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School shooters and creating safe spaces


WORLD Radio - School shooters and creating safe spaces

How can we reckon with the school shooting epidemic? And what does it mean to be a safe space for the kids and teens in our lives?

KELSEY REED: Hello, welcome to Concurrently: The News Coach Podcast from WORLD Radio and God’s WORLD News. We’re here to come alongside you as you disciple kids and students through culture and current events. I’m Kelsey Reed. I’m here with Jonathan Boes.


KELSEY: Together, we want to model conversation and apply tools you can use at home or in the classroom. We would love for you to send in your questions for us to address in future episodes. Please send your questions to newscoach@wng.org.

JONATHAN: Before we get started today, we wanted to let you know that, as you’ve probably already seen from the episode title, we are covering a heavy topic. It might be disturbing for some listeners, especially younger listeners. So if you are listening around young children, we just want you to be aware: We’re going to be talking about some heavy things in today’s episode.

KELSEY: We also want to make particular acknowledgement of our teachers who are listening today. Parents, we speak to you always as primary, and you are. But in this particular situation, this topic rubs into those who have experienced the classroom in the world since Columbine. So we want to acknowledge teachers. This is an area where you have been on the front lines. You have had to learn things you never expected to have to learn. You have experienced things you never expected to experience. And we are so very thankful for the way you engage the students in front of you. We hope this conversation is honoring to your experience.

JONATHAN: We have described our role on this podcast as “professional learners.” As we approach this topic, we know there are people who have had such a more personal experience with it, and that we have so much to learn. But we’re hoping our words can be an encouragement and help even so.

As you’ve probably surmised, today the topic at hand is school violence, specifically school shootings. We saw this really start in 1999 with Columbine [Note: Not the first school shooting, but the nation's deadliest to date, and the event that put today's trend of school shootings into public consciousness], all the way up to the current news cycle. As we are recording this, we are still hearing more updates about the Michigan State University shooting, which as of the last update had four deaths and five non-fatal injuries. It’s one more example of this dark cloud hanging over all discussions of education, of life with children in America for really the last over two decades now.

The last thing to clarify, before we really get into this: Most discussions about this topic come from people trying to seek solutions, trying to determine the best way to solve this problem, to stop the violence, whether that’s through policies or through whatever means. Those are such important discussions. But for this podcast, where we exist to equip parents, teachers, and mentors, we really want to focus on the question of “How do we walk our kids through this existing reality we’re living in?”

KELSEY: Yes. We want to equip the conversation that we hope you are having.

JONATHAN: We don’t want to get into the weeds of questions about gun control and things like that. We want to get into the questions of how we as parents and teachers faithfully disciple in the here and now. So Kelsey, when we approach an issue like this, especially one so difficult and complex, we often start with observation. I’ll just ask: What are you observing?

KELSEY: Well, in a big picture sense, I notice there’s an attraction to the simple explanation for events like this. Dr. Peter Langman—who’s made it his life’s study to follow shooting incidents and to compile and understand the data to help us think through good responses—he’s quoted for having said: “The attraction of simple explanations is that, if there’s a simple explanation, there’s a simple solution.” In an issue that is incomprehensible, we want to find and fill it with an explanation.

JONATHAN: I notice that every time this comes up in the news, there’s always the immediate hot take. Susan Olasky had a great piece on the WORLD Magazine website about this, how when there is an act of violence like this, there’s always the rush to pin it on a certain policy, or on racism, or on a certain religious background. There’s always this draw to find one simple explanation we can get our minds around and our hands around, to take the uncontrollable and control it.

KELSEY: Her wisdom plays out even further when she talks about not only avoiding that hot take, but looking for the heart behind the hot take. We talk a lot about emotions and emotional response for the sake of developing that emotional intelligence, emotional health. We’re diving into the emotional response again, because that is the heart-level response here. So immediate emotional responses: We are going to have fear, anxiety. We’re going to be angry. We might even seek to numb.

