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Stoneman Douglas High School Shooting

'Generation Columbine' has never known a world without school shootings

Greg Toppo

Call them "Generation Columbine."

Born during the first few years of the 21st century, our youngest Americans, from high schoolers on down, have never known a world without school shootings.

The 1999 massacre at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., took place before virtually all of them were born. These students have grown up in Columbine鈥檚 shadow, with locker searches, locked schoolhouse doors, bulletproof backpacks and active shooter drills.

Just as their grandparents feared polio and their parents feared nuclear war, these young people arrive at听school each morning fearing death by high-powered rifle.

By one estimate, this generation has attended class through more than 200 school shootings since Columbine, which have effectively altered their sense of safety 鈥 psychologists would call the collective dread of rampages a 鈥渢hreat to your assumptive world.鈥

Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School student Tyra Hemans carries a sign as she walks with fellow students to the Florida Capitol on Feb. 21, 2018.

And now there is Parkland.

鈥淚t seems like there's been shooting after shooting, and the adults in power right now aren't doing anything,鈥 said Paloma Mallan, a student at H-B Woodlawn High School in Arlington, Va., as she marched听Wednesday in a Washington, D.C., student protest for tougher gun laws. 鈥淚t could be us next. It could be one of our friends.鈥

Paloma's classmate Miranda Baltaxe also marched in the event, part of a nationwide effort after the massacre last week at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. 鈥淭hinking about how it could be you is really scary,鈥 she said. 鈥淵ou're reading these texts that kids are sending to their parents, and it's like, 鈥榃ell, what would I send?鈥欌澨

In Palm Bay, Fla., about 500 students at Heritage High School walked out of class on Wednesday in solidarity with students demanding that state lawmakers enact stricter gun control, safer schools and more mental health supports.听

鈥淲e shouldn't have to go to school and be in fear,鈥 said Aniyah Smith, a Heritage junior. 鈥淲e should feel safe.鈥

'These things happen every day'

Connecticut psychologist听, who specializes in treating teenage听boys, said the 24/7 news cycle and the ubiquity of mobile news change kids鈥 conceptions of the bad things that are possible in school.

鈥淓ven 20, 30 years ago, unless it was a huge catastrophe, news was sort of local,鈥 he said. 鈥淣ow there鈥檚 just this sense that these things happen every day, all the time. My question is: How are kids able to process that?鈥

Until they鈥檙e teenagers, most children 鈥 especially boys 鈥 don鈥檛 have the capacity to process events as traumatic as a school shooting so they avoid thinking about it, Schleifer said. 鈥淭hey get this information, and then they tuck it away somewhere in a box,鈥 he听said. And eventually they begin avoiding nearly every stressful situation and potential disappointment.听

鈥淚 get a lot of kids who are just not doing their homework because it鈥檚 stressful,鈥 Schleifer said. At the same time, many of his young patients feel upset with themselves for being so anxious听since from the outside their friends and family members don鈥檛 seem as stressed.

In the past two years, he has seen 鈥渁 huge uptick鈥 in patients as young as 6 with 鈥渇ull-on anxiety and panic attacks,鈥 students who simply can鈥檛 bear to go to school. 鈥淚 did not see that seven, eight or nine years ago.鈥

He advises parents to talk to their kids about loss 鈥 their own personal loss.听

鈥淲hat I often say to parents is, 鈥楥an you make the experience of loss more normal for kids听so that they have the sense they鈥檙e not the only one to feel it?鈥欌

News coverage of school shootings makes young people feel vulnerable even if they don鈥檛 know the victims, said听, a developmental-behavioral pediatrician in Los Angeles. In the face of such coverage, he said, adults should reassure children that schools are relatively safe places 鈥 and that there鈥檚 a lot being done at school to keep them as safe as possible.

But we shouldn鈥檛 be telling kids not to worry, he said.听

鈥淲e should ask them what they鈥檙e worried about,鈥 Schonfeld said. 鈥淚f we keep saying, 鈥榊ou shouldn鈥檛 be worried,鈥 then we鈥檙e telling them we don鈥檛 take their concerns as legitimate, and that we can鈥檛 deal with their concerns.鈥

Schonfeld, a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics Disaster Preparedness Advisory Council and director of the at the University of Southern California, said young people often turn to groups like street gangs precisely because they know that adults can鈥檛 protect them. They clearly see the dangers in being in a gang, but they also believe that their peers 鈥渁re a more likely source of support than the adults that fail to protect them.鈥

208th shooting since Columbine听

Students are, for all practical purposes, quite safe at school. In the years from 1999 to 2013, homicides, bicycle accidents, firearm accidents, falls and swimming pool drownings accounted for 31,827 of the total 32,464 reported deaths, while听deaths in school shootings numbered 154, or fewer than 0.5%,听according to James Alan Fox, a professor of criminology, law and public policy at Northeastern University.

Put another way, a young person in the 91影视 is nearly 11 times as likely to die in a swimming pool than in a school shooting.听

And most students say they feel safe in school. In a 2015 by federal researchers, just 3% of students ages 12-18 said they were 鈥渁fraid of attack or harm at school鈥 during the school year. Slightly fewer, 2%, said they were afraid of a similar attack听outside of school.听

In this April 20, 1999, file photo, Eric Harris, left, and Dylan Klebold are seen carrying a TEC-9 semiautomatic pistol on a security camera image in the cafeteria at Columbine High School, in Littleton, Colo.

Yet the strain of school shootings can鈥檛 be underestimated.听

An ongoing analysis by estimates that since Columbine, more than 150,000 students in at least 170 primary or secondary schools have experienced a campus shooting.

The deadly attack last week听in Parkland, Fla., represented the 208th school shooting since Columbine, according to the Denver-based news outlet . That works out to more than one shooting per month, every month, for nearly 19 school years.

鈥淲hat we want to be able to say to our kids is that this is something that really doesn鈥檛 happen, it鈥檚 an anomaly, it only happens once,鈥 said Schleifer, the Connecticut psychologist. 鈥淲e can鈥檛 say that anymore. You can鈥檛 put this thing in a box anymore and say, 鈥楾his only happens on the other side of the world.鈥欌

Journalist Dave Cullen, whose 2009 book remains the definitive account of the attack, continues to tour the 91影视, reading from the book and speaking to student groups. Asked whether听he thought he鈥檇 still be answering students鈥 urgent Columbine questions nearly a generation after the attack, Cullen said, 鈥淣ot in a million years.鈥

As he was writing it, Cullen thought young people would be gripped by the narrative of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, two seemingly ordinary kids who somehow did the unspeakable.

But nine years later, he said, students are just as interested in Columbine鈥檚 survivors.听

鈥淭hey really want to know what happened to these kids and how they got through it,鈥 he said. 鈥淭hey tell me it feels like their life.鈥

After one public reading, he recalled, a teacher approached him with about 10 students in tow, saying the students couldn鈥檛 sleep because they wanted to know what happened to Patrick Ireland, a wounded student whose rescue through a broken window captivated onlookers nationwide on April 20, 1999. (Ireland survived.)

This week, Cullen is in Tallahassee, embedded with post-Parkland student protesters for a planned series in Vanity Fair. Speaking by phone from the Florida Capitol, he said students these days tell him they go to school with a kind of vague dread about being shot.

鈥淣obody feels like it鈥檚 imminent, like they鈥檙e going to die tomorrow,鈥 he said. 鈥淏ut they do feel like it鈥檚 imminent for somebody.鈥

Contributing: Marilyn Icsman, 91影视, Caroline Glenn, Florida Today. Follow Greg Toppo on Twitter:

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