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Reflections on the Florida Episcopal School Shooting

Earlier this week, a 28-year-old Spanish teacher named Shane Schumerth was fired from his job at a college prep school in Jacksonville, FL. Soon after being terminated in a meeting with the school’s headmistress, he was escorted off school property by security, only to return early that afternoon with an AK-47 assault rifle concealed in a guitar case. He headed directly for the administration offices where he shot and killed the Head of School, Dale Regan, who was 63. He then committed suicide, turning the weapon on himself. This event took place at the Episcopal School, my high school alma mater.

It is the second school shooting to occur in the United States in less than a month. On February 27, in the small town of Chardon, Ohio a similar incident transpired when a student opened fire at a local high school, killing three classmates and injuring several others. Unlike the Chardon episode and many other school shootings in recent years, the perpetrator of the attack in Jacksonville was a faculty member, not a student.

Even so, Shane Schumerth possessed many of the same characteristics often associated with the stereotype of a school shooter. He was something of a loner, described by his students as “shy” and “awkward” and rarely mingling with other members of the faculty. Students also report that Schumerth had been acting strangely in the weeks leading up to the shooting, neglecting to teach Spanish almost all together and instead focusing lessons on topics like fascism and communism. Friends who knew Schumerth outside of school describe him differently, as kind, intelligent, and committed to his “dream job” of teaching Spanish at Episcopal.

Were there signs of imminent disaster? Possibly, but apparently none alarming enough to have portended the violence unleashed earlier this week. Schumerth’s lone victim, Regan, was an ambitious administrator and teacher who had dedicated herself to the school for 34 years. She was a highly visible figure on campus, and a well-respected one at that. She became Head of School in 2006, my senior year.

Though no students were killed or injured during the attack, the tragedy could have been much worse. Schumerth was carrying nearly 100 rounds of ammunition with him at the time of his death, however, for reasons that may never be known, Regan appears to have been his only target. No suicide note or explanation has been found.

It is difficult to comprehend how such an inexplicable act of violence could have occurred in the same space where my high school friends and I spent much of our adolescent years. My own memories of Episcopal are far removed from anything so traumatic. I remember its towering oak trees, afternoon exercises during cross-country season, the ubiquitous sounds of slamming lockers and youthful prattle. I remember these sorts of associations interspersed with other items; girls being reprimanded for hiking up their skirts, the tranquil boredom of Wednesday chapel services, and the enjoyment of reading the Great Gatsby for first time in my junior year English class.  

My experience at Episcopal, like those of so many other students, was relatively sheltered – for better or worse. That a student or faculty member could have marched onto campus with an assault rifle would have been utterly beyond my scope of imagination, as I am sure it was for most of the 900 students present at Episcopal this past Tuesday. This leads me to believe that people do in fact subconsciously subscribe to that insidious reassurance, “bad things only happen to other people.” Indeed, in today’s oversaturated media environment, it is often difficult to appreciate the extent of a tragedy until it becomes your own proximate reality.

As terrible as all violent crime is, school shootings seem to occupy a different category of violence; they occur at the places, and around the people, intended to be most sheltered and insulated from the concerns (and terrors) of adult life. There is something distinctly unsettling about that thought, and when a school shooting occurs, it seems to call into question the social fabric underlying our communities and families.

Of course, there is always a list of “usual suspects” to blame – alienation, school bullying, anti-depressants, family problems, lax gun laws, on-screen violence, Marilyn Manson. However, in truth there is no single culprit or identifiable social factor that explains school shootings in their totality. And even if there were, would it seem enough of an explanation to the grieving friends and relatives of Dale Regan, the Episcopal community at large, or the confused family Shane Schumerth left behind? Those connected to this tragedy are left to pick through the debris, and try to formulate an answer to that bewildering question, child-like in its simplicity: “Why?”

In the wake of a school shooting, I think it is that question, and the lack of a satisfying answer, which terrifies people the most, and the shock of being faced with it leaves us all, regardless of age, feeling somewhat helpless, and a bit like children.

Photo Credit: brian.ch

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