PORTSMOUTH, Va. (WAVY) – Some academics were not surprised by what happened at Richneck Elementary School in Newport News last Friday when police said a teacher was shot in the chest by a first-grader who was armed with a 9mm pistol.
Norfolk State psychology professor Dr. Ernestine Duncan said it is evidence of a “perfect storm.”
“Obviously for the teacher involved … I am happy to hear that she is recovering, but this is an issue that affects not just that school and not just that community. It affects us all,” Duncan said.
Duncan is studying how the coronavirus pandemic has created a made-in-America malaise that has three components: more guns on the streets and in homes, the continued glorification of guns on multiple platforms and isolation that was created by the stay-at-home pandemic-era orders.
“These children have not been with their peers; they have not been in a setting where they have to sit for periods of time listening to instructions,” Duncan said. “They are now showing that they do not have adequate coping skills to be able to deal with the demands of what’s happening in the classroom.”
The University of Virginia has assessed the academic deficits caused by the pandemic. Now, academics are weighing the damaging effects of social deficits caused by the pandemic.
“When you add to that the limited opportunity that our students have had to interact with each other,” Duncan said, “you find that, many times for them, aggression and anger are the ways in which they try to problem solve and this is very unfortunate.”
Besides last Friday’s school shooting in Newport News, just before Christmas, four teenagers allegedly killed a 17-year-old in Portsmouth. In this case, the youngest suspect is 13-years-old.
Duncan said a few studies have looked at the effects of the pandemic on school-aged children – one notably, she said, looking at the effects on children ages 4 to 19.
“Those children between 4 and 19 [years of age] report increased feelings of anxiety depression loneliness stress tension and anger,” Duncan said, “and when you are able to identify those feelings it’s important but more importantly, these children have often not had the opportunity to express those feelings in an emotionally healthy way.”
The academic, mental health and violence issues facing the nation’s youth are unprecedented in modern history, Duncan said, and current culture wars have contributed to the constellation of problems.
“We are no longer working collectively; we are no longer working altruistically and we are more individualistic in regards to ways that we handle our affairs,” Duncan said. “In the last few years, we have seen an increase in hate and violence it seems to be more acceptable to be able to express the fact that we don’t like certain groups of people.
“There’s discrimination, there’s racism, there’s sexism, and that again combined with access to guns and the way in which conflict is resolved has created an environment in which children adolescents and adults use gun violence to solve their problems and to resolve their conflicts and the results are people are being hurt and people are being killed.”
The perfect storm affecting children can be controlled with a three-pronged approach, Duncan said.
She calls for limiting children’s access to guns, limiting media platforms that glorify guns including video games and even televised news coverage of violent events and talking to children about their feelings.
Duncan said there needs to be talk about emotional regulation – in other words, “being able to have conversations with our children about what they are feeling and to normalize their fears, their loneliness, and all of the things that we see them experiencing.”
Duncan said to dissipate the perfect storm, children’s feelings need to be identified and validated. Then, parents and guardians should help children find appropriate ways to express themselves. This can include art, music, physical activity, and therapy.