School Shootings: Moms Share What It's Like to Live Through a Lockdown

school children running outside

Imagine dropping your child off at school and learning shortly after there is a shooter on the grounds. Too many moms to count don't have to guess what that feels like. They lived that nightmare. Once upon a time, school shootings were a rarity in this country. Not anymore. Since the deadly rampage at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, there have been 74 other school shootings. It's bone chilling. Three moms recount those terrifying moments when they didn't know whether their child would make it home alive. And like so many of us, they want to know why? Why does this continue to happen again and again?


For many of us, the Columbine rampage in 1999 was the first time we encountered a mass school shooting. The minute-to-minute media attention had the country fearfully mesmerized, praying it would end. But while the spray of bullets stopped, the fear didn't. In the days to follow, there were other incidents, according to local Denver mom Hope A. Rising. "Two weeks later I got a call that my daughter's high school was on lockdown because of a Columbine copycat," she explains. "[It was] the longest 20 minutes of my life, trying to get to her school to find out if there were in fact any shootings, to make sure my daughter and her friends were okay. Fear, anger that someone would take something so tragic and try to copy it in order to gain attention for himself -- turns out the kid had no guns; he was just dressed like the Columbine shooters and hinted that he had a gun. I was relieved to find out the incident was false."

Though the emotional effects would linger. "How does a parent explain what goes on in their minds when something like this happens? My daughter knew two kids at Columbine and she was frantic all afternoon until their families finally got in touch with everyone to let us know the kids had gotten out safely." Afterward, Rising became more protective, making her son and daughter call her every day after school so she was sure they were safe. As for her kids, "My daughter and her friends were extremely upset," she says. "They were a little more cliquish after the shootings, very seldom letting anyone outside their little group in. "

For one Southern California mom, who asked to remain anonymous, there was similar shock and fear. In her town, residents were still reeling from the University of California, Santa Barbara shooting where student Elliot Rodger went on a spree that killed 6 and injured 13 when she learned her child was in danger. "The day after, they locked down the schools thinking there was another shooter while my daughter was at school," she recalls, still shaken by the memory. "I called the sheriff's office and waited, then went to Facebook of all places to see if anyone knew what was happening." With a mass of sirens, swat cars, police, and press, it was two hours before she could get to her child. "It was more than a scare since the shooting had just killed so many a few miles down the road at UCSB days earlier," she explains. "Turned out to be a hoax from some idiot. We were all terrified. The entire Santa Barbara community was scared beyond belief."

Another mother found herself in the midst of a lockdown at her 9-year-old son's Florida elementary school. "There was a shooting in a field at a nearby school and they take it very seriously," she explains. "My son hates the lockdown drills -- they are scary. He’s more used to them now that he is older, but they are still scary. It was lunchtime and at first I thought it was a drill, but then it became clear -- this was a real lockdown. We were in the cafeteria and they put us on the stage behind the curtain and turned off all the lights."

Not surprisingly, the children were terrified. Even the youngest of students now understood the danger. "There were kids who were so scared, they were crying. We just had to sit there until an all clear was given," she says, noting that she didn't feel particularly safe. "We had a curtain protecting us if someone had come in. The lockdown wasn’t very quick either. I think it took them about 10 minutes once the lockdown had started before we even got the doors to the cafeteria locked and another 5 minutes before we were all in our 'safe area.' If someone had been on campus -- we wouldn’t have been protected that much. On the one hand, I’m glad they drill; on the other, I’m not sure how much these drills actually help protect kids."

As this problem persists, parents try to understand what inspires a student to kill and what if anything can be done to prevent it. The Stir reached out Dr. Daria M. Brezinski, a noted psychologist who has conducted a 25 year study on this epidemic of violence, for answers.

Why does it seem as though there are so many more school shootings today than 20 years ago?
Students toting guns to school and settling differences on the schoolhouse steps has been an issue since the nation began because frontier children took guns to school in order to shoot animals on the way home for supper. However, it is only in recent history that the guns have been turned onto classmates. This phenomena is relatively recent to modern America because the culture of tolerance, morals, and values has dramatically changed.

