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3 Things to Remember If You Watch the New 'School Shooter' PSA

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Sometimes the news isn’t as straightforward as it’s made to seem. Sarah Schuster, The Mighty’s mental health editor, explains what to keep in mind if you see this topic or similar stories in your newsfeed. This is The Mighty Takeaway.

Editor's Note

The video featured in this piece might be hard to watch if you have triggers around gun violence. Feel free to skip it, or if you need support, you can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741.

On Monday, Sandy Hook Promise — a nonprofit founded by loved ones of those killed in the Sandy Hook Elementary School mass shooting in 2012 — released a PSA called “Point of View.” It shows the world through the eyes of a school shooter and was released just four days before the sixth anniversary of the tragedy.

In the almost two-minute video, we see the unnamed (and until the very end, unseen), school shooter walking through a school. We see people avoid him as he sits alone at lunch. We see him get shoved in a gym locker room. We see a girl whisper, “Loser,” in his direction when she walks by.

Eventually, we see him take a gun out of a black bag, stare into his reflection, take a few deep breaths, and enter an auditorium full of students. He shouts, “Look at me,” and people scream and scatter.

The video cuts and text on the screen reads, “Most people only notice a shooter once it’s too late. See the signs and stop a shooting before it happens.”

The message seems to be that schools shootings are preventable and there are signs of a school shooter people often miss.

Although the message is an important one, the video did leave me with a weird feeling in my stomach. It made me think of the hashtag #WalkUpNotOut that emerged after the Parkland shooting, which spread the idea that to prevent school shootings, people should be nicer to each other — that you should “walk up” to the kid who sits alone at lunch. The implication seemed to be: loners and people who are bullied sometimes end up being school shooters. Look out for them. Walk up to them. Know the signs.

And yes, while people should be nicer to each other and we should pay attention to signs of a school shooter, here are some things I think people should keep in mind in light of this new PSA.

1. Bullying can be a factor, but mass shootings are complicated.

In a short time period, the PSA shows multiple signs of a school shooter. In his locker, we can see the student is interested in guns. While he walks through the library, we see a post he had written on Facebook that reads, “Tomorrow you’ll be sorry.” This is a specific threat and is obviously something schools should look out for.

The other “characteristics” of the school shooter in the video are related to school shootings but can’t be taken as signs alone. For example, we see that the student is bullied. But, out of all of the middle and high school students in America, more than a quarter report being bullied. This means at least 1 out of 4 students have experienced different degrees of bullying. As too frequently as mass shootings at schools happen, bullying can’t fully explain the “why.” As one advocate pointed out, “If bullying caused school shootings, you would see trans shooters, queer shooters, female shooters, POC shooters. Bullying does not cause school shootings.”

So while it’s important to show the shooter was isolated from his peers and bullied, we have to take this trait with a grain of salt. If we profile students based on who’s being bullied, we run the risk of hurting students who are already hurt. Students who are bullied need support — and making kids think a peer who is being bullied is more likely to become a school shooter won’t help.

2. Just because someone’s a “loner,” doesn’t mean they should be feared.

When we emphasize that school shooters are people who don’t fit in with their peers, we run the risk of stereotyping another group of people — kids who are different or shy. Although the video doesn’t show any specific traits of the shooter, it does paint him as an outcast, someone who didn’t belong to a “group” at school. He doesn’t interact with any of the other students in the video.

But when we talk about the traits of people who commit mass shootings, we have to make it clear that while hurting others is never OK — behavior that seems different isn’t necessarily bad. Just because someone is shy or seems anti-social doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with them. Just because someone is a loner or doesn’t fit in doesn’t mean they need to be feared.

Like with #WalkUpNotOut, stereotyping people who seem shy or “weird” as dangerous is unfair to all of the kids who fail to conform to their school’s social stratification.

As someone who was the “weird kid” in high school for reasons that had nothing to do with me wanting to shoot anyone, I’d ask you to please not encourage the entire fucking school to “walk up” to kids who are sitting alone.

3. It’s not the responsibility of students to prevent school shootings.

A short PSA can’t possibly go into all the moving parts involved in preventing a mass shooting. But something that stood out to me in this PSA was that it only features one adult — the janitor who opens the school shooter’s locker. We only see students interacting with students, so it can look like the video is placing the responsibility on them.

While students do need to be kind to their peers and bullying needs to be prevented, it shouldn’t be for the sake of stopping a mass shooter. Bullying needs to be addressed despite school shootings. Instead, it’s the adults in the room — the government, the mental health system and the school system — who need to come together to create real solutions to prevent school shootings. Sure, a PSA can start a conversation, but we have to make sure the conversation we’re having is the right one.

Originally published: December 13, 2018
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