Bizarrely, when I first heard the principal’s recorded voice on my phone at 11:10 the night before, my first thought was, “Oh, *#@$! I forgot to unplug the Costume Shop iron! I’ve burned down the school.”
But then I heard the message. It was far more startling: there had been a “credible threat” to the school, so administration decided to close the building while the police investigated.
It was an unsettling announcement to receive while trying to fall asleep.
My husband and I lay awake for a long time, speculating about the back story, wondering if “our” kids could be involved: we’re both in the building, but with over 1700 students, we certainly don’t know them all. I thought immediately of my costumers and (egocentrically) wondered if I had missed something with any of them.
My eclectic group of self-described “geeks” runs the gamut economically, in wardrobe (emo, vintage, Goodwill and designer all mix together) and on the spectrums of sexual orientations and gender identities. A few Somali faces break up our otherwise white exteriors. We’re smart, creative, and interested in interesting things. Like any group of teenagers, some deal with depression, anxiety, OCD… My crew, though, have been courageously open in their struggles; I assured myself that they have sufficient resources to manage their challenges in healthy ways.
My husband listed recent events that may have made students or parents frustrated or angry. But as severe as some were, we couldn’t imagine any of the youth with whom we work going to the extreme of “credibly threatening” harm to their peers.
Student’s questions the next day reflected the same wonderment: who would want to do this? What was this person thinking? If they really wanted to hurt us all, why did they (or didn’t they) just [fill in the blank]? In processing the threat, we found many students curious about the mind-set of a peer who would threaten such harm.
It is, perhaps, an important wonder: what does push someone to make a “credible threat” to the safety of another individual or the whole student body? What sort of internal pain, or external reality, drives a person to intend the harm that would close a school?
Ironically, I would have been subbing that day while several staff attended a suicide prevention training.
Like so many schools across the nation, we run in “react” mode: we have so many students with such a variety of mental and emotional needs, and so few staff, that we cannot get beyond triage. Implementing a comprehensive mental and emotional well-being “policy” is a dream for many staff, but resources are elusive. The timing of this threat, coinciding with training to intervene in hurting students’ lives, made the event – and the training – all the more poignant.
I also subbed recently for a teacher out learning about restorative justice. This “new” tool facilitates peer-developed, mutually agreed upon solutions to conflict. Restorative Circles teach conflict management tools that benefit students for life. The premise is simple: when conflict arises, students and adults are empowered to intervene by invoking a “circle”.*
Circles consist of conflicting parties, non-partisan peers and trained adult facilitators. Everyone participates in determining a resolution – sometimes a punishment is determined, but it is mutually acceptable rather than arbitrarily handed down from some superior.
Often, the conversation itself resolves the conflict. Indeed, as students gain experience in circle justice, they begin to call for a circle before an issue escalates; physically and emotionally harmful events diminish.
Detractors believe circles let kids off easy. But the current alternatives – suspension or expulsion – are neither effective nor practical when we look at a bigger picture.
The ineffectiveness of suspension or expulsion is evidenced in its parallels to incarceration (for which it is an unfortunate precursor): like incarceration, kids suspended once are frequently expelled later for similar or escalated behavior. Additionally, “problem” kids lose opportunities, get the label for life, and live down to it while they are shuttled from one school to another – further destabilizing their own emotions and their network of supporters.
Which brings us to that bigger picture, which ought to include glimpses of why students become “terrorists”.**
Kicking a student out of school potentially sends them back to the environment that informed – or created – their willingness to harm others. Imagine some stereotypes of disruptive kids and where removal places them: the over-privileged/over-indulged kid goes home to relax; the gamer gets to play more violent games; the child from a dangerous neighborhood or neglectful home goes… home; the mentally ill student – whose loving parents have tried everything – is bereft of public resources when they are most needed. Removal is more likely to exacerbate the student’s internal conflict and escalate their need to lash out than it is to heal and restore to community.
Jesus had a few thoughts on how to navigate threats to one’s safety:
In Gethsemane, he rejected swordplay: Jesus would rather die than kill.
Jesus shared some words about turning cheeks, too, but they don’t help stop harm from spreading, in this instance.
For cases in which we know a student – or any person – means to do harm, the Beatitudes may be helpful.
Meekness: humility, rather than authority and/or force will garner happier results. Let’s gather in a circle and determine – together – how to resolve the situation.
Mercy: encouragement to know the threatening person as a child of God. Threatened people become threatening. Breaking that cycle by understanding others’ pains and easing them will be far more helpful than becoming another threat.
Why do I care – why did the students care – about the mindset of whoever threatened to blow us up? Most likely it’s a desire to take control of an unsettling situation.
But hopefully, also, because if we can understand why someone decides to seriously threaten others we might learn to recognize the pain and address it in more helpful ways – for everyone’s well-being.
Purity of heart: intentions and motives matter. Revenge, damaged egos, even protection are not helpful motivators. Vengeful swagger is always distasteful. Resolutions are reached when intentions of healing and peace prevail.
Peacemakers: not “violence avoiders” (it’s not enough to avoid doing violence), or even “peacekeepers” (see Hunger Games), but “peacemakers”: those who create, build up, pursue, proactively make peace. Peace is generated by restorative justice: restoring relationships and healing rifts between every member of the community – building heaven on earth.
Peacemakers = children of God.
Except, we’re all children of God.
We may never know which child of God threatened our school. The unofficial story says it was a misguided prank gone awry; which is a whole different mystery. But wrapped in the cocoon of an annulled threat, it seems important to continue to wonder: what does make one child threaten the safety of others? And what can we be doing – administrators, teachers, staff, parents, community – to see that pain and address it; to become peacemakers, before anyone else feels any more threatened.
** school bomb threats are a federal offense and FEMA lists them as a form of terrorism. More to my point: many people contend that the acts of an individual or small group rightly determine the identity of a larger group, i.e., ISIS means all Muslim’s are “terrorists”. It’s likely that our school’s terrorist was white and wealthy (representative of the majority of our student body), yet no one has decided that all white people, all wealthy people, or every white & wealthy religious sect, are terrorists. -Isms create blind spots in rational thinking.