Bad Things Happen, People Recover and Do Amazing Things

The shooting on February 14 at a high school in Parkland, Florida was another one of too many school shootings in the US since 2018 began. The day after this tragedy our Change Matrix team gathered during our regularly scheduled time and were unable to focus on our structured agenda for the day. Instead, we took turns over video conference sharing how we felt. As a group, we were feeling grief, rage, bewilderment, helplessness and grateful for a space among trusted colleagues and friends to support each other. We also felt a need to do something. We all felt the need to do something bold because where we are in this country is not ok. It is not ok that anyone’s life is taken before their time and in this tragic way.

While we shed and shared our tears, we also offered a composite of what could and should be done. And some of what we believe is in contrast with popular and political sentiments. Perhaps one of the most complex aspects of our thinking was for the young man who has confessed to the massacre. It is natural to define his motive as hate and evil. It looks and feels like that. But we must ask ourselves about what in this young man’s life potentially contributed to this act. What we could have done? What should we be doing about it?

All of us touched on the emerging focus on trauma. Trauma is a word that has entered our field over the last decade in all of our child and family serving systems. We know from neuroscience that when adverse childhood experiences or traumatic events impact developing brains, they are altered and individual response can show up as challenging behavior. From news sources, we know a few things about Nikolas Cruz. He was adopted early on, lost his adoptive father and then his adoptive mother with whom he was very close. She was his safe space. Loss of parents at a young age is identified as an adverse childhood experience. We also know from the same sources, that he showed signs of behavior that could have indicated a stress response to trauma. Much of this behavior happened at school and led to his suspension.

So what should we learn from this? In ALL of our services and systems, understanding and incorporating a whole child, trauma informed approach is necessary. We have to learn more and ask (without assuming) what has happened to a child that may be provoking concerning behaviors.

As schools are the place where most children and youth spend a majority of their time, that is a critical place to incorporate social and emotional learning with a trauma informed lens. All children are better equipped to succeed in the classroom when they are mentally healthy. Those with concerning behaviors are better served when teachers, counselors, school nurses and psychologists (for schools lucky enough to have access to them) can take a compassionate, trauma informed approach when challenging behaviors show up. And when students are exhibiting evidence of serious mental health challenges, strong partnerships with the other services like mental health, are invaluable to ensuring students get what they need to increase their own resilience and avoid hurting others. Treating mental health challenges as a scary, violence-producing condition will only isolate those who suffer, increase stigma and fear towards those with mental health challenges and decrease our focus on promotion of positive mental health for everyone. That kind of thinking sends us in the wrong direction.

And lastly, because it cannot go unsaid, this country must change gun policy. It is unacceptable that just anyone has access to assault weapons and ammunition. It is unacceptable that we are held captive by a gun lobby that has hobbled our elective officials to act responsibly for the public good. This country has always experienced tension between individual rights and the good of the collective. We have swung so far to the extreme of protecting individuals to buy, own, carry and use weapons, that our children, youth and adults are needlessly dying. We said it after Columbine, Sandy Hook and all of the other tragedies…if not now, when? We at Change Matrix say No More!

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