JONATHAN: And there is a proper negative emotional response to this, right? Because we are seeing something that is grievous and broken, something that is wrong. I think it is a right to feel grief, to feel anger when we see these things. That’s not where we want to live long term. We don’t want to build our home in that angry place and become wrathful people. But I do think there is a part of this that should anger us.

KELSEY: Absolutely. We see so much of scripture honoring and affirming an emotional response to the things that are broken in this world. Psalms. Be angry, do not sin. Jesus weeping at the death of Lazarus. There are so many things we can and need to affirm in the emotional response, as much to sustain that mental health we’re talking about. If we do not acknowledge those things, we can be complicit in the trauma, and in that mental unhealth.

We observe this in Parkland, Florida, the high school that went back to school two weeks after the incident. It was the five-year anniversary on Valentine’s Day, so it’s in the news again, it’s in the waters. There was a decision made by administration to rush back into structures with the hope that everyday routines would be a part of regaining mental health or moving on from tragedy. Often, that is not the wisest way. We must acknowledge the trauma that happened, the emotion that responded.

JONATHAN: Part of that comes back to embracing the complexity, that there are those complex emotions we can either ignore or deal with directly. There can be a great danger in just ignoring it or pretending those emotions aren’t there.

KELSEY: And we want to be really careful. We humbly recognize the complexity of this. We humbly recognize that we don’t know all the solutions, that men like Dr. Langman and so many others have vast wisdom and experience to be able to suggest good practices. We want to point towards those resources. And we want to, again, invite those conversations for the sake of health.

JONATHAN: So we’re observing the emotional realities of this. But just to back up a little bit into the statistics, the facts on the page: What do we observe about these events, and what makes them common?

KELSEY: Some of the things that we see in the data: One thing we’re noticing is that, the vast majority of shooters, they’re between the ages of 13 and 25. It is not even so simple as that. There have been incidents with guns with six-year-olds, incidents with intent. Similarly, there have been incidents with intent with individuals as old as 78. Again, the complexity. But if we’re looking at the range that is most specific to our topic area, the shooters are more often than not young men.

JONATHAN: We’re again approaching this from the perspective of parents, teachers, mentors of kids and teens. And the kids and teens in this situation really fall into two categories, and those categories certainly overlap. There are the kids and teens who are on a path to committing violence, or who have committed violence. And then there’s the kids and teens who are affected by this violence, whether directly or just existing in this culture where they have lockdown drills in their schools and they hear these things on the news. So to start, maybe we could zero in on the category of kids who are at a risk, so to speak, for committing acts of violence. And what do we see there going on emotionally or spiritually, driving them to this place that is so incomprehensible?

KELSEY: I’m going to try to anchor my thoughts in Dr. Langman’s observations. He constructed three basic categories for types of shooter.

There is the psychopathic shooter, one who has a loss of or really no empathy. And I’m going to be using masculine pronouns because the vast majority of shooters are young boys. So he has no empathy, is narcissistic, godlike in his thoughts towards himself. He thinks that he is above, and often is very homicidal, or even sadistic.

And then a second category is psychotic, which is different from the psychopathic in that the psychotic hears voices in his head, struggles with paranoia or delusion. This type is often more suicidal than homicidal.

And then there’s the third category, the one we often oversimplify to, which is the traumatized. So we think of the victim of bullying, or of violence in the home, or someone who has witnessed violence either in the home or in close community.

There is a correlation to what’s going on in the home, whether a child feels known or is known. But I’m going to flip the tables on that as well. Even that is an oversimplification in some ways. In the instance of the perpetrators of the Columbine shooting, we see that one of them was a very good liar, was charming and able to deceive. And the other one was maybe just coming across as a little quirky. So even when you know and love your children, and there are two parents in the home, there is still this deep potential for depravity in the heart.

In our emotional health episode, we talked about trying to be careful about responsibility and shame and blame. We want to be really careful to acknowledge that there are so many factors outside of our control.

