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Capitol Punishments: A generation of tactical school nightmares

An illustration shows a notebook, large tear drops, and lightning against a white background speckled with black dots and textured red circles. Illustration by Maggie Denman.
Illustration by Maggie Denman.

Those of us old enough to remember Columbine need to stop passing down the horrific burden of mass shootings.

Each week in Wisconsin politics brings an abundance of bad policies, bad takes, and bad actors. In our recurring feature, Capitol Punishments, we bring you the week’s highlights (or low-lights) from the state Legislature and beyond.

I was 15 years old and about to finish my freshman year of high school in Kansas when two high school seniors in neighboring Colorado planted bombs at Columbine High School. And when those bombs failed to go off, the two young men hunted down their classmates and teachers, room by room, murdering 13 people.

I was part of that first generation of students who, as the grim details unfolded, started seeing our schools through a tactical lens. Where would I go if I was in the hallway? In the cafeteria? The library? 

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Our brand new armed shooter drills were not as elaborate and traumatic as what children undergo today. The alarm went off, we cleared the hallways, teachers shut their doors, and administrators jiggled them to check they were locked. Most teachers just kept going with their lesson.

The rules changed, and not always in ways that made sense. Our school had made the genius move of making the cafeteria smaller when it was remodeled, so of course students spilled out into the hallway; now, not allowed. We’d go outside to sit on the grass, then try to pull the doors to get back in and find they were locked. “Oh. Right. Columbine.”

We assumed that the adults would eventually figure out how to make sure it didn’t happen again. After all, they were obviously upset and they were the ones in power.

But here we are, 23 years later. Those fourth and fifth graders at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas this week could have easily been the children of people who were in school when Columbine happened. Generation Columbine is now sending their kids to school in the wake of Robb Elementary.

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Today mass shootings are happening more frequently, in part because we let an assault weapons ban expire. The pro-gun lobby and their political enablers have successfully turned the debate into gun control versus mental health resources, even though we need both. But the reality is they have no interest in doing either in a meaningful way.

Instead, we get Republican legislators in Wisconsin dragging us back into the ridiculous debate over arming teachers, even as we learn more and more about how ineffective the actual armed, trained police were at the scene of the shooting. Or in Sen. Ron Johnson’s case, they somehow find a way to blame all this on wokeness and critical race theory.

I’m not completely dismissive of the mental health part of the equation, though, because we need to have a serious conversation about what is happening to young men in this country. (Or men in general, since the suicide rate is highest among middle-aged men.) Sadly, we now also have enough mass shootings to see patterns in the profiles of these shooters. They tend to be young white men with a history of aggression, who intend to die in the attack. 

“Their path to violence involves self-hate and despair turned outward at the world, and our research finds they often communicate their intent to do harm in advance as a final, desperate cry for help,” wrote criminal justice professors James Densley and Jillian Peterson.

As a former young woman, I can confirm that young women also have mental health issues, including self-hate and despair. But they have a lower rate of suicide and almost no murder-suicides. We need to look at why young white men channel those feelings into mass murder. 

After a young man murdered 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida in 2018, media outlets lined up to profile the young survivors advocating for gun control. It was the first time I remember hearing this idea that the youth would be the ones to save us all. Former President Barack Obama said something along those lines about young climate activists—a former President handing his generation’s burden off to teenagers.

What a perverse way for adults to romanticize their dereliction of duty. Since Columbine I have watched year after year as the adults in the room argued and got nothing done. This also applies to climate change, income inequality, healthcare, child care, elder care, housing… Basically all the societal issues I learned about in high school and college two decades ago are not only still with us, but have gotten significantly worse.

I don’t want to do that to the next generation. Millennials have just overtaken Baby Boomers and are now the largest generation in the United States. At the same time, we now range from 26 to 41 years old and are finally coming into our political and economic power. Let’s make good use of it. 

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(Gen X can come too.)

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