Today we learn of another school shooting, this time in Parkland, Florida, an affluent community north of Miami. At least 17 people are dead, and the shooter was a 19 year old former student. We have seen this before. In 1999, 15 died including the two student shooters at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado. We were fortunate at the time to have a systemic council program at Palms Middle School. Here is the message that went out to staff.
Response to the Tragedy in Littleton, Colorado
As I write this, I am filled with grief over the events of yesterday. I am also more acutely aware of the preciousness of each moment and each meeting with others.
Although we are often overwhelmed and made numb by the weight of such a tragedy, there is an opportunity for deeper healing if we can fully experience our grief and respond appropriately.
Unlike many other programs for young people, the Council Project attempts to be systemic. That is, it is in place, school-wide when events affect the entire community. Students and staff are practiced in turning towards one another in the circles.
Even though students might not "choose" to talk about the events that occurred in Littleton, we may feel a responsibility as educators to lead a discussion of the underlying topics. Littleton may seem a world away to our students, but the forces at work in such violence are within us all.
The first step is to find out what students know, and be informed enough yourself about the facts of the incident so as to clear up any misconceptions. The second thing is to create a space where students can express the full spectrum of emotional response, from profound grief to numbness and denial. A simple council question like, "How did you react when you heard about this incident?" can be enough.
Further rounds of Council can focus on questions such as the following:
Recall a time when you witnessed someone behave violently or you, yourself, lost your temper and lashed out. In subsequent rounds, you can ask students to say why they think the violence occurred and to speculate about what could have prevented it.
As violence is often the result of feelings of alienation, before a council you can have students discuss what an "outsider" is. Then, council, ask them to recall a time when they felt like an outsider, separate or separated from others, or when they were aware of someone else who was in that position. Again, what caused this separation and how could it have been prevented? If they speak about another person, they can also talk about what they did or did not do to help that person feel included.
For closure, you can ask something like: What, if anything, can you as an individual do right here and right now to prevent violence and promote better understanding?
There is a quote that we use often in the Council Project that has been credited to both Gene Knudsen Hoffman (Quaker peace activist, poet founder of the Compassionate Listening Project) and Thich Nhat Hanh (Vietnamese Buddhist peace activist and poet, nominated by Dr. Martin Luther King for the Nobel Peace Prize). They say, "An enemy is one whose story has not yet been heard." May we all become better listeners to those stories.