A few years ago, when The Citizen last published a story about the terror of school shootings, five Philly schools had just received a threat of gun violence — the harbinger of anxiety that every parent in America has to contend with. That turned out to be a hoax — district and school officials, and police, behaved admirably, and everyone left school unscathed.
Of course, that doesn’t mean they were safe: In the city of Philadelphia, shootings are a common fact of life for way too many residents, including many children. This year alone, 167 people have been fatally shot, slightly less than the record high of last year at this time. Increasingly, more of those victims are young people. And nationally for the first time, in 2020 gun violence was the leading cause of death among children, mostly in small episodes.
These tragedies rarely make front page headlines. They are, still and regularly, tragedies.
That said, school shootings are their own unique horror: We send our children to what we think of as places of safety and care. We are shocked anew every time we hear of a shooting in or near a school, as we are when we see them in churches, synagogues, grocery stores. According to the Washington Post’s comprehensive review, some 185 children and adults have died in school shootings in America, a nightmare we collectively relive over and over.
Still, it bears saying that school shootings, even in America, are rare. There are 56 million school-aged children. Most will go through their schooling never experiencing anything like what happened in Texas. That is small comfort, perhaps, at a time when it feels like we are constantly losing the fight to keep our kids safe.
Here, some ideas and resources for what we can do:
Talk to your kids — but don’t panic.
This has some good ideas about how to talk about violence with your kids.
Learn the facts about what we know — and don’t know — about reducing shootings.
Start with this incredibly researched, graph-based depiction by Nicholas Kristof and Bill Marsh that The New York Times republished yesterday. It is sobering, and also eye-opening.
Then, take some time to listen to Jo Piazza’s equally sobering and eye-opening Citizen podcast, Philly Under Fire, about the causes, effects and solutions to gun violence in Philly. Start here, to hear from young people in Philadelphia about what they need.
Enact common sense gun laws.
Want to know what that looks like? See Israel, for an example, as this enlightening piece in the Jewish independent newspaper Forward pointed out today. Like America, Israel is a country with a lot of guns, including (again like America) automatic weapons, and the legal right to own them. But it’s not easy to own a gun in Israel, and 40 percent of those who apply to get them are rejected. That’s because potential gun owners must meet certain criteria in order to get a gun license, including a note from your doctor about your physical and mental health, a clear criminal record, and a practical gun safety test. Also: Israelis can only own one gun, with 50 bullets at a time.
This is both freedom forward and safety forward, a middle ground which seems to fit with American sentiment. According to Pew research released last fall, about half of Americans favor more restrictive gun laws than are on the books — though they are divided, as well, on whether those laws would prevent mass shootings like the one in Texas yesterday. (And there is not a lot of evidence to show they would.)
The majority of people in both parties, though, do support some common sense regulations: preventing people with mental illness from purchasing guns; background checks for private gun sales; and opposing the ability to carry a concealed weapon without a permit (which is the law in PA). The Pennsylvania state legislature has not considered this, though. Instead, it passed a law last year that made it even harder for local jurisdictions like Philadelphia to enact its own restrictions. Gov. Wolf vetoed the bill in December, but a similar bill is likely to come before him again this year.
Meanwhile, the legislature has also failed to enact one common sense law that has been shown to prevent mass shootings in other states: Extreme Risk Protection Orders, otherwise known as “red flag” laws. An ERPO works much like a restraining order: It allows a family member or law enforcement official to petition a judge with evidence that someone is posing a threat to themselves or others. If the judge agrees, police can then temporarily seize their firearms. Montgomery County Rep. Todd Stephens, a Republican former prosecutor, has introduced ERPO legislation a couple of times, including last September, but his bill and similar ones in the Senate have failed to make it out of the judiciary committees.
Could an ERPO in Texas have stopped Salvador Ramos, the 18-year-old who killed all those children in Uvalde, Texas? It’s hard to say. A case study in California a few years ago found that ERPOs were used to disarm 21 people who had threatened mass shootings. They also have been found to prevent suicide, two-thirds of which are by gun in America — and that’s reason enough to pass an ERPO law here. Your legislators need to know if you think Pennsylvania should be among the dozen states with ERPO laws.
Spread the word about Safe2Say.
