Op-Ed: To walk up or walk out
Last week, individuals on social media and in the news have responded to the National School Walkout with #WalkUpNotOut, including messages like “Walk UP to the kid who sits alone and ask him to join your group” and “Walk UP to the kid who never has a voluntary partner and offer to be hers.”
The goal is to decrease violence in schools by encouraging students to be more inclusive with one another. As opposed to the walkout which has goals like getting Congress to ban assault weapons and expand background checks on gun purchases.
While #WalkUpNotOut is a positive message at the outset, it has some dangerous unintended consequences with the way that it is being spread.
If someone is dealing with significant mental health problems, having friends and people give them attention is helpful, but that alone isn’t going to cure them. If someone is in a place where they may be seriously considering harming themselves or others, they would really benefit from professional help—counselors or psychiatrists, not high school children.
Someone who is considering harming themselves or others does not often make it easy for others to befriend them. They can have thoughts like “I shouldn’t try to make friends if I’m not going to be around much longer” or even “these other kids are beneath me and should be punished.”
This was the case the for Columbine school shooter, Eric Harris, who maintained a journal full of notes. Slate wrote an article in 2004 about it after the FBI did extensive profiling of Harris and the other shooter, Dylan Klebold.
“He [Harris] is disgusted with the morons around him. These are not the rantings of an angry young man, picked on by jocks until he’s not going to take it anymore. These are the rantings of someone with a messianic-grade superiority complex, out to punish the entire human race for its appalling inferiority. It may look like hate, but ‘It’s more about demeaning other people,’ says [Psychologist Robert] Hare.”
The article states that Klebold was the opposite.
“Klebold is easier to comprehend, a more familiar type. He was hotheaded, but depressive and suicidal. He blamed himself for his problems.”
A sense of self-image
One of the earlier posts advocating this movement came from retired Science Teacher David Blair who wrote an open letter on Facebook to students considering walking out.
“First of all, put down your stupid phone. Look around you at your classmates,” Blair writes. “Do you see the kid over in the corner, alone? He could likely be our next shooter. He needs a friend. He needs you.”
Blair goes on to bring up several other examples of students who “could likely be our next shooter.” His post has been shared 46,000 times.
This kind of language wears down on the very students that Blair is saying should be helped—the lonely students and the sad ones. While the main message of the post is to be nice to your peers, the underlying message is if you don’t have a lot of friends you’re the person who starts a school shooting. A student might begin to feel as though the friends they do have are only around because they don’t want to become victims.
Needless to say, this isn’t the foundation of strong or productive relationships. We don’t need children who may already feel out of place being further ostracized and humiliated by being treated like a shooter in waiting.
While this likely is not the intended message, the implication behind #WalkUpNotOut is that children should be more responsible for not being killed at school. When issues of responsibility arise, people often bring up victim-blaming, stating that the victim only got “what was coming to them” for being irresponsible.
The line between claiming irresponsibility and victim-blaming comes from reasonable societal expectations. For example, if I leave my wallet on a park bench and later I find it with the cash missing, there are a number of simple things I could have done to be more responsible to prevent that from happening. There isn’t a societal expectation that the wallet won’t have money removed from it if it sits in public for several hours.
There is not a societal expectation that children should have to go out of their way to avoid being murdered in a place where they should be focused on learning and socializing themselves. And if there is that expectation, what kind of society would we be living in?
It is important to emphasize kindness and community in school—but implying that a student’s peers can turn on them at any time is not the way to do that.