Why do you think that is?
It includes but is not limited to a culture that has blurry lines in discrimination, discernment, and boundary issues; the lack of patience with developmentally slow boys; decline of religion; increase in violent films, TV shows, and games; emphasis on material possessions rather than on interrelationships; rise of the divorce rate; explosion of single mother homes who are the nation’s working poor; Super-Sized High Schools (with more than 300 students); emphasis on intellectual and physical prowess over emotional competency; rise of adult narcissistic culture that places children on a lower rung of priorities. The first item on the agenda when you visit a therapist is to discuss the trauma of childhood. Yet, when we consider the violence of boys, we look for the issues in the moment instead of going all the way back to the beginning where behaviors are germinated.

Are some of these shooters "born bad"?
No child is born bad or with bad behavior. This is a learned response, a coping mechanism, for the most part, as a response to missing some basic human need and/or skill in the initial, formative stages of development especially the trauma at birth and the mother-infant bonding to a significant maternal figure. When one has not bonded, the mind is consumed with feelings of fear, anxiety, isolation, aloneness, abandonment, and separation. During these stages, anti-social neuroses, psychoses, and pathologies take root. Boys need this bonding process more than girls, although both are equally in need of mothering. No intellectual intervention, product, pill, drug, or substitute can replace this basic human need to belong and connect and enter the world feeling safe and secure.

So, it's about teaching them how to cope and respond at an early age?
Neurophysiologists and psychologists emphasize that from pregnancy to age 6 years old, these are the defining stages for acquiring all forms of behavior. If the child has not bonded, in this foundation stage, the brain’s limbic system, the seat of conscience, breaks down its filters, desensitizes the forebrain, disconnecting the link between the recognition of right and wrong to the rational brain in the frontal lobes. Anti-social, dissociative behaviors begin to emerge fueled by cultural and societal stimuli. These patterns are the roots of all future responses, drives, communications, and conduct. By adolescence, the brain has formulated and concretized its responses.

Is bullying still a major culprit?
Bullying is not a root cause but rather a tipping point like many others. The issues that supersede the violence come long before bullying starts. The classic Newtonian worldview where the brain is separated from the rest of the human condition enables children and adults to function at high levels intellectually while disconnected from emotional and spiritual realms until a minor incident sends the shooter over the threshold paving the way for future tragedy. This is not something that develops in puberty but long before it. So bullying is farther down on the major issues of creating violence although just as significant.

In so many cases, the shooter seems to shoot more than his tormentors -- why is this?  Why “take out” innocent kids?
Hurt people hurt other people, generation after generation. When one is enraged, lacks emotional regulation, is unable to communicate deep feelings of hurt and anger, the object of the retaliation is irrelevant. They lash out at the nearest target.

If they have been the recipients of abuse themselves, they often seek those who are most vulnerable, as if to reconcile their own lost innocence.

Why do so many school shooters kill themselves at the end of a rampage?
You are looking for logic here. There is no logic in the mind of someone whose brain chemistry is so distorted that it seeks explosion (homicides) and implosion (suicide) to allay the internal pain and torment. Working with suicidal teens for many years, their inability and immature brain functioning does not think past the act towards finality. It only seeks to alleviate the intense pain and/or propulsion towards fulfilling their needs. Consider a school shooter whose basic drive is for significance verses someone who chooses to become president out of the need for significance. Each has the same goal with a different set of values and morals.

Flint, Michigan, had the youngest school shooter: a 6-year-old shot and killed a classmate. Can a child this young really carry the kind of rage we associate with teen shooters?
Does a 6-year-old have rage or are they modeling behavior seen from parents, TV, movies, games? This age does not have a formed forebrain, conscience, or is capable of rational thought. This child is mirroring some adult mentor or visual stimuli. The question is, where does a 6-year-old get access to a gun? Of course, the parents are at fault. 

