Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Why Blame Is a Bad Idea: Death at Cummings Middle School

Everything about this story is wrong.

Based on as yet very sketchy reports, here's what we know:

An 8th grader at Cummings Middle School in Brownsville, Texas, showed a gun in the hallways at school this morning. Police were called. They ordered him to drop the gun. He didn't. He appeared to aim it at them. They shot him. He died. The gun turns out to have been an air pellet gun.

When I say that everything about this is wrong, I don't mean to imply it's not true. It's just wrong. It doesn't fit the model of a good day at middle school, certainly, but it doesn't even fit the model of a bad day. A kid is either armed or he's not -- none of this pellet gun stuff. He either wants to die and kills himself or doesn't and puts down the gun. The violence is either threatened or real. This entire episode occupies this weird no-man's land between the possibilities our brains know how to deal with.

Given that , perhaps it's not surprising that everything about the press coverage is wrong, too. The headlines read things like, "Brownsville police kill teen at middle school." While technically accurate, it sure leaves a lot of important information out.

Whose fault is this? The kid, for bringing the gun in the first place and refusing to drop it and aiming it towards police? The police for shooting when the kid wasn't actually lethally armed? The school for calling the police? The parents for this kid having access to the pellet gun in the first place?

I don't think I've ever seen a case that both so clearly begs you to blame someone and so clearly illustrates why blame gets in the way of healing. Now that this incident is over, we can all point to numerous places people "should" have done things differently. But by "should," we mean "if they had, this probably would have had a different outcome." That's really different than saying that the outcome is their fault. It's so easy to confuse "should have" with "I wish they would have" or even "next time, I hope they don't."

This happened. Period. It will never have not happened. Everyone involved in it has to make peace with that fact. While preventing it in the future may be a priority, accepting it as part of the past has to happen, too. The messy question of whose fault it was can only get in the way of that process.


Colleen said...

Whatever happened to the orange tips on toy guns? These don't seem to have them.

Off to talk to my kids, *again* about guns and perceived threats....

Colleen said...

My 17 yr old son's reaction was, "poor cops". He says he has seen many Air Soft Guns (the type this seems to have been) without the orange bits. He says they *really* look real.

No one in my house is assigning blame, and their first thoughts all went to the cops.

Anonymous said...

I agree with you that understanding is more important than blame. The student made three critical mistakes:

(1) bringing the gun to school in the first place.

(2) not dropping it when ordered to by the police.

(3) pointing it at them.

The police made a critical mistake:

Not having some way of knowing that the toy gun was not real, and that the gun-wielder had no intention or capability of shooting them, even though they knew he had made the first three mistakes.

Avoid ANY of these four mistakes and the student lives. There are 2^4=16 ways that some subset of this combination of four mistakes can be made; in only one does the student die. (It is also the only one where the police decision matters; in all the others, the situation is defused before gunfire occurs.)

Meet the Quarterback

My Photo
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
View my complete profile

Subscribe via email

Enter your email address:

Delivered by FeedBurner

Quarterback for Kindle