Guest Writer: Debbie Downer

You ever have one of those days when you find out a 14-year-old former student murdered another student? Erm. Me neither.

But if I did, it would be awful. And there would be guilt about not doing enough. And there would be scanning of all interactions to see if there was something else I could have done to prevent it. There would be major cognitive dissonance. He was a nice kid. He had potential. He got sucked into a gang. He didn’t have the skills to think through what would happen if he actually shot another kid. I know that most people file “gang member” under “evil misfit” in their minds and move on with their lives, but it’s far more complex. He was a sweet kid. He was vulnerable to influence. He didn’t have many successes in school and was looking for a way to feel connected and powerful. I think there are two victims. One is gone at the age of 13 and one is in jail for the rest of his life.

There is a “spidering” of retaliation that is happening amongst my students, their older siblings, and their families. Some of my students say they admire the shooter. Some of my students are in danger. I feel powerless. I know I try to keep things light here at Notes From the School Psychologist, filling the blogospere with warm fuzzies, but I don’t want to sugar-coat how hard it is to be the person people go to when these things happen and ask, “what do we do?”

I was okay with my crisis intervention role when I got the call that I needed to go to the nearby middle school because of a shooting. It certainly wasn’t the first time my crisis team number had been called to do grief counseling. And I put on my objective psychologist hat* and grabbed my kit of crayons, paper, empathy, and crisis management skills.

In my team of other school psychologists, I saw all the kids coming in to mourn the 6th grader who was killed. They said things like, “He was really funny” and “He never came to class, but when he did, he made me laugh.” He was clearly in a gang. The kids said, “It’s so dumb he died for a color.” I processed the confusion, sadness, and anger with his friends, and sat with a girl who cried and clutched the kid’s beanie hat, as a last reminder of her friend. She wasn’t going to the funeral because she was afraid of retaliation. Then she said the shooter’s name. And my heart sank. It was one of MY kids. I knew him last year before he transferred out of my school. No longer an anonymous gang member, I was no longer that effective in my objective psychologist role. I managed to pull it together and see more kids that day, but I told my supervisor I didn’t feel like I would be effective in that role for the following day. I mean, how can anyone have empathy for a killer and grief counsel the victim’s friends at the same time?

A week has passed. No media coverage at all of the tragedy, except one blip on the 10 o’ Clock news the day after. Looks like the media has also filed it away under “evil gang members we can’t do anything about.” I wonder if this had happened in a fancy part of San Francisco, if Time Magazine would be all over it, opening a discussion about youth violence. It angers me.

Interestingly, I had JUST gone to a seminar on Student Threat Assessment, and we spent two days talking about how rare these events are, but how it’s our job to take every threat seriously. We can’t predict who will be a killer, but we can take steps following every threat. This kid never made a threat that I could have followed up on. But I knew he was vulnerable and interested in gangs. I wish I could have done more.

Debbie Downer would like to conclude with a sad fact that you can’t save everyone in this field. You do your best, and sometimes, the outside influences are stronger than you. You can clean the air inside your school, make it nurturing, follow up with kids who need help, and do your best. Sometimes it seems like the front door of your school is a screen door, and all the negative community influences just come right in and there’s nothing you can do. Except your best.

(Insert Debbie Downer noise here)

*It’s not actually a hat, but if it were, it would be like a Sherlock Holmes hat, I think, to symbolize the objective taking in of data/clues. See, humor is my defense mechanism from trauma. You probably noticed that already.

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Comments on Guest Writer: Debbie Downer

  1. Adam says:

    It’s strange how the media no longer considers the death of a 13 year old as newsworthy once it becomes gang related. Had the victim not been in a gang, then I'm sure it would have been all over the news. It’s the same way in Chicago. If some kid gets hit by a stray bullet during a drive-by, the local news is all over that. Yet, anytime the victim is also in a gang, it is mentioned as merely another Chicago public school student that has been killed in a gang related shooting and left at that.

    You are absolutely correct that most people automatically assume all gang members are terrible people. Growing up in a middle class suburb, that is what I was taught to think. I admit that I used to have that very same mindset. However, After living in Chicago the past three years and taking a community psychology course my perception of gang members changed completely. I can't help but think of these kids who are doing the killing as victims themselves. I think that the commonly held belief that it is their fault for joining a gang is completely ignorant of the environment these kids grow up in.

    I don’t think you have any reason to worry about not being able to do more. Being a school psychologist with a Ph.D., I'm sure you could have chosen to work in a less stressful environment or at least an environment where the stress is related to something less serious than students getting involved in shootings. Yet, you choose to work with students who have to deal with those situations regularly and that alone shows how much you care about your work.

  2. Rebecca says:

    Thanks Adam, for your kind words and encouragement. I went back to my school today and things are still crazy, but we have a lot of support to give the kids during this time.

    I think everyone should take a Community Psych class. It really changed my way of thinking about systemic issues in urban areas.

  3. luckeyfrog says:

    I really admire you for doing the work you do, especially in an area where it sounds like events like this are uncommon.

    I hope you take solace in the fact that you tried with him. So many times, there seem to be shootings where people say the killer should have seen a psychologist, or someone should have at least tried.

    And you did that. It may not feel like enough, but you did try to do what you could. It's not your fault that he was up against something so much bigger than himself.

    I would also imagine that although you could never know it, you may well have prevented some other situations like this from happening. I hope that is the case, and that it is encouraging.

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