Illustration by Andrea Nebhut
On Sept. 17, I saw a Sandy Hook Promise PSA going around about school shootings, as I’m sure many of you have seen by now. It was about “back-to-school” products, and it used the same language you would hear in any back-to-school ad for any department store, but it took place during a school shooting. For example, a student was shown saying “these new socks, they can be a real life-saver,” as they wrapped another student’s bleeding bullet wound up with socks. It was extremely powerful and it made me tremendously emotional. The ending message read: “It’s back-to-school time and you know what that means. School shootings are preventable when you know the signs.”
This PSA reminded me of another one that went viral a few years ago, by the same organization. This one initially tells a love story between two students that left notes for each other on desks, and then at the very end, when the two students meet face to face, another student walks into the school and starts to shoot. The PSA then tells the whole story again, but highlights what was going on in the background behind the love story, which is the same student from the end, leaving “signs” that he was planning a mass shooting, like posting a photo of a gun online. Again, at the end, the message said “Gun Violence is preventable when you know the signs.”
It isn’t necessarily wrong to show that there are “signs” that someone might be planning to commit an atrocity such as that one, but I really don’t think this should be the point of the PSA. I find them so powerful and thought-provoking that I think it detracts from them to make them about “learning the signs” instead of about the real problem, which is the violence that is so normal and rampant in this country.The final message of “learning the signs” burdens the children with the responsibility to essentially stop mass shootings from happening, as if to make them feel like if something were to happen, there is more they should have done.
The people in power who could actually take action against guns in schools are not addressed at all. I would rather see a message geared toward preventing gun violence by changing the policies that allow for this to happen than a message that deflects the responsibility of preventing gun violence to kids.
The message that school shootings are “preventable” if we know the signs puts an unfair amount of pressure on the kids who have to deal with the fear of it happening at their school every day. It isn’t the least bit reasonable for an elementary school-aged child to feel like the power to prevent a mass shooting is in their hands. We should be holding the people in charge much more accountable than that. We’ve become so desensitized to unthinkable acts of violence that we’d rather teach kids to keep their eye out for which of their classmates might be the next school shooter, instead of teaching them that this shouldn’t be the norm by any means.
My time abroad this semester has made me examine these PSAs in a much more critical way because mass school shootings are almost exclusively an American issue. Every other country in the world certainly isn’t “preventing” this problem by teaching their children the “signs” of a school shooter, so why is that the ultimate message of such a powerful (and, may I add, viral) PSA? To me it looks a lot like dancing around the real issue and holding children accountable for something completely and utterly out of their hands.