The recent school shooting in Cleveland has the judgmental tongues of America wagging again. The talking heads, the pundits, the citizens—all quick to ascribe blame to everyone but themselves, quick to employ their hindsight to demonstrate their genius, and quick to reserve understanding for another day.
I was sitting in my kitchen Friday night having a beer with a friend who asked me, “What is it we always hear from the media about these school shootings?” After three guesses that disappointed my guest he told me, “The media always blames bullying.” “Drex,” he continued, “I don’t think bullying makes these kids fruitcakes. I think they were fruitcakes long before they were bullied. The media always wants to apologize for these kids saying bullying caused this, but these kids were going to blow either way.”
A National talk radio host, on his show after the incident, referred to Asa Coon as a “loser.” He repeatedly used this term to let the listeners know that he KNEW the cause for this tragedy. What a welcome use of intellect and insight to pinpoint the cause of this event—Asa Coon was a “looooser.” That’s why we listen.
I suspect the host’s comments would have come as nothing new to young Asa. He’d probably been called worse by better in his past.
I lived right next to Columbine High School on April 20, 1999. One of the shooters lived in my neighborhood. I have mourned with a community over the senselessness of these types of tragedies. And I have a son with a mental illness.
When I hear of these events anymore, my heart goes out first to the parents of the shooters. Usually grieving over the death of one of their children, they must also carry the guilt and shame of not having done more to prevent the tragedy their child committed. No matter how much they did, they must feel they could have done more.
I am certain that my kitchen-friend was right about some shooters. Sometimes these kids ARE just fruitcakes that lack the character and moral compass to appropriately deal with life’s ups and downs. The Talk Show Host is probably right, too. Sometimes these kids are just “losers.” Sometimes the blame-casters are right that lazy, selfish parenting contributed to out of control kids, abused kids, unloved kids. Sometimes the parents are just irresponsible, like the mother in Philadelphia who recently bought her 14 year old, home-schooled son, a 9mm assault rifle.
But we abdicate our own moral authority to comment when we don’t first assume that parents may have tried everything, that the child might have carried some handicap for which the parents and the system had no answer.
It is with no pride and considerable pain that I admit that my 16 year old son could one day travel a similar road. He has Asperger’s syndrome, a form of Autism that severely curtails an individual’s social capacities, and bi-polar disorder. Asperger’s kids do not understand social cues and frequently find themselves in awkward, sometimes violent, situations. Rebekah Heinrichs wrote a book entitled PERFECT TARGETS chronicling how Asperger’s kids are often the targets of bullying. These kids usually look normal—to the uninformed or casual observer there is nothing unusual about these kids. So when they behave strangely there are no visual indications that the individual is handicapped in any way and, thus, off limits.
In today’s schools and communities teachers and parents have done a good job of teaching children not to pick on handicapped kids. The days of making fun of “speds” seem mostly behind us. But kids who are in wheelchairs, who have Down’s Syndrome or Cerebral Palsy are easy to pick out. Kids with Asperger’s appear perfectly normal.
Let me share a personal example of how these kids can get themselves in trouble. On the first day of school of 7th grade at a new school a few years back my son with Asperger’s was on his way to an assembly. He wanted to make friends (Asperger’s kids usually don’t have many, but they know they want them). So as he walked into the gym he saw another student sitting alone in bleachers. He wanted to say “hi” so he asked the student behind him in line if he knew the bleacher-kid’s name. The student behind my son, seeing the kid in the bleachers who, as chance would have it, was black, told my son that his name was “Chocolate.” My son, lacking the social capacity to see through this ruse, walked up to the kid in the bleachers, extended his hand and said, “Hi Chocolate, I’m new. Want to be friends?” Needless to say, something of a riot broke out.
My son has been the victim of bullying in the North East Independent School District in San Antonio, Texas, on many occasions, mostly because he behaves differently and other kids don’t know how to respond to him. His problems are further complicated because students with medical issues, like Asperger’s, are frequently placed in classes with kids who are simply behavioral problems. These kids often have a history of responding violently to situations. Unfortunately, this places the Perfect Target in close proximity to the Perfect Perpetrator.
