A Letter to the Parkland Community

Dear Parkland Community:

I am writing this letter to provide you with the strongest encouragement, advice and support that I possibly can at this critical time. While the event of the school shooting is fading in the general public’s mind and blurring into one of the usual nondescript tragedies of our modern time, I know that the actual human element is as real for you now, and will be always, as it was on that day and I support you one-hundred percent now and going forward. I have spent a considerable amount of time in the Parkland area, and feel that a balanced perspective that will truly serve the long-term interests of the students, parents, and community is needed.

When I heard on Feb 14th that there had been a school shooting in Florida, I was disturbed and saddened. When I heard that it had occurred at Marjory Stoneman Douglas, I was profoundly and deeply moved with compassion. I had taught at the school for a short time as an interim teacher in the past, and since have always felt a connection. The day before the tragedy, I was thinking about returning to the school to speak as well as offer my educational services. After hearing the terrible news, I immediately decided to drop what I was doing in New York, and bring all that I had to offer, which was especially suited for the moment since I have years of experience in life coaching and counseling, as well as in creating comprehensive success programs for high school and college students that focused on everything related to the health, wellness and holistic development of young people.

What is Missing
My immediate concern related to the situation was not that there would be overreaction but rather there would be the potential for mis-reaction.

With all the chaos and intense emotions driving the response to the tragedy, coupled with the multiple areas that simultaneously needed to be managed, it was very difficult for anyone to gain a sense of equilibrium and a clear vision to move forward. The school administration, parents and other adult community leaders had a herculean task just to rally and keep things together, which they did very well.

When I arrived, I saw that the tragedy had turned political almost immediately, and that much of the attention and energy had been driven toward a debate on gun laws. The timing of this seemed very unnatural to me, as it appeared to be appealing to interests other than the immediate ones of the students and parents. What was really needed in the moment was a deliberate period of privacy and deep reflection. That is not to say that some of the topics surrounding the debate were not legitimate, or that students should not have been proactively involved. (I train young people to be leaders in society, and under the right circumstances encourage them to get directly involved.) It is to say that the media and others should have at once recognized the extreme vulnerability of the kids and the community in that moment, and afforded them what was essential, and not used the situation to their own ends—even if those ends might have been right ones, or initiated by some of the students themselves. Furthermore, much of the vitriol that was poured into the debate was entirely unproductive, inaccurate, and divisive.

If this imprudent dynamic of focusing on one factor (gun control)—when in reality there are many contributing factors—is not compensated for, many of the kids are likely to experience disillusionment and resentment. Once the external attention and excitation of the moment dissipates, and the process of reengaging life continues, there will naturally be a reevaluation of the incident and its handling in the aftermath.

The potential for disillusionment and resentment is there because a singular tragic event was not positioned and discerned according to the overall realities and needs of normal teenage life. Whatever problems and perplexities that individual students had before Feb. 13, they still have today, and still require help with. But now those problems have the potential to emerge more strongly or become compounded by new ones because the tragedy had obscured them for a while, and in the interim the students deepest needs were not met, nor could be, through the issue that gained the most currency and attention. (This is not to minimize the efforts of those who reached out to the students in need, but rather to highlight the overall turn of direction and distraction that took place.)

Additionally, students were led to believe that a “never again movement” could be accomplished by focusing on the external instrumentality of the problem (guns) rather than the internal human element of the problem, a strategy that could not possibly produce what it promises.

Gun Laws and School Safety
While current gun laws and school safety measures are obviously necessary topics of importance that must be addressed competently and effectively in a common sense manner, they are not the most vital elements that make up the overall wellbeing of students. They are limited in scope and do not answer the areas that most directly and consistently impact the health and wellness of young people.

With respect to school safety, before we ask how best to secure our schools with armed personnel, bulletproof glass, bomb-sniffing dogs, metal detectors and the like, we need to ask the greater and more telling question: “why do we need to go to such extreme measures today, when we clearly never needed to do at any time in our nation’s history until recently?” The answer to that question will also provide the answer as to where our attention should be directed in order to best confront the problem.

School Shootings are Part of  a Continuum
A wider view of school shootings will clearly reveal that mass killings are at the extreme end of a whole spectrum of disturbing actions that involve young people in modern times that were entirely absent, virtually absent, or less frequently committed in the past than they are today. The number of visits to emergency rooms across the country every year for incidents of self-harm is just one of many examples of this phenomenon that could be provided.

Therefore, to understand school shootings, we must understand that they do not occur in a vacuum, but within the very specific context of a morally and spiritually collapsing society. What happened in Parkland was symptomatic of a far larger dysfunctional problem, one that will continue to express itself in negative ways as long as we continue to ignore the values that brought our country into existence and sustained it at a high level of stability and creative productivity well into the twentieth century.

In order to have a true “never again movement,” a comprehensive understanding of what has given rise to the problem must be gained to produce a comprehensive solution. The comprehensive solution to school shootings is fundamentally the same as it is to many of the other dangerous and harmful behaviors engaged in by young people today, and that is to address the conditions within society that have made these behaviors real occurrences in the first place. And because the roots of these behaviors and problems are largely spiritual in nature (resonating from the soul), the solutions are also largely spiritual in nature.

