Erin Albanese and Beth Heinen Bell contributed to this story
Multiple districts — As school districts and law enforcement officials across the U.S. continue to grapple with how to prevent mass school shootings and keep students safe, what are students thinking? What are their concerns? And finally, does anything make them hopeful?
SNN reporters sat down recently with area high school students to talk about how they’re feeling in the wake of the recent school shooting in Oxford, Michigan.
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Northview High School: ‘Mental Health is a Major, Major Factor’
Northview High students Emily Camp, a junior, and senior Alyson Reinhard are coworkers on their school’s student news site, The Roar.
As the Oxford High shooting was unfolding, Alyson said, “I remember thinking, ‘Oh, another school shooting,’ like it’s not really a surprise at this point because it happens so often and there’s nothing really being done.”
Added Emily: “A lot of my friends are talking about it. Our generation is going through a lot. This (school shootings) is normal for our generation, and this should not be normal. This should not be normal, the fact that this is happening and nothing really has been done about it.”
‘Even before Oxford, I’ve had several dreams about this happening at my school and just getting worried and anxious about it.’– Northview senior Alyson Reinhard
Alyson is working on an article about school safety for The Roar. She’s also planning to pen an opinion piece. A friend of hers who goes to Oxford High was posting on Snapchat, looking for classmates. Both girls said they learned it was happening from social media.
“I’ve talked to a few of my friends so far about our school’s safety policies, and they all said they didn’t know what policies are there,” Alyson said. “I feel like we don’t talk as a school about them until something big like Oxford happens.”
While their school and others in the district have added security vestibules at the front entrances, Alyson said “security-wise, I feel like there should be better precautions.”
Emily, who has struggled with anxiety, said she would have appreciated hearing more from administration and teachers. “My sixth-hour teacher sat down and talked with us. She not only said what we should do in a situation like that, she said if we need anyone to talk to we can always talk to her.
“But, one of my six teachers. That just kind of stood out to me, how only one teacher said something.”
Both think mental health should be more of a focus at school, where active shooter drills have been added to the fire and tornado drills of previous generations, and both can tick off the safest – and least safe – areas of their school.
‘I don’t feel like we should have patience for something like this; there’s no time to waste. I’m frustrated, and I’m scared, honestly, for everyone.’– Northview junior Emily Camp
“Mental health is a major, major factor (in) why these happen,” Emily said.
Added Alyson: “Even before Oxford, I’ve had several dreams about this happening at my school and just getting worried and anxious about it.”
They both feel the weight of the myriad issues facing their generation, of which gun violence is only one.
“I don’t feel like we should have patience for something like this; there’s no time to waste,” Emily said. “I’m frustrated, and I’m scared, honestly, for everyone.”
Is there anything to be hopeful about in all this? Both girls took a while considering this.
“I think there’s hope that this will be a breaking point” for gun reform and mental health efforts, Emily said. “We can’t just keep pushing that away.”
Rockford High School: ‘It’s Important to Talk About It’
“When you think of school shootings, you think of, like, Columbine and places that are big and far away, and so having (a shooting) close to home definitely is difficult to process,” Rockford senior Riley Peterson said. “But I don’t really see it as a huge gun issue. As a student, I more see it as an issue of connection.”
Riley is a peer listener at RHS, one of several students who have been trained in advocacy and mental health issues. The student-led group offers all RHS students the opportunity to talk with a knowledgeable peer, like Riley, about an issue they are having if they don’t feel comfortable speaking with a guidance counselor.
In her two years as a peer listener, she’s learned how vital relationships can be to a student’s success or positive mental outlook.
“Teachers that have more of a connection with students can understand what’s going through their minds a little bit more, and that can be a huge help in addressing the warning signs of depression or addressing issues before something happens like (a shooting),” Riley said. “I think it’s really important that students and teachers and staff are there for each other and have those connections.”
From a security standpoint, “I think we’re pretty prepared — as prepared as we can be,” Riley said. She doesn’t fear going to school, and thinks Rockford does a good job of communicating with students on safety matters.
But when it comes to connections, she feels there’s room for improvement.
“The teachers haven’t really been talking about (Oxford) — there are some that have, but some who’ve completely ignored it. And I think it’s important to talk about it, especially at school. Like, at least mention it. Kids should know that their teachers care and have that assurance that they’re there for you.”
‘I think it’s really important that students and teachers and staff are there for each other and have those connections.’– Rockford peer listener Riley Peterson
Of course, not everyone is eager to talk. Riley acknowledged that for some, a conversation about guns in school could trigger additional anxiety or fear. She knows other students are frustrated by government inaction over gun laws, or fed up over constantly being asked the same questions.
“I think a lot of us are trying not to talk about it, because we hear it a lot from our parents: ‘How do you feel about going to school?’ But, I mean, you have to go to school every day. So sometimes it’s just easier, like — if we don’t talk about it, it’s not there.
“But it very much is there.”