JONATHAN: Absolutely. And it’s a reminder, maybe, that the depravity in the human heart doesn’t come from outside things we can control or try to hold back and put up walls. It comes from inside the human heart. If we put our kids in a closed box and never allow the world to touch them, depravity will still come up from inside of them, because we are fallen people. There is no way we can control all the depravity in the human heart,

KELSEY: We ask the nature or nurture question. The answer to the nature/nurture question is “yes.” Sin is both something that wells up from within our nature, and is also something that comes by exposure and experience. And that means that there are manifold responses. We’ll get into that a little bit more. But what it looks like to be faithful disciplers of our children first requires us to acknowledge that observation, that sin is something both from without and from within.

JONATHAN: So we’re seeing broadly these different types of school shooter, and that all of this flows from a brokenness that both comes from within and from without. It’s a brokenness that has been there from the fall of man.

So the second category, the category we’re all probably more directly familiar with: kids who have been affected by this cultural trauma, whether they’re hearing about it on the news, or just going through lockdown drills in the school and having this as a possibility in the backs of their minds, even if it has not directly happened to them. Where do we begin to shepherd kids and students through this?

KELSEY: I think one of the most important things we can do is actually listen to one another’s stories, and even think of the broad story of a generation. For Generation X, it wasn’t a part of our reality. It became a part of our reality. But for Generation Z, this has always been their reality. It has been a part of the characteristic of a generation. These lockdown drills, like you mentioned—the need to have ordinary practices in their lives to make it something that they don’t question, and for the sake of conservation of life, that they need to know what it looks like to respond and respond quickly. So that is a part of the story of many of the children in front of us. And it’s important, I think, for us to listen to the stories they tell, and maybe even probe into them in order for their hearts to be laid bare. I know my seven-year-old has gone through a lockdown drill. We need to, in those moments, ask some questions. It’s an opportunity to continue to insert the hope of the gospel there.

JONATHAN: That’s so important. Because again, as grownups, we are so quick to rush into the philosophical discussion or the political discussion, conversations that are somewhat disconnected from the ground level experience. It’s so often the younger generation who has those stories and that true emotional experience.

KELSEY: That requires a sensitivity, or a posture of curiosity, to be able to read between the lines of the very first line of story and to draw out that story, particularly from a younger thinker. I know that my daughter will not continue talking about that specific lockdown experience unless I start asking her some more questions, gently. My 16-year-old is going to be a different story. And she may discuss some of her emotions more readily. But be ready to be curious and draw out their story with some questions. And be willing to also listen perhaps to the stories of your peers, the stories of teachers, of parents, of those who have been in a situation. Because at this point, with 336,000 persons directly affected by school shootings through the years, the chances are that you know somebody who has been in the context of an incident. So a posture of curiosity: Let’s ask some questions. Let’s be willing to know the person in front of us, which is a big part of what we’re talking about. Knowing and observing the person and not merely the data.

JONATHAN: What do we do when our kids come to us with the “why” question? Because that’s a big question and a very grownup question that you don’t need to be very grown up to ask. It’s really just the question of “Why does this happen?” Or even “Why does God allow this to happen?”

KELSEY: Those “why” questions, they are not a throwaway questions. If your child is asking that question—parent, teacher, it is so vital that you honor that question with a response that is developmentally appropriate. That also varies according to the actual children in front of you and what they can bear.

Again, this is going to be one of those moments where we remind you that you are the one who is facing that particular child, and who knows what she can take, and knows what she needs. But if they’re asking the “why” question about “Why does the Lord allow for suffering?”—this is an opportunity to go straight to the richness of scripture with them, and to help them see that the Lord’s plan for His world mysteriously, but also with vast goodness, includes suffering. That suffering is not only not outside of His hand, but it is also a part of His curriculum for us as His followers. I use the word curriculum because I’m a teacher. But the point is that it is a part of what He has intended for our growth, and to become more like Christ.

JONATHAN: I think that question is on my mind partly because I was looking at this resource you shared with me from Axis, outlining differences in the generations. In Gen Z, there is greater opposition to religion. And when they examined that, they found that a lot of it comes down to the problem of evil, which is “Why does God allow bad things to happen?”

