to Connecticut’s leaders, I participated in an ongoing discussion that already has resulted in some significant legislative changes in that state. But elsewhere in the country, there’s been a striking absence of positive action.
When I responded to the shooting in Newtown, Conn., that first weekend, everyone I spoke to seemed to tell me that this was like no other crisis event. When I asked them why, I was told that this was the first time a shooting involved such young children and occurred in a community largely untouched by violence. Yet this tragedy actually wasn’t the first shooting affecting young children.
In 2006, 10 girls, ranging in age from 6 to 13, were shot execution-style by a gunman who entered a one-room Amish schoolhouse in Nickel Mines, Pa. Two of the older girls requested to be shot first so that the other children might be spared, and they were shot first—but the other children were not spared. Half of the children died as a result of their injuries; 3 of them were 7 or 8 years old. There isn’t a place in our country that would be less characterized by gun violence than an Amish schoolhouse. I would never compare one senseless slaughter with another; just because it happened before doesn’t minimize the tragedy when it happens again. But it seemed that many Americans somehow had forgotten about what happened in Nickel Mines. We now know that at least one person had remembered: the shooter at Sandy Hook, who had apparently read about, and identified with, the Nickel Mines killer.
I heard many people refer to Newtown as a wake-up call. But that was what I had heard after the shooting in Nickel Mines, and after countless other acts of school and community violence. I travel a lot for work and have noticed that over the past several years, when I call the hotel operator to ask for a wake-up call, I’m asked if I would like a second call. At first, I would ask why and was routinely told, “Just in case you sleep through the first call.” When did we come to expect to sleep through a wake-up call? When did failing to take even simple, basic action become the expectation?
There is a risk that when unthinkable tragedies occur repeatedly, we stop thinking about them. Ironically, we turn the unthinkable into something that we can think about, but simply choose not to. I remember speaking at one school in a violence-wracked community and having someone in the audience comment that it was normal for children to engage in gun violence—it was normal for children to be in gangs—and normal in this community for children to murder other children. I replied that it is never normal for children to murder other children—only tragically common in this community, perhaps. Once we accept it as normal, then we permit ourselves to stop doing everything in our power to change the status quo. We give ourselves permission to hit the snooze button and go back to sleep.
I direct the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement, and people often ask how I can work with schools and communities hit by disaster. They wonder how I can sleep at night. Bearing witness to the distress of others can be distressing. But helping them deal with that distress can be gratifying. I sleep better at night because I have at least tried to do something meaningful for those most in need.
There are no simple answers to complex problems. Any action, be it related to gun safety, mental health services, or other contributors to tragedies such as Sandy Hook, isn’t going to prevent other tragedies from ever happening. The reality is that there are many solutions. Rather than attack potential solutions as being simplistic, we should couple such critical thinking with thoughtful, decisive action.
It’s time for each of us to ask if we have personally done everything in our power to make sure something like Newtown doesn’t happen again and/or to take a conscious step to help victims, wherever they live, to deal with adversity and loss. If we can honestly answer yes or commit to acting in the future, we have truly resisted the temptation to hit the snooze button and fall back to sleep. If the answer is no, then I would simply ask, how can you sleep at night?
David J. Schonfeld is pediatrician-in-chief at St. Christopher’s Hospital for Children in Philadelphia and chair of pediatrics at Drexel University College of Medicine. He also directs the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement. Dr. Schonfeld can be reached at David.Schonfeld@drexelmed.edu.
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