Your research includes looking at how drugs and medication can affect children?
Today children are prescribed pharmaceutical mind-altering drugs to suppress these behaviors. With the onset of puberty for boys, the brain produces high levels of testosterone from ages 14-25 as the brain is evolving into its final stage of development. This onslaught of testosterone and the changing brain chemistry, electromagnetic composition, and loss of limbic filters enables the irrational behavior and subliminal anger, suppressed over the years from antidepressants, which are no longer effective, for the body to implode (suicide) or explode (homicide). Psychology and psychiatry have redefined normal childhood behaviors, curiosity, and exuberance as deficits rather than assets or stepping stones

Do you find drugs or medications often play a part in a school shooter's background?
The ONE thread that links almost all school shooters is the one unspeakable truth the media will not cover -- ALL the ones I've studied have been on or were detoxifying from one or a number of antidepressants at the time of shooting. Antidepressants disconnected them from their emotional life and turned them into psychopaths, while about 4 percent become maniacal. These disconnected and numbed youths usually take SSRI drugs like Prozac, Zoloft, or Paxil. The body is an extremely complex biochemical and electromagnetic mechanism that regulates itself into harmony and rhythm with every other aspect of the body. When these chemicals are introduced, the body must overcompensate in other ways. A child, who is placed on an antidepressant, submerges feelings rather than learning the life skills to deal with them. This coupled with images from violent television, computer games, and movie viewing creates a climate in this country to settle uncomfortable or angry feelings with violence through tragedies such as Virginia Tech and Sandy Hook.

A common question is, “How could the parents not know?” Can you help us address this? 
As a professor who teaches parenting classes, I can say unequivocally that some parents lack the skills to parent their children in the modern era. LISTEN. If you sit at the dinner table with technology instead of communicating with each other or not eat together at all, have technology in bedrooms, do not monitor your child’s behavior from the beginning, allow the fast paced world to invade family life instead of slowing down, living simply, and finding places of peace, then from the very beginning of your child’s life, you are oblivious to their behavior.

As a therapist, some children and youths come with bad behavior or suicide because parents have not heard them when they speak with their still, small quiet voices. Some parents are molding the child into an image of their underachieved selves. What message does that send to the child? If your child comes to mom and asks something, the response is ‘no’ and goes to father who caves in, what message does that send? If parents are not coordinated in their parenting, in other words, when you want the child to do something, do you give them a date and time of completion and then a consequence equal to the task? This is how children develop healthy boundaries. If you abuse a child verbally, mentally, physically, sexually, what happens to that child? Do they become People Pleasers and lie? Do they learn to discriminate when they are in a dangerous situation or with dangerous people? Parents do not see the signs because they are either self-absorbed, do not listen, or lack parenting skills.

Are the safety measures that schools have in place really effective? Most schools have teachers barricade the kids in the classrooms but can’t a shooter just shoot his way in?
Obviously, Newtown demonstrates, as well as other school shootings, that you can have all of the safeguards and security in the world and still these events occur. We have generations of disconnected children, youths, and young adults. What security is going to keep them all from shooting their way through an open window? Many of the shooters pre-plan the event for days, weeks, and months to outwit school officials, guards, and safety measures. Where there is a will.

The key to safety and security is prevention long before these things happen. Stop the cycle of treatment towards children that engender this seed of destruction.

What is the best way for parents and school administrators prevent something like this?
This question is like a similar one like, ‘How do I protect my child from getting abducted?’ The normal response would be to create a climate of caring as well as academics in the school. However, Newtown was a school that did so even if the shooter never got the message. Every school district, as a prevention strategy, offers parenting classes to both teach skills as well as resolve issues. When parents communicate with other parents, they realize that their problems are universal. Schools create a more nurturing climate along with the pressure in academics. In reality, there is no way to prevent this at the school district level. It is the culture of violence, lack of skill sets, the unquestioning of authority, the lack of common sense, and inability to discern dangerous environments and situations that keep these situations re-occurring.  

Has your kid's school ever been on lockdown? What happened?


Image via © Tomas Rodriguez/Corbis

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