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#SELChat: Leaning into Relationships for Hope and Healing

Two mass shootings in one weekend. I just read an article that said Americans have become accustomed to shootings at schools, concerts, and workplaces, but that these last two shootings are different―these two have left us stunned.

Yes, I’m stunned, but I disagree with the premise―There is nothing customary about a planned attack to murder innocent lives. I’ll never become accustomed to it, my neighbors are not accustomed to it and, as painfully common as these events have become, I don’t believe most Americans consider it “normal.”

Perhaps what the reporter was trying to convey was a feeling of desperation and frustration. It has been over 20 years of such senseless violence. We can’t help but sometimes feel helpless amid our sadness, our anguish, and our anger.

I remember working in a middle school in Arkansas where a shooting had occurred in 1998. The Love In A Big World team and I were there to be part of the healing process. It was several months after the incident…after the news stories had stopped and many teachers had left. But the students couldn’t leave. This was their school. Some teachers chose to stay until these students moved on to high school. They didn’t want the kids to be left alone with the memories of that fateful day.

We found a similar scenario in a Florida middle school devastated by violence in 2000. Students and teachers alike struggled through the pain and fear of the trauma while longing to return to some sort of normalcy. But what is normal? Is it normal for us to walk around our schools and workplaces―spaces where we spend the majority of our waking hours―without knowing the people around us? Let’s be real, sometimes we do not even take a moment to acknowledge another human being’s existence with a glance or a smile because we are so focused on the job that needs to be done.

When I worked at the Center for Safe & Supportive Schools at Vanderbilt with Dr. Maury Nation, we provided support to schools across the State of Tennessee around issues of safety and climate. We researched issues that schools are facing and then consulted with them in their buildings about solutions and successful implementation. When it comes to gun violence, are metal detectors and surveillance cameras the real solution to creating safer spaces? As long as guns are a real threat, I’m not saying schools shouldn’t take any such steps possible, but this is not a long-term strategy and is not a solution to changing the trend of violence. The solution I propose, for healing now but also for improving students’ outcomes in the future, is to focus on relationships.

When Hendersonville High School was dealing with student suicide, they decided to take a preventative approach by instituting Advisory Period, a dedicated time of the week for students to build relationships with teachers and peers. By changing the culture (what we do), they changed the climate (how it feels). They created a sense of belonging.

Over the coming days and weeks, there will be much speculation about why the incidents occurred in Texas and Ohio. There are a multitude of factors that will be difficult, if not impossible, to untangle. While these two tragedies didn’t happen in schools, we know the victims include people who were part of our schools, and we know there are devastated communities that have a long healing process ahead―much of which will take place in our schools and community organizations. The challenge before all of us is not to withdraw from the our children when they need us most.

Educators, thank you for your faithful service to our kids, families, and communities. You are on the front lines. Build meaningful relationships with your students and with each other.

Families, get involved. Volunteer at your child’s school throughout their school career, not just in the elementary grades. Attend their sporting events and other special activities. Communicate with their teachers. Get to know other families – invite them over for dinner.

Together, let’s build strong and healthy communities through intentional relationships. It’s simple, but not always easy. And it starts by looking people in the eye, sharing a smile…even calling them by name. If a pack of wolves can change the landscape of Yellowstone National Park, then, I believe, we can bring hope and healing to our kids, families, schools, and communities. I’m not saying it’s easy, or that this will immediately change everything and prevent pain from touching our communities again, or that there aren’t still major fights―policy debates and otherwise―that lie ahead for our nation, and that will require our bold efforts. But I am saying this is a start, that it is within our reach, and that it will make a meaningful difference for the students and families we serve. Let’s make sure each and every person―young and old―feels seen, known, valued, and loved.

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