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Generation Z’s Response to Mass Violence

protest sign with fear does not belong in schools written on it

Back in the ‘50s, students throughout the US regularly prepared for a possible nuclear attack with duck and cover civil defense drills. Thankfully, a nuclear attack never happened within the country as feared, and the drills remained just that – drills.

Flash forward nearly 70 years. Students regularly practice lockdowns, active shooter drills, and ALICE(Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter, Evacuate) training. As the number of school shootings rises, so does the regularity of such preparatory drills. With frequency and expectation potentially causing a wallpaper effect, many students become desensitized to the violent acts.

As unfortunate as that sounds, it’s also quite normal, according to Charles Figley, director of Traumatology and professor of social work at Tulane University. In his article, The Psychological Explanation for Why We Become Desensitized to Mass Shootings, Figley explains how traumatic events are typically dealt with one of two approaches: respond, or putting it out of mind.

“That’s what’s happening now,” says Figley. “We’re still shocked, but we watch the people in the communities where this has happened, and we see their shock, their unpreparedness. We think, ‘There is nothing they could have done.’” As the frequency of instances increased, he adds, people are reminded there’s nothing they can do. Then they put it out of their minds.

Some choose to respond. Students around the country no longer lay passively in the wake of tragedy. They amass a groundswell of energy while demanding results and action. They dismiss the hopes and prayers from political leaders. Instead, they’re calling out what needs to be done and who should help.

Students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School organized March For Our Lives a nationwide effort demanding an end to gun violence and drive policy reform. Students from that school confronted the NRA head-on in a town hall hosted by CNN where senior Ryan Deitsch asked, “We would like to know why do we have to be the ones to do this? Why do we have to speak out to the (state) Capitol? Why do we have to march on Washington, just to save innocent lives?”

On Presidents Day this year, Eleanor Nuechterlein and Whitney Bowen, organized a lie-in outside the White House. “We call on our national and state legislatures to finally act responsibly and reduce the number of these tragic incidents,” said, the teen organizers. “It’s essential that we all feel safe in our classrooms.” They originally planned for 17 of their classmates to participate–representing the victims of the Parkland shooting a week before. Word spread of the protest over social media and support grew to hundreds.

Other student groups launched movements like Don’t Name Them and No Notoriety to keep the media from sensationalizing the names of shooters; suggesting, instead, to focus on the names of victims. More can be found lobbying for access to more counseling and support for students at risk or post-trauma.

These youth-led initiatives have arguably generated more conversations and momentum than ever before. They may not all agree on some of the issues, but they do agree paralysis is not an option. Thankfully, people are listening and taking them seriously. If there is a risk of desensitization due to the frequency of incidents and preventative drills, it’s assuring to know an energized group chooses to respond and challenge the norm.