The Saturday after the Douglas shooting, I listened to a recording of school resource sheriff’s deputy interrogating a Polk County 11th grader with autism. The interrogation occurred in the child’s own house the previous Thursday night after the shooting. It was accompanied by a search that found nothing.
Prior to this year, this child has no hint of a school discipline record. None. Ever. He has no social media trail of threatening videos or postings. He is an active and eager participant in his high school band. He is as “normal”, I think, as it is possible for him to be. In short, his “profile” is essentially the opposite of the young man who attacked Douglas High after leaving a long public record of violent and aggressive posture toward fellow students.
But this Polk child does have the bearing — the sweet, aloof, oddish bearing — that many of us who are not intimately familiar with autism generally associate with the word “autistic.” An uncharitable person might call him a little weird. I know this personally because I visited him Saturday and brought him a chocolate milkshake from McDonalds. His mom says he likes chocolate milkshakes from McDonalds.
I visited him because I did not know what else to do. At that point, he had been suspended for five days by the School District I oversee in response to a social media campaign against him by various people somehow associated — students, parents etc. — with the school. This campaign happened, apparently, because he asked something like this out loud during a stressful moment: Why do people call me school shooter? What have I done to deserve it?
Happily, and much to the credit of our people, cooler heads have prevailed. The formal punishment has been lifted. School leaders, in this instance, have led in a difficult situation driven by forces beyond their control. And there is an important lesson in that, which I’ll come to in a moment.
Balancing the horrors of imagination
But first, I want to make two general points that relate to each other:
1) I do not need video to imagine the exploding flesh of children as miniature, metal-encased pellets of death slam into their faces and thighs and hearts, exactly the way they are designed to. But my imagination does not stop with exploding flesh. It extends to the feelings of loneliness and terror and cruelty we do not see visited on children we care not to know. Too many of them harm or kill themselves. And many carry debilitating scars into adulthood that perpetuate harm in subsequent generations. Roughly 2,000 school kids will die this year at their own hands. That’s many more than have died in all mass school shootings ever, combined.
I imagine these dead children quite clearly, as well as the extended human suffering that drives them to death. I did not need the visceral interrogation audio or face-to-face chat with this young man to imagine his hurt. But it certainly underscored it. And perhaps others do need it.
If you do need a visceral reminder, here’s one from Tuesday in Ohio.
As an elected official, I obligate myself to balance the horrors of my imagination. I must keep my head in the times of emotional crisis because the decisions your government makes have lasting human consequences for good and ill or something in between. I went to see this young man Saturday because his mother asked me for help; and I wanted him to hear an adult from his public school system tell him that people care about him and that he is not alone. I went to do whatever I could to prevent further collateral damage from the Douglas High shooting. Panic should never be an excuse for inflicting unnecessary harm. If you want an elected official who closes off his capacity to broadly imagine consequences in the aftermath of a horrible crime, you have the wrong guy. You really should replace me in 2020.
2) As the social media mob spread Thursday night, at least one young man tried to stop it — or at least temper it. I want to thank him, wherever or whoever he is. Here’s what he said:
That’s brave and decent. His parents should be proud. And it illustrates something that should be obvious to everybody. “School shooter” is already a catch-all slur for “weird kid.” It is the only slur that society actively encourages our kids to use. It is the only slur that can get the victim of the slur in serious trouble by simply acknowledging it. It’s also the only slur that could conceivably create its own reality with enough repetition and spite. That’s only going to get worse in the immediate future if we don’t keep our heads. The see something, say something mentality, while important, is also potentially very dangerous for everyone.
As this boy said during his interrogation: “Other people called me school shooter or mass shooter in the past just to mess with me, just to get to me.”
How many of the 2,000 kids who will kill themselves this year do you think may have heard the phrase “school shooter” as a taunt prior to their death? I will wager it’s a lot more than zero. And we should all remember that of the 75 million or so children who have moved through high school in the mass school shooting era, fewer than 25 have committed mass murder against their classmates.
Interpreting an awful question for any child to ask
I’m writing this today primarily because this child was figuratively lynched online. I am trying to unlynch him a little. People who know about the situation will know who this is and the school. For people who don’t, I’m hoping to limit the circle of exposure a bit.
