While thousands of students walked out on Wednesday in protest of President Donald Trump’s lack of action on gun control, others believed they they had a better solution: walking up to troubled or bullied peers and just being nice.
The night before March 14’s National Walkout Day, a Virginia teacher named Jodie Katsetos shared a photo to Facebook of a message she shared with her 6th grade students: “#WalkUpNotOut: What can you do? Walk UP to the kid that sits alone and ask him to join your group. Walk UP to the kid who never has a voluntary partner and ask to be hers. Walk UP to your teachers and thank them. Walk UP to someone and JUST BE NICE.”
The message has been shared over one million times.
There’s nothing wrong with teachers preaching kindness. We need more of that. I have a little sister in 4th grade and the stories she tells me about the bullying that happens in her class make me cringe. But implying that being nice is an alternative to protest—instead of “in addition to”—ignores the bigger picture.
The most obvious: Bullying can play a role in school violence, but it isn’t the sole nor determining factor. I know from personal experience.
When I was 15, I “walked up” to an “outcast” student at my high school. I walked up to him a lot.
We laughed during class and became good enough acquaintances to chat over instant messenger. Then one night during our chats, he asked me out.
When I declined, he told me that he would shoot me in class and watch “the blood splatter against the wall.”
I didn’t want to tell anyone at first but realized worse could happen if I said nothing. I spilled to my mom that night, and against my wishes, she called the school. “He needs help, Mandy,” she reassured me.
This student was later expelled after school administrators found a knife in his locker.
No matter how nice I was to my classmate, I couldn’t fix all of the factors building up over 16 years of his life that had driven him, and so many other shooters, to the brink of violence.
Dr. Wendy Roth and Jal Mehta, who are co-authors of Rampage: The Social Roots of School Shootings, studied school shootings enough to conclude that the issue is much more complex.
Roth, an associate professor of sociology at the University of British Columbia, told The Daily Beast that she and her co-authors found that these factors played a role in the motivations behind why a person chose to carry out a shooting: the shooter's marginality, feelings of exclusion (or their own perception of exclusion,) and, reducing the guns available to children and their access to them.
“One or two kids who are being nicer or welcoming is not going to change that [the shooter is] trying to change the way they're perceived,” Roth says.
It’s a good place to start, and certainly anything helps, but “walking up” shouldn’t be touted as the only solution and certainly not superior to a gun control walk out.
First, plenty of children who are bullied do not commit mass murder. The individuals who do are an unlucky mash-up of all the worst triggering factors. Expecting teens to feel like they have the power to prevent murder simply by extending goodwill is dangerous.
Second, “walking up” ignores the other factors—i.e., access to guns—that without a doubt contribute to tragedies, as “walking up” hinders our resolve to change them.
“The issue is, these two things are seen as ‘either/or,’ [but] they’re not an either/or. What’s wrong with doing both?” Roth asks, citing the “walking up” and “walking out” debate.
Her co-author, Mehta, an associate professor at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education, backs her up. He says that to solve school shootings, we have to look at the problem like a Venn diagram.
“[In the circles are] the kids who are bullied, the kids with mental illness, sociopathic tendencies,” he says. “If you look at the intersection of all of those circles, there still would be kids in that intersection that don't shoot. But if you're trying to solve the problem, if you lessen those problems somewhat, the rate of what happens go down.”
Yes, we should walk up to the kid sitting alone. But we should also walk up to lawmakers and ask why the killer, who may have a history of mental illness and violent tendencies, was able to walk up and purchase a firearm. We should walk up to the child who never has a partner and befriend them. We should also question why a teenager felt enough hate to walk up to white supremacists and allegedly train with them.
It’s probable that no one could have been nice enough to stop the shooter from isolating himself, to reverse his depression, or to prevent the loss of his mother (Parkland). No amount of niceness can reverse years of learning to hate women so much as to murder them (San Bernardino), to perceive others’ happiness or material belongings as a personal attack (Virginia Tech), or to lessen a teenager’s psychopathy (Columbine).
One act of kindness could not have prevented the “next tragedy,” but many acts of kindness could—in conjunction with good and affordable therapy, a thorough education system, and a society that doesn’t equate masculinity with violence and hate.
If I could, I’d tell you to ask the women who die from gun violence at astronomical rates about “walking up” to their violent partners who are, by law, still allowed to own guns, every day.
There’s good news, though. You can choose which aspect of gun violence you want to work toward, as long as you don’t hinder any of them,
“Any one of which, if you address them, make a dent [and] it could have an impact in preventing school shootings,” says Roth.
I choose both.
I don’t regret “walking up” to my classmate, which may have prevented something even more sinister from happening. But I know that my school also played a role in prevention, and mandated that he attend a school that specializes in kids with behavioral or mental health problems. Maybe that helped. Maybe not having access to a gun, instead of just a knife, prevented a tragedy, too.
What I know most of all is that, if I were in school still, I would have walked out—in addition to “walking up.”
No option on its own will fully protect us, but acknowledging that they all in some way contribute to stopping an epidemic is a start.