When two former students from our school system were killed in the King Soopers market shooting in my city earlier this year, my heart broke — again. Another school shooting near Detroit Tuesday reminded me that it’s been breaking for more than half of my life.
It first broke more than two decades ago when the Columbine massacre happened. As a 21-year-old, I was stirred to publish a piece in the Hartford Courant on the deeper layers behind that unprecedented mass school shooting.
My heart continues to break that we aren’t giving young people the skills they need to cope with life. However, after serving more than 20 years as an educator, district leader, researcher and trainer, something in me has changed.
We need to vastly boost spending in social emotional learning (SEL) and provide more expansive mental health resources for youth.
After the Columbine and Sandy Hook school shootings, I was not certain about what to do. Now it is crystal clear.
We need to vastly boost spending in social emotional learning (SEL) and provide more expansive mental health resources for youth. Polls indicate that even before the pandemic many youth felt hopeless about the future. School shootings were their biggest stress. New surveys show Covid-19 has worsened mental health problems for young people.
We invest a lot of focus and money into helping youth find glory in sports, business or in fighting battles in far off lands. Our society glorifies the “make-my-day” Clint Eastwood archetype, a man who uses violence to deal with people who don’t show us respect.
Meanwhile, research suggests every dollar we invest in SEL brings a return of $11 dollars, and yet we are not committing adequate resources to enhance the social skills of our young people, or help them effectively navigate emotions. These capacities are increasingly important as they grapple with higher levels of loneliness and isolation in the pandemic.
The five core skills of SEL are self-management, self-awareness, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making.
What if the young men who became mass killers in Detroit, Boulder, Atlanta and Indianapolis had been part of SEL education that focused on these important tenets? What if we had not missed the opportunity to nourish their hearts and spirits when they were 6, 11 or 16? What if we created post-pandemic spaces for our youth to bring forth their most authentic selves where they can feel seen, heard and truly known?
What if our young people experienced school as a place of connection, relationship and community?
As a teenager, I often felt isolated and invisible despite faring pretty well in academics and athletics. Those feelings changed when I joined a weekly “rites of passage” group for high school seniors.
This SEL group provided me a sense of belonging, self-worth, resilience and hope that buoyed me through challenging times. Those types of groups were highly uncommon 25 years ago. Sadly, they still are today.
SEL supports the flourishing of both internal capacities and our ability to connect more deeply with others. We need to start with young people’s hearts. This will also help prevent bullying that can propagate antisocial behavior and lead to school shootings.
SEL it is not a panacea. The toxic mix of mental illness and guns will not disappear. But we can connect with and support some young people before they kill.
The question is: Do we have the will as a culture?
If we apply the same intensity to investing in pro-social classrooms and mental health support as we apply to discovering the motive of the last killer, we can prevent school shootings instead of dissecting them after they happen.
How much more heartbreak is necessary before we realize that killers start out as children crying for help?
Ari Gerzon-Kessler is an educational consultant and leads trainings on SEL and strengthening school-family partnerships. Previously, he served 16 years as a principal, assistant principal, and bilingual teacher
This op-ed about school shootings was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.