School Shootings Are Rare, But Other Threats Are Not
The illusion that mass school shootings are frequent events is largely driven by the media attention and panic that surrounds them when they do happen. While mass school shootings are incredibly horrific, they are extremely rare according to actual studies. In reality, they represent an infinitesimal fraction of the loss of life, both actual and potential, of our young people. This is vital to understand in order to accurately identify threats proportionate to their actual occurrence, as opposed to identifying only those that get the most attention.

For example, deaths resulting from car accidents, suicide and overdoses are events that occur every day in shocking numbers, yet there is very little coverage or knowledge of this. In inner cities like Chicago, gang-related killings take many more young lives every single year than all the mass shootings combined since the mid-1990s when mass school shootings like Columbine first occurred.

The Breakdown of Society Impacts Everything
An enlightened society recognizes that its security first rests on the virtue and character of its intuitions and citizens, followed then by the wisdom and precision of its laws. If we reverse this order, and place bureaucracy ahead of national character, we will find that there will never be enough laws or measures of protection put in place to make us safe (or make us feel safe). For schools, this means that school environments, which should be aesthetically beautiful, creative, stimulating, and liberating, might be turned into ones that are unattractive, uncreative, confining, and fearfully militarized.

Where We Have Failed Our Young People
It is the manifest of unhealthy, harmful influences that have been allowed a virtual free course in society to interface with our young people that illustrates the greatest failing when it comes to not protecting their lives. These influences have created a tremendous amount of mental and emotional distress and disorientation. This failure is evident by the fact that hardly a word of opposition is offered by any adult from any of the cultural institutions that influence young people—including public schools—in any intentional or organized way.

Fear of reprisal for speaking the truth, political correctness, and conforming to lowered societal standards by adults have had devastating effects on young people and have rendered what otherwise should be effective adult interactions into ineffective ones, especially when it comes to steering young people in powerful, productive directions.

When one considers the cumulative effect of the massive amounts of violence, gun violence, nihilism, sensationalism, illicit sexual content, bizarre behavior, negative attitudes, and confusing errant messages regarding life, gender and sexuality, that an average child and teenager absorbs daily, weekly, and yearly through the mediums of television, movies, music, video games social media, and society at large, it is a wonder that any are well adjusted at all. Society has wrongly assumed that allowing our young people to be exposed to all of this stress and degeneracy would not somehow have a significant warping and depressing effect on their personalities, actions, and attitudes—the reality of which is demonstrated by the near epidemic levels of negative behaviors among teenagers that has been trending for over two decades. Add all of this to the unnatural pressures brought on by an overly competitive and under nurturing educational culture, and it’s easy to see how things can go terribly wrong. Our society has become so imbalanced that we now think it is normal that literally millions of adolescents are on psychiatric medication (for a whole assortment of reasons), a factor that shows up in all school shootings.

Real Needs of Young People
The real needs of young people center on mental, physical, spiritual, emotional, and social health. What young people require is the same as what they have always required from the beginning of time, which is constant inspiration, vital connection, encouragement and empowerment. Their health and happiness rely on crystal clear, accurate moral and spiritual guidance from healthy, vibrant adults. They need to be built up in every dimension of their being. They need deep experiences, clean pathways, and strong friendships. They need to know that life is meaningful, purposeful and vital. They need love and acceptance as well as discipline and correction. They need to be equipped with a whole arrangement of dynamic life skills, reasoning skills, communication skills and practical life skills. They need to be defended from every negative influence that in any way could undermine, oppose or interfere with the plan that the Creator has for their wholesome development, creative purpose, and joy of life. In short, young people deserve and desperately need the adult community to provide them with the purest and best spiritual and natural ingredients from which they can grow, prosper and be happy.

Needs of Stoneman Douglas Students
The students of Stoneman Douglas need all of the above in even greater amounts. On February 13, they had an encounter with evil that completely negated the rules of a lifestyle that had been presented to them and conditioned them. Therefore, the response to this event must represent within itself far more of that which is good, authentic, and true, than the evilness, corruption and falsehoods that were represented in the menacing act. They need not to be thrust into the national spotlight any further, but rather need to be harbored from the world for a time of rest, replenishment and empowerment. Yes, they need to get on with their lives, but first they deserve their deepest and greatest needs attended to so they can overcome both their collective tragedy as well as their personal struggles, and so to be made stronger in the process in order to go back into the world with confidence and a sense of security.

Stoneman Douglas can be better than ever. It can be a place that is not merely defined by the events of a tragedy, but by overcoming a tragedy through real greatness. The opportunity for Stoneman Douglas is not to lead the nation in political reforms—which can still be done with the right balance—but to lead the nation in student life and holistic development reform. In doing so, there will be the capacity to impart to every student, a new level of strength, vitality, and expertise in managing all of their responsibilities (including academics) that was previously never imagined.

I am available to help any member of the school administration, any parent, any student, or any community leader to this end. I’ve spent over 20 years studying cultural trends, and developing the themes of which I have spoken in this letter, and will be happy to give all that I can over time to see a complete victory brought to the students (whether individually or collectively), their families and wider community. I am also available immediately for any life coaching, counseling, or academic needs.

Jay Etzel