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Preventing School Shootings by… Criminalizing Depressed Tweens?

“Back-To-School Essentials” PSA by Sandy Hook Promise. All the trigger warnings in the world.

By now you’ve probably watched “Back-To-School Essentials”, the brilliant, harrowing PSA released by non-profit Sandy Hook Promise. It’s embedded above if you haven’t, but be warned that it is the very definition of triggering. It’s been shared on my twitter feed countless times since yesterday, and has nearly a million and a half views on YouTube. The concept is simple, and impeccably realized. A group of adorable children address the camera about the cool new clothing, toys, and equipment their parents bought them for the new school year, even as it becomes clear that what these running shoes, scissors, and phones are being used for is a desperate scramble for survival in a school shooting. It’s absolutely gutting.

But if you’re like me, you might have noticed the title card at the end of the PSA, and made a funny face. “School shootings are preventable when you know the signs”, it reads. Huh? What does that have to do with the horrific reality in which American children are being taught to treat their schools like war zones, and to anticipate attempted murder by classmates, teachers, or random strangers?

Patrick Blanchfield offers some elucidation in this twitter thread, in which he includes a questionnaire that Sandy Hook Promise sends out to schools as part of their Say Something program. The checklist is intended to teach children how to tell if one of their classmates is planning a school shooting or some other act of violence.

Some of these are no-brainers—”making overt threats of violence”, for example, or “regularly bullying or intimidating others”. Though I can’t help but notice that the tendencies most often associated with mass shooters—domestic violence and white supremacy—are acknowledged only in euphemisms. But others are terrifying. “Victim of constant social rejection or marginalization”? Are we resurrecting the lie propagated after Columbine, that school shooters are victims of bullying rather than bullies themselves? “Suffering from childhood trauma (ex. verbal, sexual, or physical abuse, neglect, hunger, poverty, or other traumas)”? What a wonderful way to further alienate and isolate children who are already in desperate need of help! A lot of these warning signs are clearly symptoms of depression (though also, in their less severe forms, common behaviors among teens) and I’m not aware of any correlation between that condition and school shootings. And as people on my twitter feed were noting, children who are already at risk of bullying and self-harm, in particular LGBT teens, are likely to exhibit many of these symptoms, so criminalizing them and teaching their peers to see them as dangerous seems like a really bad idea.

Looking at Sandy Hook Promise’s website, it advertises itself as a gun violence prevention organization focused on training children and teachers to recognize the warning signs of shootings. Some of their projects seem worthwhile, such as anti-bullying initiatives and suicide prevention. And, as noted, at least some of the warning signs they identify are no-brainers (and were in fact noticed in the run-up to many recent school shootings, and ignored by authority figures, so maybe training teachers not to do that is a good idea). But I can’t get over the disconnect between the “Back-To-School Essentials” PSA and the conclusion it reaches. Why make an ad that highlights the burden being placed on American children, to cope with an epidemic of school shootings that no systemic effort is being made to halt, if all you’re going to call for is the placing of yet more burdens on their shoulders? Why call out the horrific absurdity of children being taught to defend themselves from high-powered weapons with school supplies, if you’re just going to pile on the equally horrifying, absurd responsibility of deciding which of your friends are future murderers? “Back-To-School Essentials” does an excellent job at conveying the scope of the problem facing American children and anyone who cares about them, which only makes Sandy Hook Promise’s paltry, victim-blaming response to that problem seem not only insufficient, but obscene.

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