Must Reads: What school shootings are doing to America’s kids

Must Reads: What school shootings are doing to America’s kids

Tyshaun McPhatter didn’t know how to put on a tie.  It was March 2017, the morning of the funeral for his father, who had been shot dead a week earlier in the middle of the day outside Tyshaun’s elementary school. I was in the second-grader’s bedroom, watching him get ready as I reported the first story I would ever write about what America’s epidemic of gun violence is doing to its children.

Tyshaun looked down at his silver clip-on, then up at me. He asked for help.  I paused for a moment, because I had spent a career working to stay out of these scenes, to never influence moments, but here, at the precipice of one of his life’s worst days, was an 8-year-old whose father couldn’t show him how to do anything ever again.

I tucked my notebook under my arm and leaned over, guiding him to fasten his top button and slide the metal clip behind it. He snapped it on, then stuffed a matching handkerchief in the vest pocket. His ensemble complete, Tyshaun glanced down, contemplating why he had to wear what he was wearing.

“Whoever invented guns needs to stop,” he told me. That moment would eventually appear in my book, “Children Under Fire: An American Crisis.” In more than five years of reporting on this subject, I have interviewed or written about children who survived the shootings at Columbine High, Parkland High and Sandy Hook Elementary.

Six teenage girls who narrowly escaped the massacre at the Route 91 Harvest music festival in Las Vegas. Four first-graders who were standing on a South Carolina playground when a teenager started shooting. A 4-year-old from Cleveland who was shot in the head during a road rage incident. An 11-year-old from South Carolina who took his own life with his dad’s unsecured revolver. A 12-year-old from Minnesota who opened fire at a middle school. A 7-year-old from D.C. who shot his 4-year-old relative with a gun he thought was a toy, leaving her paralyzed. An 11-year-old and her 13-year-old brother, from Baltimore, who lost their father in one shooting and their mother in another.

And now the 19 boys and girls from Texas who were massacred in their in their fourth-grade classroom and the other boys and girls who escaped but will never be the same.  I also co-created a database that tracks how many children have been exposed to gun violence at school since Columbine. In 2018, when the database launched, we had identified at least 187,000 kids. In the past four years, the number has grown to more than 311,000.

There was a time when I thought my book might represent the last reporting I would do on this subject, but that wasn’t the case, mostly because there were more stories that needed to be told.

Doing this work is hard, and in rare moments overwhelming, as it was, for me, on Tuesday afternoon. People sometimes ask what they can do for us, the journalists who travel to broken communities and report stories on the dead and the wounded.

What you can do is read our work and think about it and share it with someone who needs to do the same. Because that’s hard, too, and the only way we’re going to become a different country weeks or years or decades from now is to reckon with who we were and what we allowed to happen, again, on May 24, 2022.