Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Two Administrators Shot at Omaha, NE High School

There are two things I often say about school shootings.  The first is that, if someone enters a school hell bent on killing the first person they see, then the first person they see is going to die.  The second I sometimes say to teachers when we talk about lockdowns -- most people who come into the school mad are not going hunting for you.  They're going hunting for me.

Today, a 17-year-old student at Millard South High School in Omaha, Nebraska, bore this out.  At about 12:40, he shot both the Principal and the Assistant Principal.  He then drove off in his car and, sometime less than an hour later, killed himself.  Both administrators are in the hospital, one in critical and one in serious but stable condition.  The shooter was a recent transfer student to the school whose father is an Omaha police officer.  He apparently used his father's gun.

What are we to make of an incident like this?  People's reactions are pretty predictable.  Here are a few that might seem familiar: There needs to be stricter gun control. Kids see too much violence on TV. Our schools aren't safe. It's poor parenting. There must have been signs. Kids today have no respect for adults. He shouldn't have been able to get anywhere near those administrators with a gun. We need metal detectors in schools. These statements all fit rather nicely into two basic categories:

Category #1:  This must be preventable and someone is to blame that it wasn't prevented.
While it is of course possible that this was preventable and that someone messed up, it is also entirely possible that everyone was as prepared and aware as they possibly could have been, and the signs just weren't there and all the procedures in the world wouldn't have stopped it.  You can install metal detectors, but that won't stop shootings in the parking lot or the foyer.  Criminals will find ways to get guns.  Good parents have messed up kids.

We want to blame somebody because the alternative is awful.  We can't really wrap our minds around the idea that something this scary could happen even when everything is done right, because that means that none of us is safe.  Which brings us to our next category:

Category #2:  I'm scared for my children's safety.
This is an interesting one, because, in fact, no children other than the shooter himself were injured in this shooting.  However, it's not much of a stretch to imagine why a parent would feel their child was in danger if someone is shooting people in the school office. 

Most parents have a pretty skewed understanding of how dangerous schools are.  School shootings, when they happen, are all over the news.  This makes them seem much worse and more common than they truly are.  The reality is that kids are safer for the six or so hours they're in school than they are any other time of the day.

Good parents also view protecting their children as one of their primary responsibilities.  Even though schools are, on the whole, very safe, they are the one place that parents have little control.  When parents drop off their babies (and yes, even the high schoolers are their babies) at school, they are taking a leap of faith that the school will do for those children what the parents would do in an emergency.  When there is violence in schools, it preys on the fears and insecurities of parents not because schools are so dangerous, but because parents aren't there.  Parents overestimate the chances that they would be able to protect their children if they were present.  The fact is, they couldn't do a better job in most cases, and in a lot of cases they would be worse.

All of this wends us back to my second stock comment about school shootings -- the shooters aren't going for the teachers or kids, they're going for the administrators.  I haven't seen many statistics on that issue.  It's certainly true in some cases, as it was in Omaha today.  However, by no stretch of the imagination is school administration the profession where you are most likely to be assaulted on the job.  You might be surprised to know that it isn't law enforcement, either.  It's actually health care.  How many of us think, "I don't want to become a nurse, it's too dangerous?"  Yet another example of how bad we are at estimating our actual risks.

My heart goes out to the families and staff at Millard South.  School is closed tomorrow, and that makes the healing process harder in a lot of ways.  It's hard to open school in the middle of a police investigation, however, so one can hardly blame them.  Walking back through those doors is going to be really hard.  And a lot of school administrators in other schools are going to be a little more jumpy at work tomorrow.


Colleen said...

You mean to say that when I can finally relax because *all* the kids are home from their various travels, and stop the nightmares....that I'm wrong? That they are *not* actually safer where I can see them?

You clearly haven't talked to the child care part of my brain!

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Naomi Zikmund-Fisher
is a clinical social worker, former school Principal and a Crisis Consultant for schools and community organizations. You can learn more about her at
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