A logical — and distressing — conclusion to draw from yet another school massacre is that the United States as a nation does not care about its children. Or not nearly as much as we should.
It is unimaginable that school massacre after massacre would occur without any meaningful response from the adults in charge to reduce gun violence.
Clearly parents who have guns should be doing much more to keep them out of the hands of their children who could inflict damage on themselves or others. But in too many critical areas, parents in the U.S. get far less support than those in many other countries.
Admittedly some states like California have enacted strong gun regulation laws. But states vary tremendously on that score. Texas, the site of the Santa Fe High’s massacre last week, continues to resist gun regulation, getting an “F” on one well-known gun law scorecard. And Congress remains a model of inaction.
That could help explain why these massacres continue to happen. Since the Sandy Hook Elementary massacre in Newton, Conn., nearly six years ago, there have been another 200 school shootings. Yet elected representatives at a national level, as well as in many states, have shown no willingness to seriously take on the challenge of protecting our nation’s children from gun violence, despite the horror that each of these tragedies evokes.
What happened at Santa Fe High also showed the limits of the strategies put forward by the NRA, President Trump and others to “harden” schools that could be targets. The school had an active shooter plan, two armed police in its hallways and more.
Despite the long odds that any particular school will be the target, the risks of a mass shooting are high enough that over 90 percent of schools have lockdown drills. Former U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan went so far as to suggest this weekend that children should boycott their schools until they could be guaranteed their safety through meaningful gun laws.
Unfortunately, the failure of our nation’s leaders to protect children from unnecessary gun violence is just one indicator of the national neglect for the well-being of children generally — a neglect that begins at birth.
Infant mortality in the U.S. is the highest of all countries similar in wealth and size as measured by GDP and GDP per capita. The U.S. rate of 5.8 per 1000 live births compares to 3.9 in the United Kingdom,
to 3.6 in France, 3.12 in Germany, 2.2 in Sweden and 2.1 in Japan.
According to a report in Health Affairs, if the U.S. had kept pace with improvements in infant deaths in other Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries, over a 50 year period there would have been 300,000 fewer deaths in the United States.
New mothers are also at risk. The United States has by far the highest maternal mortality rate — 26.4 deaths for every 100,000 births in 2015 — of any industrialized country. In Canada the rate is 7.3; countries like Italy Norway, Sweden and Austria average around 4.
The U.S. also does very little to support families during a child’s earliest and most vulnerable stages of development. Most countries offer three months of paid leave for new mothers, and some extend similar benefits to fathers as well. By contrast, the United States is joined only by Lesotho, Swaziland and Papua New Guinea in countries that don’t offer it as national policy.
The United States trails behind many other industrialized countries in its per-pupil spending on child care and early childhood education. Once children enroll in school, they are taught in schools whose quality varies from district to district and from state to state. As the teacher strikes in a half dozen states has highlighted, those charged with the high calling of educating our children are paid far too little.
Then, during the teenage years, the United States is home to the highest suicide rate among industrialized countries.
Many opponents of gun regulation say that mental health problems are more to blame for school shootings, and that should be the target of our preventive efforts.
Yet schools haven’t been given the resources to take on tough mental health challenges. In the United States, there is an average of one counselor for 491 students in public schools. In some states, like Arizona, an average of one counselor serves over 900 students. In California, the ratio has improved in recent years — to an average of 760 students for every counselor in 2014-15 — but that is still clearly insufficient for the task at hand.
The American School Counselor Association recommends a ratio of 250 to 1. Less than 1 in 5 districts in the nation meet that ratio.
Even where there are counselors, they can only do so much to address mental health issues, given their multiple other duties such as signing up students for classes and providing career guidance and college counseling.
The proportion of students to school psychologists is even more dismal — one psychologist for every 792 students in California and 1381 students nationally And these psychologists mostly spend their time working with special education students drawing up individualized education plans, and are not available to provide intensive mental health support for the larger student population.
California has made more progress in taking care of its children than many other states. It has a mandatory paid family leave policy. It’s a leader in providing children with access to health care. It also has one of the strictest sets of gun laws in the nation.
But there is only so much California can do on its own, and in several areas it still has a long way to go, such as making it possible for all children to attend child care or preschool and to spend as much on its public schools per child as the majority of states do.
On National Public Radio on Sunday, Art Acevedo, the police chief in Houston spoke dismissively O about elected officials offering prayers and other sentiments of support, but end up doing “absolutely nothing.”
“If we can put a man on the moon and aircraft on Mars,” he said, “we can certainly address the gun violence which is a public health epidemic in this nation.”
That will require a much stronger commitment to children’s well-being, and placing it at the top of the nation’s list of priorities.