I am writing this just a couple of days after the recent mass murders in both El Paso, Texas and Dayton. Although random massacres like this seem to be a weekly occurrence in our country, having two within a 24-hour period, with one virtually in our backyard, seemed to be a particularly intense punch to the gut. Probably in part because they occurred so close in time to one another, they seemed to generate a much more intense and universal call for action from lawmakers to do something in an attempt to address this mess.
It’s hard not to be reflective in the face of such horrific events. As a grandparent, I can’t help but to be sick about the world we are leaving our grandchildren, a world where people can’t even congregate in a public place with friends for a good time without fear of being gunned down. I am sad this is my grandchildren’s “normal.”
As I watched the continuous local news coverage of the Oregon District attack amid interviews with former classmates of the shooter and personnel from the high school he attended, I couldn’t help but think back almost exactly one year ago when I retired after 13 years as a school superintendent. I had almost forgotten that the dominant emotion I felt upon my retirement was relief; relief that a Columbine or Sandy Hook had not occurred during the time I was responsible for the safety and well-being of thousands of kids.
At the end of my career, instead of feeling a sense of satisfaction about all the great things that had happened in our schools, the great people we had working in them, and the great kids and families who attended them, the tremendous relief that nothing catastrophic had occurred under my watch trumped any feelings of joy and satisfaction I felt.
How sad is that?
I have listened with interest as former classmates of the Oregon District shooter have come forward and said they were not surprised when he was identified as the shooter. Many have described the alarming behaviors he exhibited both in school and after graduation. He was apparently suspended in high school for publishing a “hit list” of classmates, and even as an adult, he appeared to garner some sick enjoyment from making creepy and outlandish comments to peers in an attempt to elicit some kind of reaction. That reaction was generally fear.
The question of what more could have been done to stop him from his evil actions has been asked repeatedly since the shooting. And, therein lies the problem.
The fact is, while making creepy and disgusting comments like this guy did for much of his adult life is despicable, it is not illegal. In America, despicable people have rights, too, and on occasions like this, a despicable person’s rights allowed him to remain free and walk the streets because he went no further than crazy talk. It was not until he converted his outlandish comments into evil actions that he committed a crime. But, then it was too late.
As a school superintendent, there were rare occasions when I had to interact with or discipline students whose behavior, frankly, alarmed me beyond the normal childish tomfoolery we all expect from young people. I would administer the level of discipline the law would allow in accordance with the behavior exhibited. But, what I couldn’t do was discipline a student in a certain way simply because I found him or her to be creepy. When he or she served the punishment, he or she was legally allowed to return to school except in the rarest of circumstances.
Add to that the fact that a child who had been formally identified with, say, an emotional disability that would explain his or her unusual outbursts, and my hands were even further tied by the law with respect to how the child could be disciplined.
So, when people question why this guy was allowed to return to school after serving his punishment for publishing a hit list and why police hadn’t done more to protect the rest of us from him, the simple answer is, “because he had rights, too.” Sadly, when he decided to put his sick words into action, innocent people lost the individual rights they deserved.
There were certainly times when the punishment I wanted to administer was more than the punishment I was allowed to administer, and I can assure you every school administrator in America has been faced with this same dilemma.
With these last two massacres, it seems that citizens have been more forceful with their demands that lawmakers do something beyond sending victims and their families “thoughts and prayers” and pointing fingers at each other in an effort to place blame; both of which predictably and despicably occurred immediately after both massacres.
It will be interesting to see their response this time, but I certainly hope no one believes that, with the problem we now face so pervasive and so sick, that creating a couple of new gun laws is the final solution.
Our problem is so much deeper than that.
Tom Dunn is the former superintendent of the Miami County Educational Service Center.