The Heart of the Matter

The tragic Santa Fe High School shooting has rekindled the national debate on gun control and school safety. Many impassioned voices have engaged in the discourse.

The issues surrounding this topic are myriad and complex.

Yet, I believe we are not seeing the most critical element of the problem. Unless we see it, identify it, and address it appropriately, it is unlikely we will see the epidemic of school shootings end.

Years ago, our nonprofit was asked to work with congressional leaders Kay Granger and Sam Johnson of Texas to conduct Safe School summits.

Students from across North Texas came to the summits to discuss school safety issues. Reps Granger and Johnson wisely did not want to make assumptions about school shootings. Rather, they wanted to learn directly from the students.

We were in a time similar to today. The first rash of school shootings had left the nation reeling. The summits were an effort to find solutions.

Students were given a series of questions about safety issues, causes and remedies. Students responded anonymously by using touchpads similar to those the audience uses on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. They were asked about what would make them feel safe on their campuses.

The results were fascinating. When asked about the use of metal detectors, security officers, surveillance cameras and guard dogs, each question produced startlingly low response. Between 10 and 30 percent of the students stated they felt the presence of any of these on their campus would make them feel safer.

Then, they were asked about the deployment of a character development program on their campus. The response jumped up to 80%.

Representatives Granger and Johnson were more than intrigued and wanted to know more.

Following this data collection, the students were given the opportunity to express themselves verbally in roundtable discussions. In this setting, they provided texture to their responses. 

As they were asked to tell why they had responded the way they did, the students began to share that metal detectors and security guards were not going to truly solve the problem. One young woman capsulized what the majority of students was trying to communicate when she said that the only way to truly solve the problem would be “to change the heart of the student sitting in the desk next to me.” The rest of the students gave a collective nod.

Change the heart of the student sitting in the desk next to me.

Finally, someone defined the solution.

Metal detectors, security guards and surveillance cameras are all important. But they address symptoms… not the root cause.

Our culture is chronically symptom driven. Just look at our healthcare system. Seldom do we focus on root-cause issues.

In this case, if we do not develop solutions at the root-cause level, we can take away guns and lock up schools, but we still won’t see change.

After our programs had been deployed in schools for a few years, and produced successful results, I was asked to testify before the United States congress on two occasions. One of these came at a hearing on school bullying.

Following my testimony, Rep. Bobby Scott from Virginia asked me why the schools where we were working did not have a bullying issue. I responded by posing a question to him. I asked, “If students on a given campus fully understood, embraced, applied and lived out the values of respectcompassion and self-control, do you think there would be a bullying problem on that campus?”

“No,” the congressman replied.

I told him that’s why the schools we worked with did not have a bullying issue. I followed by saying that bullying is a symptom of deeper issues and that if we address the deeper issues – the root causes – we could see bullying become a non-issue. Congressman Scott nodded his head as if he understood.

Yet, here we are again. Back at the same place, as a nation. And, it seems, that we really don’t understand. We have poured millions of dollars into metal detectors, security guards, surveillance cameras and the like. We have built better fortresses and systems, and kids are still shooting each other. We are still missing the true starting place… the root cause.

If you can change the heart of the student sitting at the desk next to me.

The students know. We need to listen to them.

For too long, we have assumed that our kids are being raised with values in the home, and those values are being re-taught and reinforced at school. Sadly, this is not typically the case.

As a result, a large percentage of our youth – like our culture – has become values neutral. If we remain values neutral, our kids will lose a sense of value – for others and for themselves. When I view my life, and the life of another, as having little to no value, then I am more likely to act in accordance with that reduced sense of value, including murder and suicide.

It’s unacceptable.

If we change the hearts of kids sitting at the next desk, we can change the outcomes.

If we inculcate values like respect, integrity, self-control, compassion, teamwork, responsibility and the like in our kids, we will see that change.

For the sake of our kids, we must.

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