For many, February 14 is a day filled with kitschy gifts and valentines. However, for the city of Parkland and surrounding communities, that date will represent a far grimmer event, where 17 Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School (Douglas) students, teachers, and coaches lost their lives and another 14 were injured in a school shooting. The identified shooter was a former Douglas student who was expelled from the school.
In the aftermath of the shooting, the student survivors used their national platform to raise awareness for the victims’ experience, in a way that is frequently overlooked in the aftermath of such all-too-common crises. In addition, those close to and far from the school took to both traditional and social media to voice their feelings and concerns about the event. But shortly after people began sending the traditional “thoughts and prayers,” so came the traditional search for how to place blame. While most people did blame the shooter, they also sought out scapegoats – namely, guns. Mental health, disabilities, parents, the FBI, police, school resource officers, teachers, and the Florida Department of Children and Families. The shooting at Douglas was the result of multiple control failures that reflects a bigger issue at hand: society.
People have become more divisive and less empathetic. Over the past few decades, people have become more open to sharing their views on hot topics. Thank you, social media. Mark Zuckerberg created Facebook as a platform for people to connect with one another. Despite the benefit of increased connectivity and easier communication, Facebook and other social media platforms have also negatively impacted the ways that people communicate. Social media makes is very easy for people to state their views and opinions without thinking about consequences or residual impact. The result is a decline in empathy for others. A 2010 University of Michigan study showed a 40 percent decline in empathy by college students compared to previous generations. Among young users, social media platforms can perpetuate feelings of inadequacy and loneliness, and can give way to bullying.
Last November at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business, Chamath Palihapitiya, former Facebook Vice President for User Growth spoke about his feelings toward the negative impact that Facebook and other social media platforms have on society.
“The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops that we have created are destroying how society works: no civil discourse, no cooperation, misinformation, mistruth,” Palihapitiya stated. “And it’s not an American problem. This is not about Russian ads. This is a global problem.”
People are demonstrating a particularly high level of partisanship and political animosity. According to a 2016 Pew Research Center poll, majorities in both parties now express “very unfavorable” views of the opposing party for the first time since 1992; today, 58 percent of Republicans have a very unfavorable impression of the Democratic Party and 55 percent of Democrats feel the same toward the Republican Party. This animosity and divisiveness can also be found in people’s views of party initiatives and values. Almost a week after the shooting, a large group of Douglas students, parents and teachers traveled to Tallahassee to lobby and protest for stricter gun control laws as well as bans on assault rifles (e.g., semi-automatic rifles). In the face of those students, the Republican-majority Florida House of Representatives voted down a motion to consider a bill that would ban assault rifles. This vote demonstrated the lack of desire or inability to compromise on a proposal that would introduce discussion around banning assault rifles.
Because of this perceived disconnect, people are unclear on expectations. The shooting at Douglas has presented a particular query for those involved when school shootings occur. Teachers wonder if they will have to take up arms. Teachers wonder if they will be forced with a decision to follow or break protocol that may, either way, result in death. Many teachers in Florida currently wear multiple hats: teacher, social worker, parent, therapist, etc. Most teachers did not (and do not) go into the profession thinking that they will have to take on a law enforcement role. Police officers wonder if they will have to go up against assault rifles, a particularly deadly weapon. Most officers don’t even experience incidents in the field that involve assault rifles; standardized training cannot accurately depict how someone will function in a particular moment. Then there is the question or expectation of how federal and state agencies should cooperate with each other. After the shooting, federal and local politicians couldn’t provide a thoughtful (or sufficient) response to students on how they will keep them safe and prevent other school shootings from occurring.
That, clearly, wasn’t good enough for Douglas students. So they are taking action, as they have worked to move beyond the dangerously polarizing conversations on social media and across national media platforms to be able to speak their truth and experience to the nation. Society may have just found its bright light.
Author Jessica Wasserman grew up a resident of Coral Springs and Parkland.