Living with a new normal: Students cope with fears of violence in wake of school shootings
Reilly Bauer poses for a photo on the bleachers of the Panther Valley Intermediate School Gym.
School in the Panther Valley District starts Monday. DANIELLE DERRICKSON/TIMES NEWS
On Monday, Reilly Bauer will start her sophomore year at Panther Valley High School.
She has already finished her shopping, bought some new clothes and attended the first event of the school year: “Meet the Panthers,” a kickoff for fall sports.
Bauer, 15, has also made a plan with her friends for what they would do if an active shooter came to their school. The group created a buddy system, promising that in an emergency, they would find each other.
“It’s kind of depressing, but if it really does come down to it, I want to be prepared,” Bauer said.
Bauer’s mother, Colleen Bauer, home-schooled her daughter until the sixth grade. She was enrolled in the Panther Valley School District for middle school. But before Bauer started her freshman year, Colleen decided to take her out of the public system again.
That is because during the 2017-18 school year — when Bauer was in eighth grade — the district had five emergency lockdowns. In one instance, threatening graffiti had been written in a girls’ bathroom; in another, a bullet had been found on campus.
“I remember thinking, ‘that’s it, I’m yanking her out.’ It wasn’t worth it to me to be fearful all the time,” Colleen said.
Bauer stayed connected to her friends, but she missed being in school.
“She begged me to come back,” Colleen remembered.
Bauer eventually got her wish, but says after the lockdowns two years ago, she still fears for her safety, and the safety of her friends and family who are also students in the district.
“It was scary to think something could actually happen, even though everyone assures you that you’re safe,” she said.
Are school shootings becoming more common?
In 2012, 20 children and six adults were killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut. Six years later, a shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, left 17 dead and another 17 injured. Three months after that, a Santa Fe High School student walked into the Texas school armed with a shotgun, killing eight students and two teachers.
Considering those are just three of more than 200 U.S. schools where students have been exposed to gun violence on campus since the Columbine massacre in 1999, according to data collected by The Washington Post, it would seem school shootings are a new normal.
But James Alan Fox, a criminology professor at Northeastern University, told NPR last year that schools are safer today than they were in the past. In a study released in 2018, Fox and doctoral student Emma Fridel found that while multiple-victim shootings are increasing, for schools, those events average just one a year, according to an NPR report.
But while bullets may be more common on the streets than they are in schools, the Pew Research Center found that 57% of teens say they are somewhat or very worried that their school may become the site of the next shooting.
At Transitions, an adolescent day-treatment program in the Lehigh Valley Health Network, many patients are treated for school-related anxieties, stemming from fears of being bullied, being in crowded places and sometimes, becoming victims of violence at school, program director Ken Mead said.
Dealing with some of those worries, he added, starts with having honest conversations with students.
“I think the most important thing is that you validate their fears without worsening them,” Mead said. “You validate that, yes, you can have these fears, but you also at the same time try to reassure them that the school is still a very, very safe place to be.”
Bauer was diagnosed with autism when she was 4 years old, and she has social anxiety. But she loves to perform. She is a cheerleader at Panther Valley. She has been in the drama club. And earlier this summer, she competed at the Miss Amazing nationals competition. Participants were all girls and women with disabilities.
For the show, Bauer gave her rendition of “Spoonful of Sugar,” from the 1964 classic “Mary Poppins.”
“It doesn’t matter if you forget a line,” she said. “You’re just in the moment so much that you really just embody the character you’re playing. … I think I really do push myself.”
But being a student is not like being on stage. For Bauer, going to school presents its own set of worries — and gun violence on campus is one of them.
Bauer said she plans to face that fear head-on, too.
“I feel like if we can get other people talking about it, we can make a bigger impact on how to be ready and what we could do, even if it’s not going to happen,” she said.