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On Tuesday, January 23, there was a shooting at Marshall County High School in Benton, KY. Two students were killed (with 19 injured) by a fellow student. Less than one month later, a shooter killed 17 students (15+ injured) at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL.
I live in Nashville and watched the Kentucky shooting play out on the national news (though much more on local news, obviously) and I did the same on the day of the Florida shooting. It’s been startlingly obvious that the national media reaction and public frenzy has been decidedly different from the Kentucky shooting and I’ve been wondering why for the last few days.
After the Kentucky shooting, Twitter was ablaze with the usual post-shooting NRA-blaming and gun-control rhetoric, but it died down pretty fast. So much so that when I watched national coverage of the Florida shooting, I was hard-pressed to find references to the Kentucky shooting that happened less than four weeks ago. I’ve seen a couple local articles about reactions about the Florida shooting from the Marshall Co Sheriff and students, but that’s about it.
Why does one tragedy capture attention over another? Is it the number of dead? Do 17 dead students mean more than two? Cynically, I know blood sells, and that may have something to do with it, but I believe it’s bigger than the numbers. In comparing the two situations and outcomes, I wound up focused on two distinct differences: Access and Leadership. (Selfishly, it also gave me the chance to share just how amazing the Benton community has been during their tragedy.)
Access: Logistically, it’s a lot easier for the media to descend on Broward County than on Marshall County. There’s more local media infrastructure already in place and multiple international airports to shuttle in national media. In contrast, it’s a two-hour drive from the Nashville airport to Benton, KY, and there’s not exactly a bevy of well-seasoned local media affiliates within that radius. Besides the bustling metropolis of Clarksville, TN, there’s mostly just recreational lakes on the way. I’ve come out of this realizing that journalists are like most of us — lazy. Who wants to truck it down south in the middle of nowhere? National media mostly relied on local media because they didn’t want to do the legwork. This was probably not a good idea for them because local media reported on this as if their own kids were in that school (probably because they were). The reports focus on the escapes, the bravery of kids, the families, etc. It was days before they released the shooter’s name in articles (you could find it, of course, but you had to look hard). He was underage, yes, but it was an obvious tactic from the start to talk less about him than about the victims. Law enforcement, school officials, students, medical personnel, all refused to name him. And after a few days of this, national media lost interest (Even now, if you look up the shooter’s name, he’s not on the first page of results).
Leadership: The admin formed a protective shield immediately and encouraged teachers not to speak to the press in the immediate aftermath. They banned the press from the school grounds. When looking back at the initial reports, I found only one article that quotes a teacher and it’s obvious he hadn’t gotten the memo yet (he wasn’t in the school when it happened so the press got to him as he waited with everyone else). When it was discovered that the shooter was in band, media staked out the band director’s home. He refused to comment for two to three days while walking from his door to his car. They stopped going to his house. The Marshall students didn’t talk much to the press either. This is not due to lack of information on their part. Text and IMs reveal that most students knew the identity of the shooter within minutes while still hunkered down in classrooms and nearby local businesses while on lockdown.
The Stoneman Douglas kids and teachers, in comparison, have been all over the media from the get-go, culminating, to date, in a CNN town hall. Why the difference? I go back to the leadership. The Marshall admin didn’t ask Kentucky students not to be interviewed, but by example, they showed them what was important. Instead of seeing school officials grandstanding or turning this into a national conversation before the bodies were cold, their only focus was the students. Media was regarded as a nuisance by all adults in those first few hours and days and the students saw that. Students and teachers spent all day and evening together on the day of the shooting. Teachers were not allowed to leave the offsite location until every student’s whereabouts were known, meeting with parents who picked up each one. There was no press allowed. The shooting was on Tuesday. On Friday, the first official, but optional, day back, students were told to enter through the gym and to bring their parents if they wished. Every worker, including teachers, administration, and custodial staff, was standing outside to greet them as they arrived. After hugging on the students, shaking hands with parents, grieving together, they went inside. Again, no press allowed on the grounds.
At this point, the principal spoke to the student body, sharing in the grief, but also keeping them informed, being transparent, as to what had gone on while away (teachers had come to the school Wednesday and Thursday, been interviewed by the FBI, the commons area where the shooting occurred had been cleaned, etc.). The FBI leadership then spoke and told how his entire team had been wowed by the actions of the students at the school while reviewing the tapes. He commended them for quickly running and for picking up others who had fallen to keep them from getting trampled. He also praised the onsite deputy who had run toward the gunfire (it had taken him 30 seconds to run from his morning post in the parking lot to the commons area). Nowhere was there blame in any speech, just praise for doing what good humans do for each other.
From there, students that had been in the commons area during the shooting were taken back there with their parents, while teachers looked on. Sounds kind of morbid, but the administration had already brought in counselors on site specializing in PTSD and terrorist/crisis situations and went with their recommendations. By sharing the details with their parents, walking in the steps they’d been in, you could feel that some of the students really needed to do this. They did this all again on Monday for those who hadn’t come on Friday. School days were shortened to allow for counseling sessions, funerals, and trips to hospitals.
In contrast, the Florida students have been working through their grief and terror live in front of a nation. How can you face or reflect on what has happened if you are being interviewed every day, prompted with questions that are asked, not with your best interests in mind, but for some larger conversation? I don’t know why the admin and the parents didn’t shut this down, though I suspect, if you don’t shut it down from the start, you can’t do it later. Maybe they were too late and couldn’t do anything about it. Maybe the force of the press there has been too much for them to take and once one person talked, the dam exploded. All it takes is one person in charge being sweet-talked (“Don’t you want everyone to hear your story? Don’t you want justice and remembrance for the kids?”) and the ground is hijacked by those who have nothing to do you with your students and community.
Finally, I’ve been to Benton twice since the shootings to visit friends. There are signs with #MarshallStrong and “We Are Marshall” and “For Bailey and Preston” and “Praying for Marshall” in every business and every marquee. You can say this is small-town conservative country so of course it’s to be expected and maybe that’s true. But for those who’ve not spend much time in the south, let me shed some light as only a native-Detroiter, Nashville-transplant can: These students aren’t back-country hicks. They listen to their music more on YouTube and Spotify than the radio and they listen to as much Hip Hop as they do Country. There are at least four students in the school identifying as genders other than the sex specified on their birth certificates and gay students holding hands in the hall is not uncommon. This is also a strong farming area and more kids have fired a gun than have not. They go to church.
Maybe the national press didn’t know what to do with the Kentucky shooting. They didn’t want to go there, they couldn’t get what they wanted out of folks, and no town hall. The shooter didn’t even match the script. He was intelligent, well-liked by teachers and students, participated in school activities (band). He used a handgun, not a rifle. Instead of working for the reporting, they just shrugged and went on.
The Benton community, so far, has chosen to handle their individual actions privately. Some teachers are getting handgun training. Some are throwing full support behind gun control. Parents have withdrawn their kids from school and are now homeschooling. Others are volunteering at the school. And the admin and community are supporting everyone’s right to do whatever they feel is needed to best support their students. Hats off to them.