The Chardon, Ohio School Shootings: A Neighbor's View

6 years ago

WARNING: Expletives used.

Here in Northeast Ohio, Monday morning shattered when news of a high school junior shooting several of his schoolmates started streaming into my inbox via news alerts.

At 8:18 a.m., I read: Breaking News: Report: Geauga County Sheriff's Department and OSHP heading to Chardon High School (the original item isn't even there anymore, there've been so many updates)

I didn't have to read another word before saying the trifecta out loud to an empty house, "G-ddamnit. Shit. Fuck."

Even as I write this, my stomach cramps up, my lower lids fill up and I bite my lip drawing in a huge sigh.

I thought that the first thing I'd write about in this post would be about what we know. But ha. Really -- just ha. Because I also think about all that we don't know. And what of either category simply doesn't matter?

For anyone wanting to keep up or catch up, so far, the best source for information has been the Cleveland Plain Dealer and you can find all their reports on the Chardon shooting here. I've heard multiple news outlets congratulate them throughout the week, and I'd say they're deserving.

For a quick recap, in case you've been trying to cross some ocean or polar ice cap by yourself, a teen boy sat at a cafeteria table in the Chardon, Ohio high school, pulled a .22 from his backpack, walked over to another table and started shooting. Three teen boys are dead, one more is wounded and still in the hospital, and a fifth gunshot victim, a teen girl, has been released from the hospital. The staff and faculty did what they'd been drilled to do, as did the students and administration. The gunman was located and arrested within an hour outside of the school, has now been formally charged and is expected to be tried in adult court. Information about the families of all these teens has been coming out over the days and countless tears, hugs and reflections have been shed, given and pondered.

Feb. 27, 2012, Chardon, Ohio, U.S. -- People pray at a vigil for the shooting victims at the Chardon Assembly of God Monday evening. (Credit Image: © .Bob Donaldso/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette/

How can anyone process any of this? I can only answer for myself, and even then, I wear a lot of hats in my life: mother, city council person, lawyer, social worker, former teenager. And I'm experiencing this incident in a jumble of emotions related to each of those hats. Each time I think one is more controlling than the other, I relinquish that thought -- because the competition in what I feel is so intense.

But what stands out most for me is this: I live barely 20 minutes away from a community whose school sports teams participate in the same division as my kids' schools. And though Chardon High wasn't my school, for several weeks late last fall, three teen boys -- almost exactly the same age as the Chardon teen -- terrorized my own community with "nothing more" than the intent to terrorize. (I use quotes, because of course it is more than nothing more. And rather than provide numerous links, all of which can be read by searching on "Orange bomb threats," I'll just share the last update from the school district itself.)

These teens who terrorized our school are now in juvenile court on 17 felony charges. And some members of our community -- though absolutely not all -- are insisting that it was "just" a prank. Clearly what happened in Chardon demonstrates why "just a prank," just like saying "boys will be boys" or any other stereotypical excuse simply doesn't cut it. Because the terror created was real.

And that terror came back to haunt and re-victimize my community again on Monday.

Yet, remarkably, for all my anger about wanting to be sure that the kids charged in my community's episode understand just how inhumane what they did really was, and for all my deep devastation for the wretched turn the lives of those in Chardon are now having to make, I listen to the Chardon community members and find a depth of understanding that so often isn't ever seen. I don't know if others outside NE Ohio can see it, but the Chardon community is showing by their comments and behavior, that they knew the alleged shooter and they knew what he went through. Almost to a person, and definitely in public, various members of the Chardon community seem to evince a "but for the grace of God go I" attitude about Monday.

And it is with my social worker and lawyer hats on -- because I don't know if, as a parent, I could do this -- that I am so enormously grateful for the Chardon community's response.

What the heck am I talking about?

I worked in a juvenile court diagnostic clinic for a year while getting my degrees in law and social work. Then, I worked at a children and family mental health agency for eight years and my job required me to work with the worst of the absolute worst child abuse and neglect cases -- cases like that of the alleged teen gunman.

The Chardon community seems to realize, and seems to be able to show, that they know the difference between not ever excusing what the teen did and the reality that this same teen grew up with so many risk factors that, when you say someone is broken? When you use the phrase "broken home"? This is precisely what we're talking about.

Mental health professionals know what intervention can do, how it can succeed. But we also know that it does not always succeed, and that we cannot possibly ever know, always, which cases will resolve well and which ones, tragically, will not.

This is a devastating reality to work against every day as a social worker. But you do, just the same -- because you are in the business of trying to fix things that someone else broke. And in the case of children, we work to fix the children.

Everything we've learned so far about the alleged teen gunman indicates that these factors were all there. What led him to go to a barn and take a gun and put it in his backpack and use it? We want to know and we will possibly find out. That won't change anything.

But might it help us change what any of us do when we encounter at-risk youth? And, again, I wonder: Who isn't an at-risk youth? Child development being what it is, there are risks everywhere.

Many people, and rightly so, have pointed out that Chardon isn't so far away from an urban area with a large minority population, an area that sees way too much teen violence, yet gets none of this attention.

One point I really want to make here -- which I'm not seeing made enough -- is that kids are at-risk, regardless of where they live. It's only a matter of how many risk factors might be found in an environment, and the extent to which an environment can mitigate those risk factors. Each and every one of these kids, regardless of location, needs attention and intervention.

The media coverage? Well, that helps to remind us adults about these tragedies' existence anywhere, everywhere. But no one should be saying they thought "things like that don't happen here."

They happen in Cleveland. They happen in Chardon. And they happen in my town, too.

It is tragic. It is awful. It is making me cry again. But mostly, I gasp for breath as my neck tightens to stop the crying, and say, "Fix it -- how do we fix it -- how do we fix them? How do we fix us?"

Jill Writes Like She Talks

In The Arena: Jill Miller Zimon, Pepper Pike City Council Member

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