Please Don’t Shoot My Autistic Son
Like all parents of school-age children, I fear that my children’s school could be the site of the next violent attack. And I am worried that my son could be shot because someone mistakenly believes he is dangerous.
It’s the day after the Oxford High School shooting, and my house is empty well before 7 a.m. On this particular morning, my middle son, a high school sophomore, dons his mask, throws his burgundy backpack over his shoulder, and hops on the “special ed” bus when it rolls to a stop at the end of our driveway at the dark and ungodly hour of 6:20 a.m.
Fifteen minutes later, his siblings, a freshman and senior, fight briefly over what time to head out the door. My son, the driver, easily wins that argument, and they leave quickly, but not before my daughter makes one last request to stay home. She is scared to go to school.
Oxford, Michigan is 30 miles from our house. Since the massacre, we have been especially nervous, angry, and anxious because it hit so close to home. Many of us know someone from Oxford or feel a connection to the community. In the days after the shooting, I spoke to the contractor renovating my husband's office building. He said he’d be cutting back his schedule for the week because he had four funerals to attend. The sorrow in his voice was palpable.
Within minutes of having an empty house, I am at my computer, composing a letter to the school that basically says, please don’t shoot my son.
Like all parents of school-age children, I fear that my children’s school could be the site of the next violent attack. And I am worried that my son — who is autistic and sometimes threatens violence when he’s upset — could be shot because someone mistakenly believes he is dangerous.
It’s been over 20 years since the Columbine shooting in 1999 — and some would say nothing has changed. I say everything has changed.
“I have a gun” and “I’m going to blow up the school" are two of his favorite things to say when he’s agitated. When he’s not upset, he’s generally kind, friendly, and inquisitive. My guess is that he's probably known to many of his fellow 1,800 students as the kid who spends much of the time between classes walking the halls complimenting others on their curls. I’m equally sure that they know he is a special education student based on his demeanor.
In case you missed it, there were two more school shootings in the first week of February. Most people likely did miss it, since the information was buried under the headlines of a massive winter storm, Covid-related news, and stories about whether Punxsutawney Phil saw his shadow (he did).
One student was killed and another critically injured outside a school for students with special and alternative learning needs, in a Minneapolis suburb. On the same day, three students and one adult were shot outside a Milwaukee school while classmates were inside attending a basketball game. These shootings mark the sixth and seventh of this year, according to Education Week's 2022 school shooting tracker. Last year there were 34.
Seven shootings, and it's only February. On Valentine’s Day, Families in Parkland, Florida, commemorated the four-year anniversary of the massacre at Stoneman Douglas High School. It’s been over 20 years since the Columbine shooting in 1999 — and some would say nothing has changed. I say everything has changed. We’re more nervous, our kids are more anxious, our educators are beyond exhausted, and yet many of our lawmakers remain unwilling to make changes in our gun laws.
Although Michigan law generally bans weapons on school property, there are many exceptions, most notably, allowing a concealed pistol license holder to open carry or when a school official gives permission to an individual to have a gun. Following the Oxford shooting, one Michigan lawmaker recommended introducing a law that would allow teachers to keep personal firearms in their classrooms, as long as the gun is stored in a lockbox.
In our district, schools don’t have metal detectors, and on any given day, I can’t say whether a staff member is carrying a weapon or that a student doesn’t have a gun. What I can say is that my son has as much access to a gun as he does a winning Powerball lottery ticket. The only danger he possesses is to himself, with his propensity to make threatening statements.
Despite our efforts — from ongoing professional interventions to medication — we cannot seem to help our son find other ways to express his anger, cope with his anxiety, or manage his outbursts. Talk to him when he’s calm, and he will tell you why what he’s doing is wrong. He can easily offer alternative reactions to making inflammatory statements. But, all that logic disappears in the heat of the moment. We work with him regularly, but we can’t overdo it because then he often says things for shock value. It’s exhausting.
In my note to the school, I asked that all the building staff be made aware of my son’s disability and his inclination to make threatening comments. My proposal is similar to the plan we implemented in 2018 when my son was in 6th grade. Coincidentally, it was devised around the same time as one of the deadliest school shootings, where eight students and two teachers lost their lives in Santa Fe, Texas and 13 were injured. It was the first time he threatened violence at school — the classroom lights turned off unexpectedly, and he panicked. A darkened classroom is an example of an everyday event that can trigger him.
After a meeting with building administrators and the police liaison to the schools, all the middle school staff received an email from the assistant principal, introducing my son (photo included). They were instructed to document his comments and calmly and quietly redirect him. If other students overheard the comments, they were to be told that the adults in the building knew about his remarks and that everyone was safe. There were a few other procedural instructions, including how to reach his classroom teacher if her assistance was needed.
I honestly don’t think there's a tipping point here. I used to think each new school shooting would bring us closer to change. I’m coming to accept the fact that I am dead wrong.
Now that I’ve set the process in motion again, I’m somewhat relieved that school staff and local law enforcement are or will be aware of the unique circumstances. But I still fear the worst. What if a staff member doesn’t read the email? What if (as there is bound to be in these Covid times) there is a substitute teacher in the building? There are a million what-ifs.
It also doesn’t help that there are numerous documented instances of police shooting individuals with disabilities based on their unusual behaviors, or their inability to immediately follow a command.
In 2017, a Chicago police officer wounded an 18-year-old autistic man. His caregiver reportedly called the police to say he was missing — and letting law enforcement know the young man had developmental disabilities.
Two years later, an off-duty police officer shot and killed a 32-year-old non-verbal man who became agitated and shoved the officer while shopping with his parents at a California Costco.
In September 2020, police in Salt Lake City shot a 13-year-old autistic boy after responding to his mother’s call for assistance during a psychiatric episode.
Any one of these victims could have been my son.
In the immediate aftermath of the Oxford shooting, our school district canceled two school days due to a string of copycat threats and then transitioned to four days of online learning because of the potential for ongoing threats and “heightened stress levels,” according to an email from the superintendent. Once, so far, my children have been on lockdown in response to what ended up being a false report of gunfire at a nearby high school. Social media is filled with rumors. My daughter recently came home saying someone had a gun at school. It wasn’t true. Everyone is on edge.
All of this makes me so angry. We need stricter gun laws. We need to better support our kids’ mental health. We need policy changes. We need to know that our kids will be getting off the school bus at the end of the day.
It makes me sad, too. The murdered Oxford High teens are the same ages as my kids. They play some of the same sports. They probably shared much more in common, except my kids are alive.
I am exhausted by all of this, and I’m particularly tired of waiting for our elected officials to wake up and make profound policy changes. I honestly don’t think there's a tipping point here. I used to think each new school shooting would bring us closer to change. I’m coming to accept the fact that I am dead wrong. We are, unfortunately, learning to live with a silent uneasiness. We shouldn’t have to, but we do. I know that fear can motivate action, and I can advocate for change. I can try to reassure my kids that they should still feel safe at school.
I can promise my son’s classmates, teachers, and administrators that my child will never be a danger to anyone. I can promise that we are working diligently on addressing his behaviors. I can promise he doesn’t mean to upset others with his unconscionable statements. But, can someone promise me that no one will shoot my son?