At this point in the semester, my students in opinion writing class are ready for our morning drill. My opening question: “What are the headlines we’re looking at this morning?”
Immediately, hands shoot into the air. On most days, we begin discussing the breaking news, and how we’d weigh in on each story as editorial writers and as columnists. They are expected to have researched the known facts, and to be ready to share their informed views.
On this past Wednesday, there was only one story on our minds. I stood at the white board with a marker as my students started mapping out what we knew about a 15-year-old sophomore who had opened fire on classmates at his high school in Oxford, Michigan.
At that point, we knew three students had died, ages 14 to 17. (Later in the day, several students reached out to make sure I knew that another student had died at the hospital.)
We knew that about 30 shots had been fired, and that the school’s lockdown protocols had reportedly saved lives.
'Intent to kill': A visual timeline of deadly shooting at Oxford High School
Hundreds of shooting deaths in a school-aged lifetime
We knew the alleged shooter had used a handgun bought by his father on the previous Friday. “A black Friday deal,” one of my students said, shaking his head. We learned that the shooter had posted a photo of the gun on social media. One mother told NPR that her child and several other students had stayed home that day because they had been worried about online threats of upcoming violence.
Mid-class, we learned the name of the alleged shooter. We discussed whether, as a minor, he should be publicly identified. No one was interested in protecting him, but some questioned whether naming him offered the notoriety he sought.
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On we went, listing details as they became known. Eventually, I asked what they would write based on what they knew so far. Several wanted the father arrested and charged because his gun was used. We had a spirited discussion about school shootings, what motivates those who carry them out, and the effect on those who go to class every day.
The question loomed: What will it take for America to do something about our culture of gun violence.
One student spoke for her generation. She has given me permission to share her words. “This is all we’ve ever known,” Madisyn said. “From the time we were born, students have been dying in school shootings.”
She was referring to what we call Gen Z, defined as those born from 1997 to 2012. She is right, and her truth has its claws in me. Hundreds of students have died in school shootings in her short lifetime.
A much-abbreviated list:
In 1998, a 15-year-old freshman in Springfield, Oregon, first murdered his parents and then killed two classmates and wounded 25 others.
The following year, two teenagers at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, killed 13 people and wounded more than 20 others.
In 2007, a 23-year-old student at Virginia Tech University killed 27 students and five faculty members.
In 2012, a 20-year-old man walked into Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newton, Connecticut, and killed 20 first-graders and six school employees.
In 2015, a 26-year-old student at the Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon, killed eight students and an assistant professor.
In 2018, a 19-year-old killed 17 and injured 17 others at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Three months later, a 17-year-old student at Santa Fe High School in Texas killed eight students and two teachers.
And now this week, four high school students are dead in Oxford, Michigan.
What kind of memories are we creating for children?
Every generation has its collective memories, and these can influence our view of the world for the rest of our lives. I am a boomer. I learned as a child that public servants can be murdered. I was 6 years old when our president was killed. I was 11 when Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy were murdered.
Only now do I connect those dots. Small wonder that, 40 years later, I could easily imagine the worst for my husband, a U.S. senator, during the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol. I grew up knowing elected office can be deadly.
Gen Z kids know that, on any given day, at any school in America, a gunman can open fire and kill innocent children. Children like them.
Who will my students be in 10 years, in 20? What will today’s schoolchildren believe about our world and their role in it when they are grown? Who will they be as parents? What will they demand of their leaders?
Surely, they have a right to expect more than what we have done, which is absolutely nothing.
USA TODAY columnist Connie Schultz is a Pulitzer Prize winner whose novel, “The Daughters of Erietown,” is a New York Times bestseller. You can reach her at CSchultz@usatoday.com or on Twitter: @ConnieSchultz
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: School shootings: Gen Z grew up with the threat of death at school