President Obama’s recent East Wing speech to gun control advocates and gun violence victims reached its emotional apex when he, unsuccessfully choking back tears, referenced the 2012 massacre of first graders at Sandy Hook Elementary School. “Every time I think about those kids it gets me mad,” said the president. “And by the way, it happens on the streets of Chicago every day.”
To education advocates, perhaps the most impactful part of the president’s statement came in this aside about the streets of Chicago—the subtle reference to the frequency of violence and the role it plays in the interruption of childhood.
While mass shootings in school are unspeakably heartbreaking, thankfully, they remain uncommon. Usually occurring in sleepy American suburbs, the injection of gun violence and the trauma that accompanies it into communities with otherwise safe histories magnifies our collective anger and sadness, and these feelings are justified.
But we should be equally horrified with, and equally aware of, the chronic gun violence that courses through many communities across the rest of the nation. For the children that live in high violence, often urban communities, the schoolhouse is rarely a refuge.
In the same year as the Sandy Hook disaster, an Urban Institute study used ShotSpotter sensor data to track gunshots that went off near DC public schools. In total, it picked up 336 incidents of gunfire during the school day, and over half of these occurred within 1000 feet of a public school. For these children, the term “school violence” assumes yet another layer of significance that the center of learning and community fellowship, a cornerstone of childhood, not only fails to guarantee safety, but might actually be a place of danger.
This means gun control is, undeniably, an education issue. Psychologists and education experts have produced an unavoidable body of evidence that proves this. Notably, the research does not focus on the type of in-school violence that metal detectors and armed officers seek to control. Instead, it emphasizes how the deleterious effects of gun violence outside of the schoolhouse consistently seem to seep throughmass its doors. Childhood and adolescent exposure to gun violence links to feelings of anger and dissociation, disrupts sleep patterns, and increases the frequency of mental health conditions such as anxiety, depression, and PTSD. Researchers emphasize that secondhand experiences with gun violence can also expose children to these ailments.
Unfortunately, we don’t have to search too hard to find young people whose lives have been directly impacted by witnessing or being a party to gun violence themselves. One study found that 42 percent of a sample of 246 inner-city youth had seen someone shot or knifed, and 22 percent had witnessed a murder. Another study revealed that 59 percent of surveyed sixth grade students from a suburban middle school and 73 percent of surveyed sixth-graders from an urban school in the Philadelphia metro area reported hearing gunfire in their neighborhood. At the urban school in Philadelphia, nearly all of the students (97 percent) had at least one positive response in all three categories: knowing a victim, witnessing an event, or being a victim of violence themselves.
We already know that trauma negatively impacts school performance. In children, it can even alter brain chemistry and development. Living in communities terrorized by gun violence can be damaging to academic performance and educational or career aspirations.
It makes sense. A child whose neighborhood is plagued by stray bullets is likely to spend more time calculating a safe route to walk home than the problems on her math homework. A student whose father and brother have been victims of gun violence may not expect to reach the age where he would be able obtain a bachelor’s degree. Sudden noises can trigger outbursts; guns and violence become tools for self-defense, and thus, power. Young people—too often in areas where access to mental health professionals is limited—become increasingly likely to self-medicate with drugs and alcohol.
Bullets do not always have to kill to destroy. Kids who carry the unlucky burden of trying to piece together a childhood in environments of perpetual gun violence must first determine how to protect their lives in a society that seems either determined to take them, or indifferent to them altogether. Their innocence is interrupted by a necessary fear. And that fear—that constant concern with the tasks and mechanisms to ensure basic survival—occupies space in the childhood mind that should be filled by creativity, curiosity, discovery, and confidence. Think of what these kids could accomplish if the portion of the mind that was unknowingly traumatized was set free to invent or to inquire.
By no means should we discount the gravity of mass school shootings: our disgust at them is always justified. But we shouldn’t forget that, in many places across the country, school violence happens every single day. No candlelight vigils are held, minimal outrage is expressed, no front page headlines alert us of another travesty. Gun violence is plainly and quietly integrated into the daily lives of these children. When we discuss the mental health of the deranged shooters of Newtown, Virginia Tech, or Santa Barbara, we should also acknowledge the mental health effects that constant exposure to firearms and their consequences have on the children that dodge them consistently.
People who care about education must support smart methods to reduce the number of guns in circulation and to monitor who can get their hands on them. At their worst, guns make it easy for criminals to take the lives of children. But they also directly impact the ability of some children to maximize their potential, to thrive academically, and to experience childhood as it ought to be experienced.
The culture that gun violence perpetuates is educationally dangerous, and like poverty, family structure, and study environment, gun violence negatively affects student achievement. We can no longer afford to ignore the impact that gun-related trauma has on the American education system.
Those of us concerned about education should not wait for the next mass shooting to push for common sense gun laws. Children are already feeling the effects of inadequate gun laws every day.