Brianna Heldt is a writer, speaker, and radio show host. She blogs at www.briannaheldt.com, has been a featured guest on BBC Radio, and her work can regularly be found in other online publications as well. A convert to the Catholic Church, Brianna explores topics ranging from faith and social issues to adoption and large family life. She and her husband make their home in Denver, along with their eight children.
One recent early morning, my phone rang. It was an automated message on behalf of my daughters’ public school, warning us that they should stay home — gunshots had been heard and reported several miles away (which in the end turned out not to be gunshots, but rather a store’s malfunctioning generator. But of course, law enforcement didn’t know that at the time). Buses already en route to the school were being diverted to a different location, where parents were to pick their children up. The school remained on “lockout” for most of the day, until it was decided that there was indeed no threat to the campus itself.
All of that may seem extreme for what was really just a potential issue, located nowhere near the school, but these protocols are standard practice now. Over the years my kids have been in a number of school lockouts here in the Denver area — home, of course, to Columbine High School. (And Deer Creek Middle School and Arapahoe High School, both sites of shootings within the last 10 years.) By all appearances, Colorado schools have taken (sadly) appropriate measures when it comes to the problem of gun violence.
But school shootings, interestingly, are actually nothing new. A quick look at Wikipedia will tell you that this phenomenon has been around in America for about as long as students have been gathering together in groups. Boys shooting into one-room schoolhouses filled with children, a parent (or sibling) avenging what they believed to be an unjust whipping of a child by a teacher, and a boy arguing with his classmate over a valentine are just a few of the many examples I found. The differences between the crimes of yesteryear and today appear to largely be in how we conceptualize them. The aforementioned boys who shot into the schoolhouse, for instance, were only fined nine dollars for their crimes. (It should be said that nobody was actually hurt. But still.) This was in 1882.
Newspaper accounts of shootings back then tended to reflect a simpler, more straightforward style of reporting than what we typically see today. Consider the following excerpt describing a different schoolhouse shooting, which appeared in the New York Times in 1889: “Charles Crawford was lodged in jail here to-day. He had a dispute with a school trustee at Dean's station, and in revenge went to the school, held a pistol to the window, and fired into the crowded room. The bullet lodged in the wall over the teacher's head.”
The terms “school shooter,” “Columbine-style,” “gun control,” and “mental health” are all of course absent from older media accounts. It seems that people at one time understood those events as one-off crimes, committed by individuals, for any number of reasons.
In our own day, things are obviously different. We can see this in the way that Nikolas Cruz’s horrible rampage in Florida continues to dominate the news cycle. Front-and-center in the media’s treatment of Cruz has, as in every modern story about gun violence at school, been the issue of gun control. It is abundantly clear that Nikolas should not have had access to any sort of weapon, based upon his long history of violence and disturbing behavior. But how exactly to prevent people like him in the future from getting a gun is a much more difficult question. Businesses may cut ties with the NRA, or raise the minimum age at which someone may purchase a gun from their store, but that doesn’t speak to the problem of how to keep a determined person from illegally obtaining one of the many firearms already in circulation. It also fails to take into account the various laws already on the books, but which are simply not enforced as they should be.
One thing everyone seems to agree upon though is that Cruz is a deeply disturbed individual, with a long and well-documented history of emotional and behavioral problems, both at home and at school. Unfortunately, they are the sorts of problems that even trained psychologists struggle to understand (and treat). And, they are certainly beyond the scope of the average school counselor or principal. Of course, “mental health” is a vague, broad and imprecise term anyhow. A woman struggling with post-partum anxiety, for example, could be said to be suffering from a “mental health” problem — but you could say the same about the late Jeffrey Dahmer. And while both statements may be true, they are obviously not true in the same way. Not to mention that if you poll five different “mental health” professionals about a case, you will get just as many different approaches to the problem. Therefore, the repeated call for a national conversation about “mental health” is difficult, because it casts too wide a net and fails to specify and distinguish. Are we worried about the potentially dangerous side-effects of psychotropic drugs? Is there a need for greater access to government-provided counseling? Or better wrap-around services at schools? The possibilities are endless, the solutions just as complicated. It seems that when we talk about “mental health,” we simultaneously talk about everything, and nothing, at all.
