Hiding in the ivory tower: Desensitization of violence in schools

Third Place, Editorial/Opinion Writing

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Blueprint Cartoon/Fin Soto

As I sit on the floor during yet another lockdown drill, I look around at my peers: talking, scrolling through their phones, eating–it’s just another routine.

Yet as I watch my unperturbed classmates, the truth begins to dawn on me: no other generation has had to endure this drill. Student indifference towards drills implemented to stop school shooters is just one example of how the implications of violence have little to no emotional impact on younger generations. Violence surrounds us everywhere– news, media, movies, games–to the point where we begin to block it out.

This epidemic spreads far beyond the Acalanes campus. American students are accustomed to violence in the news. Headlines shocked Americans in 2012 with news of the Sandy Hook shooting. The terrible tragedy was regarded as such; the events of Dec. 12 were horrifying, but they were also exceptional. Seven years and 1,997 mass shootings later, people skim over slaughterous headlines. Las Vegas, Pulse Nightclub, Stoneman Douglas, San Bernardino– while still equally horrifying, these mass shootings are no longer regarded as exceptional. They are customary.

When discussions on the difference between life and death become routine, it’s hard to take a step back. The culture around violence on the Acalanes campus lacks sensitivity surrounding violent topics and causes apathy within the student body.

As jokes and memes about school shootings surface, poking fun at horrific events becomes a trend. If you look up “school shooter” on Urban Dictionary, the top definition is “What you become when you lose a game of Kahoot or get kicked out of the game.”

As I was scrolling through that page, I have to admit that I laughed. So did most high schoolers who saw the post. But do teens truly find these jokes funny, or is it just a deflection mechanism? I believe it’s both. I’ve definitely made a joke here or there and laughed at a few memes; it’s easy to make fun of the school shooter stereotype, zone out the alarms, and joke with the rest. But as a school that has faced armed intruders on campus, one might think that Acalanes would be more sensitive to jokes on this topic. And while jokes may be too much for some students, the majority of us laugh along. As most humor on social media, school shootings now fit into the ‘relatable’ sector of comedy. Every kid in America faces the threat of a school shooter, and the fear that one could be sitting next to him or her.

It’s a heavy burden to carry, and because there doesn’t seem to be a solution coming anytime soon, students have found their own ways to cope, dark humor being a popular method. The flip side is the group of students that accept this type of humor as normal. They’ve accepted the fact that school shootings are a part of our culture and that the jokes come along with it.

That demonstrates that some students are desensitized to violence; they don’t see it as something to be resolved but something to accept. Either way, the notion that these jokes exist and are popularized with high school students is something that we shouldn’t take lightly. The longer the shooting epidemic drudges on, the more students that accept these jokes as permanent instead of temporary. While humor is a great way to cope with tough times, when received within a naive population it has a negative effect.

It is always easier to avert our eyes when confronted with uncomfortable and scary events. But as our culture begins to write off murder in an educational setting as something to be laughed at and that “just happens,” other issues arise. We do what we need to get by, and for many that includes not comprehending the enormity of mass shootings and the real threat posed to them and their loved ones. When the headlines blur together and break apart into insensitive jokes and an uneasy feeling in the pit of your stomach, you can close the tab, put down your paper and pretend the world does not apply do you.The magnitude only crashes over your head when it hits you close to home.

Stoneman Douglas was without a doubt the most impactful shooting in my school career. It felt personal, shocking, and heartbreaking. As I watched footage of terrified students within that school, not only did I feel panic for them, but for myself. It could’ve been my school. It could’ve been me watching my friends die be fore my eyes; it could’ve been me sitting terrified in the bathroom. Although I’d seen many other tragic shootings in that year and in past years, this one felt the most personal, the most raw.

Fear crept inside of me and swallowed me whole. Who should I look out for? Where’s the best place to hide in each of my classrooms? How could I escape? I quickly realized that while there were a significant group of people on campus who were affected by this horror, an even larger group was not. Vast numbers of students still felt fine walking through the halls and kept scrolling when they saw posts about the tragedy of those who died in Parkland. It was just another story to them; it wasn’t personal.

Their sensitivity, empathy and remorse for what had happened that Valentine’s Day was absent. The lack of impact on the students at Acalanes was proof they’d been desensitized to the violence that surrounded them so prominently for months and years on end. They’d come to numb it out, block it from their system. Carrying around the grief of numerous shootings and violent acts would be an extremely taxing feat, and to ask for every shooting and violent crime to be impactful would be unreasonable.

But to see that a high school, full of students just like yourself, was just shot up by a member of that same school should appear as a shock. Even if just for a moment, a day, a week- it should be felt. Making steps towards open discussions about issues with violence in America would provide a starting point to creating solutions. Although schools address topics surrounding shootings and how to report possible future suspects, it would be beneficial to create an open dialogue within the student body about the emotional impact of school shootings, as the threat of one can wash anxiety, fear and sadness over many students.

Learning to cope with emotions is a hard skill to adapt, but a necessary one in today’s culture surrounding violence. While there is no easy solution, raising awareness around the need for change is a step in the right direction. Feeling sad, frustrated and fearful is natural. It’s the magnitude of violence in the news that has forced us to push down these emotions because we can’t live in a state of constant terror. And we shouldn’t. We need to stand against violence and make change, because the next student that dies could very well be you.

This story was an honoree in the 2020 Lesher Awards competition.