Advocating for the Emotional Well-Being of Our Nation's Youth: Be the Canary in the Coal Mine
By Philip J. Lazarus
Intelligence plus character—that is the goal of a true education
—Martin Luther King
As a member of the NASP National Emergency Assistance Team, I was called upon a few years ago to do several media interviews following three school shootings within a 2-week period. Before a television appearance on the Glenn Beck Show, I was trying to think of a key message to communicate to the public and came up with, “Children are safe in school. The actual chance of being killed at school is less than one in a million. Send your children to school.”
During the first part of the interview, Glenn Beck asked me reasonable questions. I provided him with facts, warning signs, advice for parents, and statistics such as we are losing 25 students every 3 days to violence, the equivalent of a classroom of children. In one year, more than 3,000 children and teens die as a result of gun violence. More teenagers die from suicide than from cancer, birth defects, AIDS, pneumonia, influenza, and chronic lung disease combined. (CDC, 2007).
Then he asked, “So, Dr. Lazarus, what's going on with our society? Why all this violence? Are we like the Romans, feeding our kids to the lions?” Wow! How do you answer a question like that? For a moment, I felt like a deer in the headlights, but eventually talked about how we as a society glorify violence. We celebrate violence. By the time a child leaves elementary school, he or she has already witnessed more than 100,000 violent events on television and often cannot tell the difference between the bad guys and the good guys (Garbarino, Bradshaw, & Vorrasi, 2002). During the course of the interview, I explained how during World War I and World War II it used to take the military weeks or months to train soldiers to kill an enemy combatant. But now, with our point-and-shoot video games, our students have already practiced killing people while in elementary and middle school.
Yet, the next day, I could not get the question out of my mind. And I wished I had said, “The reason this all is happening is because our society is out of whack. We have neglected the emotional well-being of our nation's youth.”
I see school shooters as the canary in the coalmine. Canaries warn miners if there is a gas leak or if the air in the mine is becoming toxic. When the canaries die, the miners rush out of the mine. These school shooters are telling us, “Get out. Something is wrong. Go in a new direction.” But our society is still not paying attention. What more do our young people need to do than go to their school, kill their fellow classmates, teachers, and principals, and then kill themselves to signal to society that something is gravely amiss?
Unfortunately, targeted school shootings still continue. Fortunately, more often than in the past, authorities are being alerted. Yet now, students believe they must commit mass rampage to get national headlines. For example, this week (at the time of this writing),
Police arrested an expelled 17-year-old student who allegedly plotted to blow up his former high school in Tampa on the first day of class. He had allegedly amassed materials to make an explosion that he hoped would kill more people than the Columbine High School massacre. (http://abcnews.go.com/US/wireStory?id=14242679)
While last week, “Authorities in suburban New Orleans uncovered a plot by three teenagers for an incredible and devastating attack at their high school during the first day of classes, with plans for two specific targets, indiscriminate shooting, and suicide” (http://www.tribune-chronicle.com/page/content.detail/id/143720/Sheriff--School-shooting-plot-in-Louisiana-foiled-.html?isap=1&nav=5029). And that same week, a school principal was allegedly brutally stabbed to death by a 17-year-old student at Memphis Junior Academy, a private church-affiliated school (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/08/11/suzette-york-school-princ_n_924276.html).
So I ask: Do we, as school psychologists, believe that our society or our schools are taking good care of the emotional well-being of our nation's youth? If not, I believe it is now our responsibility as school psychologists to be the canary in the coalmine and shout out the clarion call that something is terribly amiss and we must change direction. If not us, then who will?
We as school psychologists can offer many solutions. (Please see the accompanying article in this issue for one approach that emphasizes social–emotional learning.) As a fundamental first step, we must make a commitment to educate the whole child, and that includes the mind, body, and spirit. As Teddy Roosevelt once said, “To educate a person in mind and not morals is to educate a menace to society.”
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2007). Suicide trends among youths and young adults aged 10–24 years—United States—1990–2004. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Review, 56, 905–908. Retrieved from http://www.bradycampaign.org/search/?q=youth+violence.
Garbarino, J., Bradshaw, C. P., & Vorrasi, J. A. (2002). Children, youth, and gun violence. The Future of Children, 12(2), 72–85.