Now in Cruz’s case, some are also suggesting that “fatherlessness” might be to blame. We know that Nikolas’ adoptive father died when he was just a small boy, leaving him to be raised by his widowed, single (and adoptive) mother. As Catholics we understand that children, who can only be brought into being by a father and a mother, are necessarily meant to be raised by a father and a mother. Fathers necessarily offer something to children that, well, even the most well-intentioned of mothers cannot. Yet this particular “fatherlessness” narrative, focused solely (and strangely) on Nikolas’ adoptive dad, ignores an entire swath of Cruz’s early life. Like the subjects of gun control and mental health, it may play a role, but lacks in its ability to explain what’s happening with our nation’s hurting teenagers, in general. And unlike the problem of school shootings, this is something relatively new on the American landscape.
We are living in an era of unprecedented teen crisis.
Over the last decade, the youth suicide rate has increased by 70%. Sexually transmitted diseases are also plaguing teens at ever-increasing rates, and the number of teens reporting at least one “Major Depressive Episode” over the past 12 months climbed 37%, between 2005 and 2014. More and more folks are willing to acknowledge that our kids are not really doing very well, but few are bold enough to take a hard look and really figure out why. School shootings certainly make for convenient opportunities to talk about political issues, like gun control and mental health, but again, they’re not really anything new. And in some ways the ensuing conversations mask the larger question of, what is going on with so very many American teenagers?
Nikolas Cruz’s story of loss began long before his adoptive father passed away. As an adoptee, Nikolas’ first major trauma naturally occurred when he lost his biological mother and father. As much as some would like to diminish the importance of the traditional nuclear family model of father, mother and child, the adoption literature is crystal clear: the loss of a birth parent is a traumatic event. Children, even infants, experience loss and stress when separated from their biological mothers (and fathers.) These kids are, by way of that loss, known to be at greater risk for any number of emotional, behavioral, and mental problems throughout their lifetimes.
To say that adoptive families (some of whom I have known personally) are under-resourced is an understatement. There is little practical help for an adoptive parent trying to keep their entire world from imploding over an emotionally troubled child. What is the answer, after all, once your child’s needs have exhausted both your bank account and locally available treatment options? Countless support groups and books seek to address this situation, standing as a clear testament to the fact that even in our modern and enlightened age, children are most likely to thrive when they are raised by loving, married, biological mothers and fathers.
Because marriage is the building block of society, it stands to reason that the breakdown of the family would have a tremendous effect on American teenagers. Divorce, relinquishment or the involuntary loss of custody of a child due to abuse or neglect, and ever-rising rates of single-parenthood are leaving their mark on entire generations of children. Even where sensible reform to current gun laws or mental health issues is warranted, we owe it to our nation’s young people (and ourselves) to dig deeper, and continue fighting for the things ordered toward the flourishing of the human person.
We should, for example, generally extoll marriage preservation. Married parents are good for kids! We should choose better things for our children’s leisure time than, say, smart phones (which lead to little else besides isolation, and screen and pornography addiction) — like good and frequent conversation around the dinner table. We should ultimately consider the steep and oft-overlooked cultural cost of what Mary Eberstadt describes as “parent absenteeism,” in her important book Home Alone America. The problem, it turns out, is much bigger than fatherlessness. It is much bigger, even, than school shootings.
The biggest gift any mother or father can give a child is, simply, to show up. To be present. To commit to remaining married, to commit to being in the home, to heed the research and data that demonstrate that children need their parents — as opposed to the aforementioned glow of a screen, or the constant company of peers. As Nikolas Cruz’s life demonstrates, problems related to or ascribed to mental health don’t always spring up in a vacuum. Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, abuse and neglect, divorce, and the latest classification known as “Adverse Childhood Event Syndrome,” are all said by experts to affect a child’s mental health outcome. We do families a great disservice when we whitewash this fact.
So don’t be fooled by what the media does or doesn’t say. American teens are increasingly at risk, but less so because of the occasional school shooting (which has always, sadly, been a problem), and more from what lies behind all kinds of violence: falling prey to a culture devoid of meaning and purpose, and that is marked by the lies of the sexual revolution. There are far more child-victims walking around today than many are willing to acknowledge. We can continue to ignore the statistics about the breakdown of the family, but it is to our children’s detriment.
The real work of impacting our culture for the good and addressing the growing problem of angry, disaffected teens, it turns out, lies within the confines of our homes.