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Editorial: When the news hits too close to home

Crime and public safety DeKalb County Editor's Pick Trending

Editorial: When the news hits too close to home

DeKalb County School District Buses. Photo by Dean Hesse.

This week, I joined a not-so-exclusive club. I became a parent with a child caught up in a school lockdown. 

A mentally ill man in our neighborhood fired at roofers working on a nearby house. All of his shots missed their targets, thankfully. He spent the rest of the day barricading himself inside his home until police were able to arrest him without further incident. 

You see this sort of thing so much in the news, and I report so many things like this, you’d think I’d be numb to it. But I found it all terrifying, and writing this is an attempt to make sense of what happened. I won’t succeed because no one can make this sort of thing make sense. It’s a manufactured drama that has somehow become one of our civic norms. How we got here is a question for historians. I’m just living in it.

When stressful things happen, it’s hard not to project your own personal grievances onto it. Still, sitting there, waiting for the latest tidbit of information from the police, I couldn’t help but reflect on everything fundamentally wrong with America. 

We have a broken healthcare system, particularly when it comes to mental health. We have a romantic affiliation with guns, tools too often used to express impulsive rage instead of defending lives or property.

Complicating matters: I was covering this event as a reporter. Two sides of my brain squared off like bugs in a shaken jar. One side felt a tingle of anticipation at covering breaking news and being the first reporter on the scene. This sort of excitement is why reporters get into this line of work. But the other side, the one that’s a PTA dad, wondered how quickly the standoff would escalate and what direction it would take. 

The suspect, whom I have chosen not to name, is infamous in our neighborhood. That he was involved in firing at roofers who disturbed his fragile peace of mind, and that he rambled on about green cards and other incomprehensible nonsense, was not surprising to anyone who knew him. The general sentiment was, “Yep, we figured if it happened here, it would be that guy.” 

One of the unfortunate roofers tried to explain to the shooter that he was from Texas, but the facts aren’t relevant to a delusional person. It also doesn’t matter where the roofers were from. No one should be shot at for simply doing their job. 

My school handled things as best they could. It’s a situation no school should be in, but has become so common that lockdown drills are a part of life. The experience left my son rattled. It left me rattled, too.

When it was over, I wondered to myself if it would be any easier for him the next time he’s in the middle of a lockdown. No public school student will be spared from this trauma and they’ll probably experience it more than once. 

Our society has collectively decided not to address the most obvious problems in front of us because we don’t trust each other. One person’s sensible gun regulation is another person’s slide toward totalitarianism. There’s seemingly no end to that cycle of solutions being proposed in good faith getting jammed into the wood chipper of our politics. 

I’m not going to try and convince you of any solution here because that’s practically and politically impossible. But I would like you to know that the reality that our futile politics creates is soul-crushing at a fundamental level. 

We shouldn’t have to live like this. A man having a months-long mental health crisis shouldn’t be treated only when he lashes out at the world. And preferably, he wouldn’t be treated in jail or have access to a gun that would make his hallucinations dangerous to those around him. 

But this is the life we’ve collectively chosen. And it sucks sometimes. 

The pickup process from school was a little hectic on Tuesday, as you can imagine. When we got home, my son’s best friend called him on my cell phone. They’re both eight.  It’s the first time a friend has called my son on the phone, to my knowledge. He wanted to know if my son was OK. He wanted to talk about how scared he was. He wanted to find some way to make sense of what had happened. 

I’m right there with you, kiddo. 

Today, while all this was going on, several local news outlets wrote about the recent Niche.com rankings of our local public schools. Candidly, I despise Niche. It’s a data mining website that ranks schools using subjective measurements of quality. It generates clicks by pitting public schools against each other. Journalists should reevaluate giving weight to Niche’s conclusions. But those stories generate page views and all our competitors wrote about the new rankings, so we’ll have to write something about it, too, even if I find it morally repugnant. We’ll try to provide some context, at least.

That trashy little website gave my son’s school a C because my family doesn’t have the means to move and attend what Niche considers a “better” school. But you know something? Niche.com can kiss my whole ass. My son’s school is at least a B+ in my book, and it’s getting better every day. I’m a big believer that you get out of public schools what you put into them. An engaged group of parents can make all the difference. 

I’d give the school an A based on how they handled Tuesday’s drama. One thing you can say about that school: it’s turning out some thoughtful and compassionate kids. 

I see them and I retain some hope, however fleeting, that the next generation can move the needle on these seemingly intractable social problems. It’s a hope that’s not based on any supporting evidence. But it’s the only thing I have.

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