School Shootings: What About Internet Radicalization?
Only a few months after the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, tragedy struck again at Santa Fe High School 30 miles south of Houston. A student started shooting in an art classroom with his father’s shotgun and revolver. Ten people died and 10 others were wounded before the shooter surrendered to the police.
Thus far, little is known about the motives of the shooter, making it difficult for commentators to blame something specific. He was not a jihadist (as was another high schooler who was caught before carrying out mass murder at Stonebriar Mall in Frisco, Texas); he was not mentally handicapped; he wasn’t committed to any ideology at all really. The only red flags Dimitrios Pagourtzis exhibited were some morbid posts on social media and the black trench coat he wore everyday—which, in the Texas heat, probably should have aroused more suspicion.
While New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has virtue-signaled yet another sanctimonious campaign of gun-control activism, others are discussing how to stop these troubled students before they snap. Many schools have followed that latter approach, training teachers and students to look for signs of violent behavior and intervene. In most cases, this means sitting through a PowerPoint presentation about depression, learning the number for a bullying hotline, and watching some video that dramatizes the situation (“Evan,” produced by the Sandy Hook Promise group, is a perfect example).
As practical as this strategy sounds, it fails on a few levels. First, it assumes that identifying these types of students is easy when it is not. Second, it invests too much confidence in laughably superficial training. And third, it completely ignores the limits of educators and students in successfully dissuading a psychotic young adult from committing mass murder. Rather than saving these troubled students, advocating intervention and watchfulness mostly encourages vicious paranoia (anyone can be a mass murderer), undeserved guilt (this kid went on a shooting rampage because students and teachers didn’t care enough about him), and despair (the safety of a school rests on the maturity of classmates and perceptiveness of teachers).
These three problems result from serious misunderstandings about high schools and the people who spend their days in them. To identify potential shooters, students and staff are told to look for signs of depression, like a person muttering that he hates school or that he thinks people are awful or that he wants to sleep all the time. As any teacher or student can attest, that’s pretty much every student at some point.
While a few happy exceptions exist, teenagers are, on the whole, a dark and depressing lot. They do not sleep enough, eat healthily, or bother with developing productive habits. On the contrary, they waste much of their days hunched over a screen, agonizing about their self-image, ignoring their homework, and blaming everyone and everything for their problems. These days, few of them have the luxury of two parents, good friends, or a church community to support them as they cope with the hormonal turbulence of puberty.
Given all this, who can really tell which one is “Evan,” the proverbial teenage mass murderer? Obviously, not a group of students and teachers equipped with a few hours of suicide prevention training. And yet most potential shooters usually act out in some way and have a large amount of documentation on file in the form of disciplinary referrals, behavioral intervention plans, and abysmal report cards that should serve as warnings of suicidal/homicidal tendencies. Frequently, though, this too means nothing. No heart-to-heart “come to Jesus” speech from a concerned adult will fix a broken home. No number of suspensions and “restorative practices” will help a student who is hopelessly lonely. And apparently, no legal authority, however well informed, can stop a young person from illegally acquiring a gun and making bombs. If an angry teenager wants to shoot up a school, he usually can unless he does something obviously stupid.
So if gun control and suicide prevention training can do little to change the situation, what will it take? In order to answer this, society should ask another question: why are the shootings happening in the first place? This seems like an impossible question with a million different answers. However, the only answer needed is the one that holds true for all high school shootings, so perhaps a better question would be: what do all of them have in common?
Two words: the internet. In the decades preceding Columbine, kids struggled with the same kinds of problems and had the same potential access to guns. They also attended schools that were far easier targets. Nevertheless, far fewer mass school shootings took place and none of them had the body counts that have become normal today. This is because depressed and angry teenagers never became radicalized by countless hours of online propaganda. Today, they can log in instantaneously and learn about various ideologies of hate, educate themselves on maximizing their destructive potential, and desensitize their consciences with pornography and violence. This internet radicalization is essentially the same thing that’s happened with Islamic terrorists all over the Western world.
So why not take it away? This sounds extreme, but it falls in line with the other things society prohibits from kids: driving, drinking, voting, joining the military. Most parents don’t allow even their teenage kids to go anywhere alone. However, when it comes to the internet, a vast unregulated repository of every horrible thing imaginable, adults let their unsuspecting children roam wild and free. That so many do this betrays a pervasive kind of materialist worldview that agonizes over every physical danger while remaining completely oblivious to any spiritual or psychological one.
In order to combat the violence and bullying happening at schools, parents in all communities should take away smartphones and personal computers from their children and strictly oversee what little usage they deem appropriate (like emailing Grandma or typing up an assignment for school). Imagine the benefits in store: safer schools, happier youth, and an internet at least partially purged of the garbage produced by, and for, young people.
Those worried about taking away young people’s freedom to browse should consider the other greater freedoms at stake because of school violence. With every school shooting, no matter who or what causes it, politicians demand the end of the right to bear arms, crackdowns on hate speech, and government intrusions into child-rearing. These rights have already disappeared in Canada and Western Europe—and those places don’t even have school shootings.
Successfully defending these rights doesn’t depend on better arguments, but on real action that effectively solves the problem of school shootings. Concerned parents and those who call on others to “Do something!” should now lead the charge to take away internet access from children until they reach maturity. This could save not just their lives, but their innocence and well-being.
Auguste Meyrat is an English teacher at The Colony High School in Texas. He has an MA in Humanities and an MEd in Educational Leadership. His writing has appeared in The Federalist and The Imaginative Conservative, among other publications.