Panic over school shootings got me suspended at 13. What I needed was someone to listen | Education
At 13, I was suspended from middle school for a week because school administrators were worried I might start shooting people.
It’s a story that often surprises and amuses friends now – my violent side is limited to hitting people on the roller derby track.
I wasn’t a safety risk to my fellow students when I was 13. I was a severely depressed teenager trying to stand up to bullying who got caught in the zero-tolerance policies so common in American schools in the years after the mass shooting at Columbine high school.
My suspension came on the heels of a rough year. I’d spent much of it feeling isolated and trapped in my own head, unable to reconcile what I now recognize as severe depression with my high grades and expectations of success. I traded my jeans in for a Hot Topic-inspired black ensemble, discovered progressive metal bands like Sonata Arctica and Blind Guardian, and began cutting myself in an effort to feel less numb.
I also started reading about macabre topics – Ebola outbreaks, ecological disasters and school shootings. I sought out darkness in the world around me because I desperately needed to understand the darkness in my own head.
As I tried to understand what led to the Columbine shooting, I was struck by the then accepted narrative (now largely debunked): two boys, bullied mercilessly by their classmates, eventually snapped and turned to violence. It seemed almost a parable for the problems I saw at school and in the world. Our culture’s willingness to write the shooters off as irredeemably evil seemed to me an easy way to avoid looking at deeper problems like teenage isolation and bullying, and I said as much to anyone who would listen.
By the spring, my depression was becoming less all-consuming, perhaps because I’d learned to live with it (as I’ve done into adulthood), and perhaps because I’d been blessed with good friends who stuck with me through some of the worst moments of my life. But my desire to create change hadn’t diminished, and neither had my interest in some darker topics.
An unremarkable bus ride provided the tipping point for school administrators. I had a usual group of classmates I talked to, one of whom was a regular target for bullies. A classmate called him a faggot on the bus, and I told the boy to stop. This exchange wasn’t unusual, but this time, the bully challenged me: why should I? Having exhausted my regular reasons – “it’s the right thing to do” – I turned to Columbine. “Look at what happens when you bully people,” I told him. “Do you want that to happen here?”
Amid the early-2000s paranoia about teen violence, it’s not surprising that that statement caused concern or that a student thought to report it to school administrators. That fear has only grown in the years since, and with it suggestions from lawmakers and administrators to improve risk assessments and in some cases surveil teens’ private communications. But what followed for me was a process that didn’t seem designed to keep anyone safe.
I couldn’t say whether my suspension began days or weeks later; the bus conversation was so unremarkable that I’d forgotten it by the time we arrived at school. On a Monday afternoon, my parents received a phone call saying they needed to meet with school administrators the following morning. I didn’t learn I was barred from school pending a district risk assessment until they walked out of the building, and the minutes I spent sitting alone in their car in the school parking lot felt like an eternity.
No one bothered to ask if I had access to a gun (I’d never held one and, growing up in the middle of Seattle, didn’t know a single adult who owned one), had a specific target in mind or a plan to hurt anyone. As a reporter who now covers local schools, I know those are central questions in evaluating how serious a suspected threat really is. Perhaps more damning, the decision was made by two administrators I’d never spoken to. They didn’t consult the teachers who interacted with me on a daily basis or any other adults or peers who knew me.
As the risk assessment process unfolded, some of the most painful moments of my life came under a microscope. My school counselor shared with the risk assessment team that I’d harmed myself and had suicidal thoughts earlier in the year, something which my school’s decision-makers apparently felt put me at greater risk for hurting others, because I’d shown I was capable of violence.
I struggled deciding how honest to be in the pages of psychological evaluation forms I had to fill out, assuming anything perceived as abnormal would be used as grounds to keep me away from my friends. It felt as if no one was interested in getting me help, nor did anyone appear concerned that a teenager struggling with depression might be more likely to take her own life after nearly a week of being cut off from social interaction and left at the mercy of a swirling rumor mill at school.
When I was finally cleared to return to school four days later, I was relieved and grateful for the friends, teachers and my parents who had stepped in on my behalf. A required meeting with the principal made me late to my first class, and the resulting scene was out of a movie. Students were getting ready for an all-day class field trip, and when I walked in the door, someone yelled, “Rachel’s back!” Some of my classmates applauded. I spent the day playing games outside with friends and satisfying their morbid curiosity about what Seattle public schools’ psychological evaluations looked like.
I was lucky that my suspension played out without massive social consequences. It showed me I had many friends and adults who would stand by me. But it also reinforced that much of that support was conditional on me being “normal”, a realization which did little to help me manage depression as a young teen. I had solidified a belief that can be deadly for mentally ill young people: counselors and adult authority figures aren’t there to help, and speaking honestly about your struggles or problems at school will only get you in trouble.
I shudder now to think how the process might have played out had I not been a well-off white student with two supportive parents who were able to attend meeting after meeting to advocate for me. The leniency regularly granted to white students like me over our black peers was visible daily in the halls of the diverse urban schools I attended, and is clearly visible in data about suspension and expulsion in nearly every school district in America.
Zero tolerance is less en vogue now, but with school shootings a regular topic of discussion, there’s renewed interest in monitoring what kids are saying in private and their mental illnesses as a preventive measure. Lost in that discussion is how crucial trust and connection are for teens still figuring out their place in an increasingly polarized and complicated world. If teens don’t feel they can speak honestly about their struggles without triggering an investigation, they won’t ask adults for help when they truly need it – and that’s far more deadly.