In 2019, Pennsylvania became the first state to require all schools to use the Safe2Say Something Anonymous Reporting System, created by Sandy Hook Promise, that lets users send tips about potential threats via an app or website to a call center at Attorney General Josh Shapiro’s office. The center then assesses the threats and alerts schools and districts as needed. In a report the Inquirer wrote about last month, the AG said Safe2Say has received about 80,000 tips so far, 73 percent of which were about suicide, harassment, bullying, discrimination and mental health. About 20 percent were about safety and dealt with accordingly.
Increase access to mental health care.
We don’t know much yet about Ramos, but it is safe to say he was a very disturbed young man. Unfortunately, we have a country of very disturbed young people, exacerbated by the pandemic. Almost none of these children will go on violent rampages, but they are harming themselves at alarming rates: According to a Surgeon General report issued in December, emergency room visits for suicide attempts rose 51 percent for adolescent girls in early 2021 compared to the same period in 2019; symptoms of anxiety and depression in both girls and boys doubled during the pandemic. Early estimates from the National Center for Health Statistics suggest there were more than 6,600 deaths by suicide among the 10 to 24 age group in 2020. And there are months-long wait lists to see mental health providers, not enough of whom accept insurance or are trained in trauma-informed care.
Here in Philadelphia, the Independence Blue Cross Foundation is funding an innovative pilot at Girard College that combines tele-med mental health services from CHOP with onsite counseling with, so far, great results. But that is small; it helps too few people; and it may be hard to scale without a huge investment. The Philadelphia School District upped its social and emotional learning work this school year to address these concerns, but more is clearly needed given the extent of everyday trauma so many kids suffer from.
What could help? More well-trained counselors in schools, for one thing, as well as a healthcare system that makes it easy and cost-effective to get mental healthcare quickly to those who need it. You can start by calling your representatives in Harrisburg and D.C., as well as showing up at school board meetings to push for the changes you want to see.
Meanwhile, here are several ways to get free or low-cost mental health services in Philly.
Remember — and curtail — the everyday violence.
So far this year, 167 people have died from gunshots in Philadelphia — a slight decrease over last year’s record high — and another 672 people have survived a shooting. Twelve of those murder victims were under 18 — a number that could easily approach the 19 children killed in Texas this week. The pandemic caused a rise in gun violence nationwide, but Philadelphia’s inability to address the horror in our midst is a failure on multiple fronts, including moral.
It is possible to staunch the violence, as other cities and states have shown through ideas we should steal here: focused deterrence; better policing; jobs and job training; and many others. That takes leadership, coordination, political courage and hard work. Where are the people willing to do that in Philly?
Help Philly’s schools do better.
Our children deserve to know we care about their futures, but their futures start now — and the now of too many schools is still not good enough to guarantee that their future is bright. We need more guidance counselors in schools, better physical facilities for the health of students and teachers, a more equitable funding stream to account for the needs of our city’s neediest. Those are biggies, but even smaller things can push schools forward. Will the new superintendent, starting this summer, do what’s needed to ensure Philly’s children are well-educated, safe and cared for in his schools? Let’s hope so.
In the meantime, here are other ideas.
From what little we know so far about Ramos, he seems to have been a loner who was often teased and maybe even bullied in school. Did that foreshadow his rampage? Who knows. But we suffer these days from a dearth of empathy towards those not like us — politically or otherwise — and children feel that more than anyone. There are programs designed to teach empathy to students, including Philly’s own Peace Praxis. We need more of that.
Listen to the children — and encourage them to vote.
Since Parkland, we’ve taken new notice of young voices in America, and they are — understandably — pretty mad. It’s not just violence they care about, but also climate change and the cost of living in America — things we older generations have, frankly, really screwed up. Experts credit the Parkland survivors, and the marches they inspired, for some of the gun legislation that passed in the years before the pandemic. And, young people are voting, too. In Philadelphia, in part thanks to Vote That Jawn, led by Penn’s Lorene Cary, and the efforts of high school teachers like Central’s Thomas Quinn, more young people are voting than ever before.
Will this be the year that legislators in Harrisburg enact laws to keep our students safe? Will we elect a governor who supports common sense gun laws? Will next year’s mayoral race result in better leadership for a city in desperate need of it? That depends on us — and who we elect. So do your part.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated which entity is funding the mental health pilot at Girard College. It is the Independence Blue Cross Foundation.
MORE GUN VIOLENCE SOLUTIONS FROM THE CITIZEN
Header photo: March for our Lives rally, March, 2018, via Creative Commons.