The catalyzing moment for this event occurred the day after the Douglas shooting, as best that I can tell. The young man in question says he found that someone had messed with his backpack. The young man found his stuff strewn all over the room. Three kids were also caught bullying this young man that same day in a unrelated incident.
This led to some kind of exchange of words with another boy. The allegation made was that the boy who got in trouble said: “Why do you think they call me school shooter? You’ll find out.” Or something of that ilk. The boy denies saying anything threatening. His version is that he said something like: “Why do people think I’m a school shooter? What have I have done to deserve that?”
I do not know if any allegations went to the school or law enforcement first, or if they were just made publicly online. Eventually, Thursday night, this boy’s first and last name was spread all over social media as having threatened to shoot up the school. The spreaders even mentioned his twin brother by name, who also has autism, but had nothing to do with any of this.
“Why would they say that?”
Eventually, the deputy came to interrogate the boy, and the mother taped the interrogation. I absolutely would have taped it, too. I recommend that anyone in that situation do so.
The deputy was fairly kind in his questioning, it seems to me. But he was also pretty intent on getting the young man to admit to something. He never did. Some of the answers are a little incoherent; but the suspended boy was adamant about never threatening anyone, even under mistreatment from other people. This is a key exchange about what got said in the moment surrounding backpack harassment:
“Other people called me school shooter or mass shooter in the past just because…just to mess with me, just to get to me.”
“Why would they say that?”
“I don’t know.”
“So did you refer to yourself as being …
“Why must I be…why do people call me that? And like what did I do to deserve this?”
It’s important to remember that this was happening as law enforcement and the school district were chasing down multiple hoax reports or fake threats Thursday night. It was a terribly stressful and difficult time for everybody.
The next day, on Friday, we board members received an update from Sup. Byrd. It included this excerpt:
With the horrific events from Broward happening, we had several students make some suggested threats. As we gather these they were and continue to be turned over to law enforcement. As of today, we had 10 students that will face discipline for these postings.
I don’t know for certain that this boy is one of those 10. And I don’t know individual facts about any other case. It was my hope that we would take a fresh look at the circumstances of this specific event. That seems to be what happened. And I didn’t even have to ask for it. The leaders involved here led on their own. I’m proud of them.
Good, now go fail again
Tragedy, trauma, and fear unleash powerful forces with enormously destructive consequences. The only thing that can shape them in a productive, healthy, and protective direction is the will to stay calm and apply flawed human judgement in the service of care.
I think it’s important for the public to understand the human difficulty of the tasks our administrators and staff face every day — and especially in the aftermath of a terrible event that causes people to lose composure.
No response will be deemed a success to every stakeholder. Harsh, personal criticism will happen. They’ll get called stupid or uncaring or cruel or negligent or lax or libtard or right wing nut job. And I say that as the elected board member most inclined to publicly critique leadership performance in the history of the Polk County School Board.
But there is a theme to my critiques: if you face a human conflict head on, if you make a judgement based on hard thought and moral consideration, I will always have your back. I may need to point out it’s the wrong decision, in terms of outcome. I may try to broker a different decision. But if you fail, as a leader, in good faith, and you try to rectify the failure, you haven’t failed. Indifference and hiding is what I don’t tolerate.
Indeed, I fail all the time — as a person, husband, parent, coach, politician, board member. Whatever. It’s how I get better. I want you to tell me when you think I’ve failed. Even if it stings me. My wife and kids certainly do.
Honestly, if I could recommend one training video for administrators and staff trying to manage a stressful situation like this — or just trying to do good job in this insane Florida model of education — it would come from Game of Thrones. Seriously. Watch this. It’s a minute long. Jon Snow has just been murdered for making a tough and correct leadership decision — and then brought back from the dead. He’s not particularly happy about it. His advisor Davos gives him some context. (Warning: there’s one moment of mild profanity.)
Thanks to everybody who risks failure every day to do what’s right for kids. I know you don’t get it right all the time. I don’t get it right all the time. In fact, in many, many cases there is no such thing as “right.” There is just the will to stay calm and constructive — and closely consider the human beings that surround us.
If you’d like to read part 1 of this series, here is the link.