Mindful Mondays: In light of Parkland, prioritizing emotional literacy is crucial

Ryan Fawwaz | Daily Trojan

We’ve all heard the story before: A mentally unstable man armed with an assault weapon walks into a public establishment and murders dozens in a catastrophic frenzy. Posts about the horrific incident go viral on social media. Parents, siblings, friends of victims — oftentimes in tears — are interviewed on broadcast news, desperately begging lawmakers to make some kind of change in gun control policy. Politicians issue thoughts and prayers. Sometimes a bill restricting gun access is introduced, but rarely does it ever pass. The story drops out of the news cycle within a couple of weeks.

Lather, rinse, repeat.

It’s a shame that when disaster struck Parkland, Fla., last week, I wasn’t surprised. Horrified and heartbroken, sure, but not surprised. That feeling passed a few years ago after I ran through a crowd of shoppers in a Newport Beach mall because there was a drive-by shooting in the parking lot. And then again during my junior year of high school, after I participated in a lockdown because of an alleged shooter on campus. And then again during my senior year, after a few of my classmates were accused of planning a mass shooting. And then again during my fall 2017 semester at USC, after I participated in yet another lockdown because of another alleged shooter on the loose. Save the mall incident, all cases turned out to be false alarms. But the feelings of pure terror and helplessness? All too real.

My generation has grown up in a time when lockdown drills are as routine as fire drills. Sometimes after a mass shooting would make the news, my friends and I would imagine heroic scenarios in which we thwart a shooter who came into our class — while simultaneously hoping that such an instance would never happen to us. It goes without saying that the fearful concept of gun violence has permeated the mindset of American teens as we attempt to navigate a scary, violent world. The brave, well-spoken students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School are products of this society. They stand at the forefront of national discourse surrounding gun violence as they represent a new generation of student-led activism formed by years of fear and frustration that stems largely from the apathy of lawmakers who may never understand how we really feel.

As a member of this new generation of activism, I’m well-acquainted with the controversial influence of the National Rifle Association, the debates over increased school security and the ridiculous notion of arming teachers with guns. And while these are all important discussions to have, there is one question that never escapes my mind, one that addresses another issue: What forms the twisted mindset of a mass shooter?

Shideh Ghandeharizadeh | Daily Trojan

Perhaps some of the blame can be placed on the cruelty of a society that rejects outsiders. Nikolas Cruz, the 19-year-old charged with the Parkland shooting, fits the generic description of the “lone wolf” shooters we’ve become all-too-accustomed to: depressed, paranoid and resentful. Students at Stoneman Douglas — from which Cruz was expelled when he was a junior — used to joke that if anyone were to initiate a shooting at the school, it would be him. Eventually, Cruz became exactly what his peers decided to label him.

Reflecting on Cruz’s troubling past, The New York Times published an article entitled “The Boys Are Not Alright,” which addressed the glaring fact that most — if not all —  school shooters are male. Boys and men are trapped by outdated notions of masculinity; they have difficulty expressing emotional struggles they may have because, unfortunately, such acts are viewed as feminine and shameful. As the article points out, to escape their emotional struggles as boys, men like Cruz have two options at this point: “withdrawal or rage.” Cruz chose rage.

And so the question becomes: How do we fix boys like Cruz?

For one, people can start by showing a bit more compassion to those around them. As mentioned before, Cruz was ostracized by his peers at school. He was the outsider — a “sicko,” as President Donald Trump so eloquently tweeted — and his label as the “future school shooter” only worsened his dark thoughts.

But, of course, a simple smile in the halls or a superficial “how are you” are not nearly enough to make a shooter put down his gun. At home, some of the obligation should be placed on families to nip these problems in the bud. James and Kimberly Snead, the couple who took Cruz in after his mother died, stated that they had no knowledge of Cruz’s dark intentions. Although the Sneads knew of Cruz’s mental health issues, they still let him keep his guns at home. Even after concerning outbursts — such as the time Cruz released a Snapchat video in which he cut himself and said he wanted to buy a gun — he was never hospitalized.

Furthermore, as centers for both academic and personal development, schools can do their part in establishing emotional literacy among their students. After the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence developed a program called RULER, which prioritizes the growth of social skills among young, impressionable students. One could argue that if Cruz had received these mental health services early on, he never would have resorted to such violence.

But that’s all just speculation. I’m going to pause here to make an important point: By no means am I advocating the position that “guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” In regard to putting an end to the immediate issue, America is in desperate need of some change in gun control policy. While we can debate that he could have been helped if only people were more emotionally perceptive, nobody would have died in Parkland if Cruz didn’t have such easy access to an AR-15 — that much is for sure.

While it’s not enough to end all mass shootings, the prioritization of mental health both at home and in schools is a step in the right direction. We cannot normalize “outsider” culture any longer. No matter how troubled an individual may seem, nobody is truly a lost cause.

And so, after all of this grief, anxiety, fear, anger — the list of emotions goes on — I wonder: Where is the love? Right now, I’m afraid that love is lost, along with the lives of 17 students and teachers in Parkland, Fla.

Ryan Fawwaz is a freshman majoring in journalism. He is also the editorial director of the Daily Trojan. His column, “Mindful Mondays,” runs every other Monday.