As somebody who has been in the church all my life, to me that can be a very theological, philosophical question, disconnected from reality. But for a kid who is having a lockdown drill, imagining what it would be like if they were in a real life or death situation, or hearing about their peers on the news going through this—that is such an intimate question. It is a question with such immanent practicality. I think that “why” question is a question that’s going to be on the lips of our kids and teens from a very sincere and immediate place, in a way that for myself it hasn’t always been.

KELSEY: If we’re showing up to answer that question, if we’re remaining present with them to engage with this very difficult question, then experientially, practically, what our child is getting from us is that presence, in a way that reflects the Lord’s presence with us. So we are actually modeling something that is very intimately shaping, intimately practical or impactful in our children’s lives. We’re practicing presence. We’re practicing relationship. So we’re not merely doing the philosophical, we’re actually working out what it looks like to be in a complex relationship, which includes suffering, and lovingkindness and steadfastness.

JONATHAN: So as we are with our kids through hardship and questions, it reflects that God is with us through those things too.

KELSEY: What He wants most is a deepened relationship with us, and He’s pursuing us. Suffering is a part of that pursuit of what is most important to Him, our hearts bonded with His, more and more shaped like His in a deep, deep relationship.

This actually has some great touch points in terms of that Christian response, not only to the category of children we’re talking about who are responding to the trauma in their generation, but who are not necessarily ever going to pick up a gun or do violence. But also, it has implications for that other subcategory of children, who may be dealing with psychopathy, psychosis, traumatized—what it looks like for us to be present with our children, and also seek presence in the lives of that subcategory of children, bringing the hope of the gospel through a relational communication, an experiential communication of God’s grace through our presence.

My husband and I were in youth ministry in the years after Columbine, even in the year when 9/11 happened. I was teaching full time at the high school from which I graduated. Many of my peers in school had siblings that were in the school building during that very first well-known mass shooting incident. My brother was a senior in high school that year. My sister was a freshman. The Lord showed what it looked like for us to maintain a presence with the kids growing up in these new times. We were having a boom in our youth group, because children were looking for something relational, deep, where they felt safe and loved.

One of the podcasts I listened to in preparation for this episode, it’s a podcast called “Confronting Columbine,” in which one of the graduates of the ’99 class tells about [her] and several of her peers running out of the school building to escape the violence. They ran to a building and knocked on the door. A home. It was in a neighborhood setting. They’re just running straight to the first home that looked like there was any occupant, and they banged on the door and a man opened up. And the thing that she said that struck home with me, and that I’m connecting to this Christian response—she said, “He opened up and let us all in.” And she mentioned it a few times. And the other thing she mentioned a few times was that there was no safe space, there is no safe space. And yet the calm that I heard in her voice, and the pointing towards that response as believers of what it looks like for us to open up our homes, our hearts, our lives, as risky as it may be. Who is this who is coming straight through my front door?

JONATHAN: We won’t all have the opportunity to open our door to somebody literally running from violence. But we can all open our door to kids and teens dealing with this trauma, who are dealing with these struggles.

KELSEY: So the generosity with which we can engage, knowing that our lives are sustained, our lives are safe in Him. They are secure. They are united with Christ. And so we are not our own, but we are secure in Him. Not a hair from our head is going to be lost without His knowing or His hand over it and under us.

JONATHAN: We can’t fix everything. We are not the full solution. We can’t heal every trauma. We can’t solve psychosis ourselves. But we can work to know people and to be the love of Christ in their lives. And God wants to work through us.

KELSEY: As we know them, and as we allow ourselves to be known, we are also making Him known. One of the wonderful things that we were instructed to remember when we were in seminary is that we are not the Christ. We’re not the savior. And yet, at the same time, we live in this tension that His plan for His world includes us. As some would say, His plan in Christ is us. We are His agents of good news in His world.

JONATHAN: That’s a great dichotomy—the idea that we are not Christ, but His plan is us. Because we can fall into this ditch of, “It’s all on our shoulders, we’re the last line of defense, we have to do everything.” Or we can fall into this ditch of “We’re not God, we’ll never solve it, why even try?” But in Christ, we can trust that there is somebody who is the solution. And knowing that, we can work without anxiety, because it doesn’t all fall on our shoulders. We can seek to heal and seek justice, knowing that ultimate victory has been accomplished, and that even when we fail, it is not lost.

