We don’t need an act of Congress to create safer and more inclusive schools

By Roy Lincoln Karp, Special to the Reporter

The words move across your phone, laptop, or TV screen: “School shooting.” You read the horrific details about the latest gun-fueled massacre. You feel sadness for the young victims and their families. Grief morphs into anger at lawmakers for failing to address widespread violence by gunfire.

The latest rampage took place last Wednesday at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Fourteen students and three teachers were killed when a former student, Nikolas Cruz, opened fire from a legally purchased, semi-automatic AR-15 rifle. Seven students were fourteen years old.

In the aftermath of the shooting, we adhered to the same script that follows mass killings in this country, at least when they result in enough fatalities to move the event into the national news cycle.

Congress reacted swiftly with proclamations issued by the Select Committee on Thoughts and Prayers. Some Democrats refused to participate, rightfully calling out the absurdity of legislators praying instead of passing reasonable gun control measures. They offered a welcome variation to the script, but one that still feels hopelessly inadequate. Even the massacre of 20 elementary school children in Newtown, Connecticut, failed to spur Congress to action.

In the wake of the mass shooting in Las Vegas last October, which left 58 people dead and 851 injured, Congress actually took steps to weaken our gun laws. In December, the House of Representatives passed legislation that would require states to recognize the gun permits of visitors from other states.

Many students from Douglas High have been publicly expressing their outrage at Congress and at the president for their capitulation to the NRA and the gun lobby. I hope these young people will finally break us out of our “Groundhog Day” script.

But even if they succeed in moving Congress to action, we will remain awash in guns for years to come. We would still need to address a culture of violence in a nation that currently has more guns than people.

Whether they like it or not, schools have an important role to play in this narrative. They can be a part of the solution by providing a strong sense of community for all students, especially those who actively seek to undermine or opt out of the process.

This lesson was brought home to me during the three years I ran an alternative high school in Lowell for students facing significant barriers to their education. Our program engaged Lowell High School students who were at high risk of dropping out, had already dropped out, were expelled for behavioral reasons, or were withdrawn for lack of attendance.

Community and relationship building were key components. We gave students a voice in decision-making and made sure that every young person felt valued and respected. When students didn’t show up, we did home visits. Using best practices in youth development, we worked hard to build trust with all of our students.

Because students had a strong sense of belonging and community, we had very few disciplinary problems. When behavioral issues or interpersonal conflicts arose, we addressed them by using a restorative approach. We found creative ways to repair harms to people, relationships, and community.

We never suspended or expelled our students. When students violated our norms, we sought to bring them back to the community. We held them accountable for their actions, while maintaining high levels of support.

This approach does not cost schools any extra money. It requires a paradigm shift in the way we think about young people, especially those who persistently test our commitment to them. Fortunately, it does not require an act of Congress.