The automated call from my son’s high school was both alarming and reassuring. “Your student may have seen this on social media,” the recorded voice began, neutrally informing us that a classmate had made threats against students and the school, but was now in custody. All was safe.
In fact, my son hadn’t yet heard about the incident, but it only took about 30 seconds for him to track down the details. He showed us a text message sent by a concerned parent, and quickly shared with countless others, which included the name of the kid who’d apparently threatened to “shoot up the school.” The entire message (with the student’s name blacked out) was also posted online in a news brief from our local paper.
My son shrugged the whole thing off and went to school as usual. I, however, continued to feel both reassured and uneasy.
Given the heartbreaking regularity of tragedy on school campuses, threats like this can’t be dismissed.
My son’s school has six full-time safety officers, plus surveillance cameras with live feeds to the city’s police dispatch center. The police department can broadcast directly over the school’s public address system. All of this may be at the expense of students’ privacy, but I’m happy to accept the trade-off in the name of safety.
I was glad the threat had been taken seriously. The increased awareness of school-safety issues is borne out by the data: a recent school-violence study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that school-related killings are preceded by a threat or other warning signal almost 50 percent of the time. I don’t fault the police, whose job it was to assess the kid’s intent: not simply if he planned to follow through on his threat, but also whether he intended for his recipients to believe he would.
That’s a key distinction. And that’s the officers’ responsibility, according to the law in our state, which in this case meant the kid was taken into custody at Juvenile Hall.
Even so, I’m troubled by the fact that the kid in question is a 14-year-old boy, just like my son. Unlike my son, though, this other boy’s name is now known to the entire student body.
In a particularly unlucky confluence of neuroscience and technology, the kid who threatened to shoot up the school probably didn’t take the time to think all of this through. Teenagers don’t just seem impulsive; they actually are. The still-developing adolescent brain is to blame for mood swings and poor impulse control, making it harder for a kid flooded with anger to keep from lashing out. In this case, all it took was a few seconds for him to type a text and send it. The neuroscience is no different than it was for previous generations, but the ability to communicate instantaneously can have far-reaching consequences.
I wonder how long it took for the text my son had so quickly tracked down to make the rounds that morning. Whether the other boy gets charged in juvenile court or not, his notoriety will be hard to shake. Any eventual juvenile conviction can be sealed when he turns 18. But that’s four long years away. In the meantime, his chances of having a successful high-school experience are virtually ruined.
It won’t end there, given that social media and online coverage have no statute of limitations. A college admissions officer, or, someday, a potential employer, may find all of this information simply by doing an online search for the boy’s name.
My son didn’t know the boy directly. But I can picture him: a 14-year-old kid, outwardly savvy but still finding his way, one of 2,400 students on a sprawling campus. A kid who’s grown up with technology and probably never leaves the house without his iPhone, who’s dealing with the pressures of high school while periodically being flooded with strong emotions.
In other words, a kid not all that different from mine.
Lisa Lewis is a writer based in Southern California. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times and on Literary Mama, where she’s a contributing writer. She lives near the recent San Bernardino shooting and subsequently had an op-ed about active shooter drills and schools published in the LA Times.
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