I feel the need to acknowledge that we are not suggesting going forth into this with a lack of wisdom. Certainly, if there is a situation that seems unsafe, like a teenager in your life who is exhibiting these tendencies that seem extremely unsafe—we’re not advocating a lack of wisdom in inviting them into an unsafe situation for yourself or others. But it’s in this context of knowing the kids in front of us, and only in that context of hearing their stories and knowing them—and inviting them into the safety of our spaces that is a reflection of the safety we have in Christ—that this healing and this shepherding through these things in a healthy way can really begin.

KELSEY: Yes. Part of that shepherding is obviously towards our children and towards equipping them to notice when things are not safe as well. Parent, we need to be an observer. We need to seek to welcome children into our home, our children’s friends and peers, to try to observe and know them. But also, our children are the ones who see and hear and observe what’s going on. And they need to be equipped, when they hear something that isn’t safe, or that concerns them, to go and seek wisdom and help. This is a huge area for us to operate with wisdom and discernment on our children’s behalf and to equip them with that same discernment. If you hear a child saying something that is communicating about violence, that needs to be communicated to somebody who can help. We can’t fix a child’s psychosis. And we are not asking our children to fix it. But we’re asking for them to be intercessors: somebody who looks for help when it is needed, and who is able to recognize when help is needed.

JONATHAN: So we’ve been talking about this relational response, inviting others in, inviting kids, inviting people who are dealing with this trauma, the same way Christ invites us in—not with a guarantee that they will even come to salvation, but knowing that we are doing the good work we’re called to do.

I think there’s another aspect of our response in not allowing these events to become ordinary in our minds or the minds of our kids and teens. I think so much in news, in the way lockdown drills are carried out routinely—there’s so much coming into our minds trying to make us feel like this is somehow a normal state of existence, or an ordinary state of existence. That this violence is just something that happens. Remember that this is broken. This is fallen. This is not the way the world is supposed to be. It’s the reality of the world now, because we live in a post-fall world. To know that this is a sign of brokenness—this is not the way the world was supposed to be. And we shouldn’t let it become something in our minds that feels ordinary or run-of-the-mill, because this is something Christ is coming to end.

KELSEY: We have so much hope in that. And that hope can fuel our faithfulness—the hope that He is coming again, and He has already sent us a Helper to equip that faithful response, that sometimes needs to be a complex response.

JONATHAN: So with that in mind, as parents are beginning to work through this really hard issue with kids and teens, what are some questions or conversation starters they can use to start exploring this topic?

KELSEY: So some questions that we might ask to begin a conversation with our kids and teens. You might start with:

How can we wisely respond to the depravity we see in the world around us? And even in our own hearts?

What does safety mean to you? And where does scripture speak to that idea of safety and where we find it? In fact, where specifically do we see safety mentioned? Where is it found? How does that idea make you feel, the idea of where your safety is found, according to scripture? How does that make you feel and why?

How does the fact that we have eternal refuge in Christ inform how you relate to others, particularly to those who do not yet know Him? How does that knowledge motivate you or challenge you and your love of neighbor?

Dane Ortlund in his book Gentle and Lowly tells a story of his two-year-old son, clinging to his fingers when wading into a pool. He considers how much stronger his grasp, his daddy grasp, is on his son than his two-year-old fingers can muster. So it is with us and Christ. We cling to Him when wading into life’s storms. But His grip on us is far more sure than ours on Him. Psalm 63:8 reminds us of this: “My soul clings to you; your right hand upholds me.”

JONATHAN: I’m also reminded of Hebrews 4:16: “Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” Again, seeing that it is our stance before the throne of grace—our stance as people who have been saved and are in Christ and made right with God—in that we can find our help in times of need.

KELSEY: These times can feel so extraordinary. We pray these ordinary things of faithfulness will fuel you. Thank you for joining us. As always, you can send your questions to newscoach@wng.org. Let’s learn together as we disciple our children through today’s world. Remember: God has equipped you for the work.

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