A mother falls to her knees and cries. Another screams in pain. A father sits broken, staring in disbelief at a seemingly endless abyss.
These are not images commonly associated with a school environment. But Columbus Municipal School District Superintendent Cherie Labat has been in those rooms too often, trying to comfort grieving parents who have lost their children to gun violence.
“There are no words to describe this,” Labat said Thursday, as tears welled up in his eyes. “I don’t know how a parent recovers from the loss of their child, especially to gun violence.”
Along the grief spectrum are teachers, traumatized students who have lost a friend or classmate, and the shooter who now faces legal consequences for a life-altering decision.
“You mourn the shooter and the child who was shot because there is despair in both,” Labat said. “…Children are not born of killers. They weren’t born shooters. What happened?”
Specifically, Labat wants to find ways to prevent violent crime in the community, especially violence involving minors.
The school district is hosting a public forum focused on community safety at 5 p.m. Monday at Brandon Central Services. Labat invited a panel of city, county and state officials to discuss effective community solutions to reduce violent crime, as well as answer questions from the public.
“It’s about partnering with the community to come up with solutions that make sense,” Labat said. “We can’t always point fingers at the police as they try to solve the shooting yesterday. Our goal must be to prevent future shootings by working with the community and with youth at risk of shooting or being shot.
“Our educational institution is not designed to cope with what society brings,” she added. “We just need to give young people hope and a reason to lay down their arms.”
As school guns and shootings have become more common across the country, Labat said the incidents in Columbus are happening on the streets. Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, these problems have been getting worse.
“We have students who are facing capital murder, aggravated assault,” she said. “It’s not something we expected with the pandemic, but it still hasn’t been easy to deal with. Every time a child dies, especially at the hands of another child, it should be the most tragic thing in the community. … We have to understand at some point what we are doing as a community and what these children are missing.
As a school district, Labat said CMSD is diligently putting in place response measures – working with Community Counseling Services to develop a critical response team, providing social and emotional well-being response support to teachers and students and by forming a support group for parents whose children have been victims of gun violence. Playing defense, however, is not enough.
“Don’t ask what (the district) is doing,” Labat said. “I want to ask what we are doing as a community. Are we talking to families? Are we talking to parents? Do we ask ourselves how we can help them keep their child off the streets and get the guns away?
“It’s not a school problem, but it’s a community problem,” she added. “We need all aspects of the community working towards the same goal.”
District Attorney Scott Colom, who will be on Monday’s panel, agrees with Labat.
“The community likes to come together and talk about the seriousness of the crime, but I think too often when these terrible things happen, we don’t think about how we got here. Healthy communities do this to prevent that these things do happen.
Gun ownership, Colom said, has become more common, especially among young people. He cited a recent trend of children posting pictures of themselves with guns on social media, something that “shouldn’t be normal”.
“It’s unbelievable how many young people have guns,” Colom said. “When this happens, the decision making and the consequences of those decisions can be drastic. We need to have real conversations as a community about this issue.
Nationally normalized gun culture and its local effect are also a concern for Labat. She believes communities can and should be catalysts for stronger gun laws at the state and federal levels.
“We have made the practice of active fire drills a normality in a school environment and everything is fine. But that’s not the case,” she said. “Only in America do we have an entirely preventable man-made disaster. It doesn’t happen in other countries, when it comes to gun violence. The answers are simple. It’s not about finding a cure for cancer or putting a man on Mars, we just lack the courage to do the right thing.
Zack Plair is the editor of The Dispatch.