Friday, March 29, 2013

Mediation Community's Response to School Shootings

Virginia Mediation Network (VMN)

President’s Message

January 2013

The VMN Board of Directors met on January 12, 2013 to begin an intensive strategic planning process.    On the long drive back into the Central Appalachian Mountains, I stopped to visit my former research assistant.  Shortly after the shootings at the Sandy Hook Elementary School, I sent an email asking how she was doing.  You see, she is one of the people who survived the shootings at my own little school on January 16, 2002.  She has suffered for ten years with severe PTSD.   She immediately blocked media reports of the shooting, found comfort in friends and family, and coped as best she can with her persistent symptoms. 

Many of you may remember that tragedy in which a student, who had learned he would be academically dismissed, murdered our Dean (a new father), a much beloved professor, and a student.  The shooter, later diagnosed as suffering from paranoid schizophrenia, was spared the death penalty, and will spend all, or most of his life, in a mental health institutional setting.   Three other students, including my former research assistant, survived their grave gunshot wounds. 

After each deadly incident of school violence, our school community revisits our own tragedy in the many ways we expect a diverse culture to respond.   Facebook facilitates that conversation, but knowing how best to respond always requires some soul searching. 

My first response, and the one that has proved easiest for me, is how we care for the “victims.”  My own experience, coming to ASL six months after the shooting, has shown me that the circle of victims is much broader than one might first recognize.  Certainly our Restorative Justice (RJ) colleagues would recognize the scope of that circle.  It includes the parents, spouses, and children – of those shot and of the shooter.    A news story reports that Newtown’s first responders are dealing with their own psychological trauma.   Once they use paid vacation, leave, and other benefit days, they face losing their jobs because they are suffering themselves by stepping into that horrific crime scene.  Witnesses to the shootings bear their own suffering.  Most of the faculty and staff employed at that time at my school now work elsewhere.   Perhaps it was just too difficult to walk in to that building after that day.  

Much of the chatter on Facebook argues about whether armed people could have prevented the loss at the site of these massacres.  Eventually, one of our students, a witness that day, busted the myth around our own tragedy, by saying:

[S]everal of us students [w]ere armed that day, and he had completed his terrible acts before anyone could have done everything other than just kill him mercenary style.  [He] was out of ammo and voluntarily surrendered.  Perhaps [having] armed students thwarts any ideas of running from the scene, but the murders couldn’t have been prevented.
In preparing for the VMN Board retreat, I spent some time learning about the schools in Virginia that had dispute resolution programs.  Only one undergraduate school, Virginia Tech has a program.  It was the school’s response to its own loss of life at the hands of a troubled student.  The center for this program is housed in the building where so many people lost their lives. 

So, how do we as a community, focused on conflict resolution and peace building, respond to these situations?   The Association for Conflict Resolution (ACR) issued a statement on December 20, 2012.  It promised that: “We and many of our other colleagues stand ready to lend the full range of our professional expertise and devotion to processes that support healing, as well as those sustained efforts that will be required to facilitate dialogue, build consensus, and take action to address the deep rooted structural issues that contribute to this tragic pattern.”

The President of the American Bar Association, Laurel Bellows, issued a three sentence statement, on the same day of the Newtown shooting, expressing the organization’s sympathy for the victims and their families.   The Section of Dispute Resolution was oddly silent.  On January 16, 2013, President Bellows issued a statement about the ABA’s support for new measures to prevent gun violence.  It also supports efforts to prevent school-based violence and bullying and to enhance access to mental health services for children and adults.   It applauded President Obama’s announcement that same day and described it as “the catalyst that should spur immediate and far-ranging congressional efforts to address gun violence in our country . . . .” 
Psychologists for Social Responsibility recommended a ban on assault weapons, as well as a RJ approach.  Its spokesperson, in writing to Vice-President Joe Biden’s Task Force on Gun Violence, stated:

We see school attacks such as Newtown in the context of a broader culture that endorses force and violence as the way of resolving disputes, including war, urban violence and a harsh, punitive criminal justice system.
The group then recommended that public schools and youth justice systems integrate RJ principles and practices.

The Greater New York chapter of ACR plans, for the first week in February, a program entitled, Bringing the NYC Dispute Resolution Community Together in the Aftermath of the Newtown Tragedy: An Open Space Forum.   Using an “open space” format, the chapter members will discuss aspects of the tragedy that may include “the children, families, educators, the Newtown community, schools, gun concerns, violence, citizen responsibility, household accountability, justice, police, prevention, protection, laws, policies, and other issues and a way forward for our nation to imagine and work on safer futures four our children.” 

One of my ADR colleagues, who teaches at another law school, sent out the following message on our ADR listserve shortly after the Newtown murders:

ADR can be transformative in moving people away from violence and war--how can ADR scholars/practitioners participate in the current and upcoming debate on guns?  
After last week, I find myself (again) ready to enter the political fight with an uncompromising anti-gun view.  I am worried, though, that as usual the debate will get completely muddled and unworkable with multiple conflicting rights and values.  This worry makes me wonder (again) whether ADR people can help clarify this discussion and these kinds of discussions, especially if the ADR person has strong views on the topic.  Can we be leaders here?  
I'm sorry to write with all these questions.   I would so appreciate anyone's thoughts on the matter or advice on further reading.  I just feel so frustrated and powerless.
Mediators talk frequently about the joy we feel in helping parties feel empowered and better able to control the decisions they make in their lives.  And yet, here is a colleague feeling completely disempowered herself. 

So, how do we, as an organization respond to these situations which call into question our devotion to peaceful ways of resolving conflict?    As your President, I would like to know how to respond on your behalf, because right now, I also feel very disempowered.   

Paula Marie Young

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