“I think people are tired of it. I think they’re tired of having another shooting, another death,” she said. “What I’m hopeful for is that there’ll be change: more gun laws and stricter access to who can get guns, especially students. I don’t want students with guns. Guns don’t fix guns.”
East Kentwood High School: ‘We Know What to Expect, but Not When to Expect It’
East Kentwood seniors Nicholas Singer, Zahida Rizvanovic and Yanal Zeqlam had similar reactions to the school shooting in Oxford.
“It’s horrible. It’s really terrible to see. When I saw it, I knew it was in Michigan and that’s a lot closer to where any of the others have been,” Nicholas said. “When things hit closer to home, that’s when I start realizing more the effects and seriousness of what’s going on around me.”
Zahida’s first thoughts were of her siblings.
“The first instinct that came into my head was ‘Is it my brother’s school?’ It was that huge fear. I don’t want my brothers to live through that trauma.”
Yanal had a feeling that was hard to shake.
“With where we stand now as a society and people, it was more news that wasn’t good. It was an uneasy, unsettling feeling inside of me. I’m sure my peers felt that way too, especially coming to school that next day. It was just like, ‘Are we going to be next? What’s going to happen?”
‘It was an uneasy, unsettling feeling inside of me … especially coming to school that next day. It was just like, “Are we going to be next? What’s going to happen?’’ ‘– East Kentwood senior Yanal Zeqlam
The students said vigilance from security professionals and everyone else is crucial.
“It kind of puts a perspective on things,” Nicholas said. “I can tell the younger people to just be safe, don’t take it for granted. If you see something, say something. … You don’t want to put any of your peers or friends – even if they aren’t your friends – into a situation like that.”
Zahida said her generation has grown up with the fear of school shootings, “but at the same time it’s made that fear more of a sense of ‘We know what to expect, but not when to expect it.’”
Threats should be taken seriously, Nicholas added. “You don’t want them to turn into anything bigger. It’s unfortunate that’s what’s happening. It’s the spiral effect of all these threats going around to different districts whether they are fake or real.”
Experiencing an event like that after nearly two years in a pandemic adds to the stress and anxiety, they said.
“The fact that we are already in a pandemic, which is unsettling enough with all the face masks and procedures and extra cautions we had to take, then having something like this come up in the news especially when it’s so close to home, like I said, was very unsettling for many,” Yanal said.
Zahida said students are re-adapting to school, many after more than a full school year spent learning virtually. “There’s this huge educational system we have to get back into. Our mental health – personally for me – had declined a little bit.”
Nicholas said it’s important to realize others are experiencing high stress levels and to reach out to them. “Not everybody wants to be in their environment at home. They don’t go home to food on the table and presents under the tree. Whatever I can do to help, what everyone else can do to help– we’ve got to get them to help.”
‘I think all you can do is be hopeful at the end of the day. Hope for what’s best and get these kids the help they need.’– East Kentwood senior Nicholas Singer
But the students believe there’s a power in connecting with others – making sure everyone feels involved and valued that could be the way to prevent such tragedies. At a diverse school like East Kentwood, there’s a place for all, they said, and that makes them feel safe.
“At the end of the day, we get along,” Nicholas said. “We are all here for each other no matter what the situation is. If it’s serious, we’d all have each other’s backs. I think all you can do is be hopeful at the end of the day. Hope for what’s best and get these kids the help they need.”
Yanal described how helpful it is to have trusted adults and peers who make intentional efforts to connect. A weekly class called Falcon Pride involves getting groups of students and teachers who don’t know each other together to become acquainted.
“I feel like if we come together as a whole and we unify, because that’s what East Kentwood is really good at doing – teachers connecting with their students and students connecting with their peers. I feel like if every school could do that in Michigan and the United States, everywhere would just be a better place.”
Students Looking Out for Each Other
As a peer listener at Rockford High School, senior Riley Peterson has been trained in how to spot warning signs of depression or other mental health concerns. She gave SNN some tips on what to look for and how to respond if you see someone who is struggling.
SNN: What should we be looking for if we are concerned about someone we know?
Riley: Depression is something lasting for more than two weeks. That could be isolation — students that are withdrawing from activities or who are always alone. It could be something personal, like the girl that always wears her hair really nicely has had really messy hair for a while. Or, just those everyday things, like someone who usually has really happy smiles hasn’t been smiling for a while. That’s when I would want to ask the student how they are, like genuinely ask.
SNN: What if you’re worried about saying the wrong thing, or you don’t really know the person that well?
Riley: I always like to start with something like, ‘I noticed that you’re looking a little down today. How are you feeling? Is there anything you want to talk about?’ That can feel like a lot of overstepping or crossing some boundaries, especially if you’re not used to asking. And if they don’t want to talk, that’s okay. But it’s all in the offer — letting them know that someone cares. It’s most likely that the student will feel better knowing that someone noticed.
SNN: How does something like that help? Does it get easier?
Riley: At first it can be a little awkward, but with more and more time that student will begin to develop a trust in you. They become more confident that what you’re offering is real. Everything’s in the offer, and I always offer them a conversation.