In every instance in which my son has be assaulted, we have pressed crimnal charges and won our case and yet the persistent bullying has continued.
Children who are bullied routinely are often capable of holding themselves together for long periods of time. Our society is good at teaching kids not to cry, to learn to deal with it, to try to fend for themselves. And so the resentment and anger build up. Most students in today’s schools are able to navigate the difficult middle school and high school years effectively. They learn the lessons these trying times teach about life and they move on. I did. Didn’t you? But how does a student with a social disability do what even you and I struggled with?
School districts are unprepared to deal with many of these kids. They are encouraged to keep the kids in mainstream classes, to provide the least restrictive environment and to avoid spending money on extra services. Mental Health services in many states, certainly here in Texas, are not staffed, funded or designed to be helpful. My family heard on several occasions that if we wanted to get our son help, we should move to New Jersey or Pennsylvania.
My wife and I have exhausted our financial resources. We have private insurance, the policy says my son should be covered and yet the insurance company refuses to cover our son’s treatment because they have deemed it “not medically necessary.” We have desperately tried to tap into state resources. In fact in a conversation with Texas State Senator Florence Shapiro on my radio program, she stated quite candidly that the people of Texas have simply not voted to fund the types of programs that are needed to help these kids and keep the communities they live in safe.
Even as an authentic conservative, I believe there are times when it is appropriate to ask for more government. This is one of those times. It is appropriate for government to provide for the safety of those it governs. It is appropriate to establish mechanisms that help families help their communities as opposed to abandoning families to try to deal with these difficult and potentially dangerous situations on their own.
I would have hoped that a market-based solution, like insurance, would have been sufficient to help us. But I understand that insurance companies are not established to help. They are established to make money. They are “for-profit” companies. I have written before that we should expect insurance companies to always act in a manner that most benefits their bottom line. Every claim paid is a reduction of profits.
It is so easy, in hindsight, to see a situation clearly, to see the pattern of warning signs in a chain of events. And it is easy to see where the chain might have been broken. But we have to take responsibility, after events like this, for not being proactive.
My family has tried to influence the system. We have tried to point out deficiencies, we have recommended changes and we have made suggestions for our son’s placement compatible with public safety. But the North East Independent School District wants my son back in school. They are so determined not to pay for services that they will provide for nothing other than a return to his public high school. Who’s making your children unsafe now? The parents (us, in this case) who know our son and wish to protect your child or the school who wishes to sit your child next to mine in class? Will your child bully my kid? Probably not. Will my son shoot your child? Probably not. But the system is failing to provide for everyone’s safety and the system is designed to only acknowledge these truths AFTER a tragedy occurs.
We want our freedoms here in America. We vote for our freedoms over safety every day. Even today, we could be wearing helmets in our cars or we could be writing our legislators demanding more homeland security, but we don’t because we don’t want to spend the money and we don’t want to be burdened with new limits on our liberties. So be it. But after the next attack, we must then accept our role in facilitating the tragedy. When government jams a program down our throat, we object. When tragedy happens because no program existed to prevent it, we blame bureaucrats for not acting.
I don’t seek to absolve anyone from blame or responsibility. Rather I want us all to share in the responsibility. We need to acknowledge our own failings in helping our neighbors, in supporting our schools, in funding programs and in taking a moment to imagine the best in people. I want us to imagine for a minute that the parents might have done everything they could; that they might be loving parents who have sought help and received none.
I’ve never met the Coons. I have no idea what they’ve been through or how hard they tried to help Asa. I only know that there is scant help to even the most caring, resourceful and loving parents. I know that some parents see the warning signs but no one will listen. I know that schools encourage outdated paradigms that serve their own fiscal self-interest and not the interest of the family in need.
Can we DO better? Of course we can, but it’ll take time and money. In the meantime, can we BE better? Can we be better at accepting responsibility? Can we be better at trying to understand how families get to where they are and how difficult it might be to do what it is hindsight tells us they should have done? Of course we can and it’ll take no money and no time, just a change in attitude.