Children of Color See More Violence at School—the St. Louis Shooting Is Part of That Trend

The family of the St. Louis shooter tried to warn police but like other mass shootings affecting our kids, this was "a perfect storm" of neglect.

Police outside of Central Visual and Performing Arts High School in St. Louis

Tim Vizer/AFP/Getty

For students across the country, their biggest priorities during school hours should be excelling in their classes and interacting with their peers. The unfortunate reality, however, is countless students worry if their school will be the next location of a mass shooting. And students of color are impacted by gunfire on school grounds at higher rates than white students.

On October 25, a Black 19-year-old gunman, Orlando Harris, killed a teacher and student at Central Visual and Performing Arts High School in St. Louis. Harris. A 2021 graduate of the school, he was taken into custody and later pronounced dead after he exchanged gunfire with law enforcement.

Harris’s story isn’t one of negligence, where family members knew about his mental health struggles or ownership of a gun and did nothing about it. St. Louis police commissioner Michael Sack has spoken with his family before, as they alerted him that they didn’t feel comfortable with Harris owning a gun. Sack ceased the weapon and Harris’s family had him seek care at a mental institution.

Despite these precautions, Harris still obtained an AR-15-style rifle and took two lives while injuring others, leaving a sobering note behind about how lonely and isolated he was not having any friends, family, or a girlfriend. “This was the perfect storm for a mass shooter,” his note read.

Although poor mental health can be a contributing factor to mass shootings, every nation has citizens that deal with those issues. Every nation doesn’t have the high rates of gun violence that the United States has. There have been more than 150 incidents of gunfire on school grounds since the beginning of this year according to the Everytown for Gun Safety tracker. That daunting number is in part due to lax gun laws in the country that allow individuals to obtain firearms rather easily. Still, it’s rare to discuss mass shootings without the conversation of mental health issues coming up.

Chase Cassine is a Black licensed clinical social worker and psychotherapist and has been in the mental health field for over eight years. He primarily works with Black Americans and other clients from marginalized communities who are dealing with trauma and psychiatric disorders like bipolar disorder, anxiety, and depression. In a profession that is majority white, Cassine and his qualifications can reach a particular demographic that might otherwise avoid seeking therapy.

“I didn't see anybody who looks like me,” Cassine said about entering the mental health profession. “Having empathy and compassion and care, those things are very important. But I also feel as a clinician, relatability is so important for a person who has experienced trauma.”

The New Orleans-based therapist emphasizes that everyone has dealt with some level of trauma in their life whether firsthand or vicariously. He particularly encourages Black clients to know that they don’t have to only seek spiritual guidance for mental health struggles, but they can partner their faith with therapy.

“A client shared with me their spiritual practices with believing in God and I said ‘I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me could be one of your affirmations,’ and from that time I was able to connect with that client,” Cassine said. “Black people historically have always been very spiritual people. In the same way, God created all kinds of medical doctors and other fields on this Earth to help people along their journey.”

Even with therapy becoming destigmatized in Black spaces, there is an entire system that puts Black people at a disadvantage to be victims of violence that must be addressed. That is why Cassine also believes in gun reform.

“If you look at it bigger picture, how are people getting so much access to firearms? Can we work on focusing on stricter gun laws as well as addressing mental health concerns in our society? All those other ‘-isms’ and inequalities, not just mental illness, impacts a person.”

Gun violence is trauma but so is racism, and Black Americans are exposed to both at disproportionate rates. Though the public is often told the myth of Black-on-Black crime, exposure to violence is a much more serious risk for Black communities. “They [Black Americans] experience 10 times the gun homicides, 18 times the gun assault injuries, and nearly 3 times the fatal police shootings of white Americans,” Everytown for Gun Safety said.

Economist Gary Stanley Becker created the economic theory of criminal behavior which states that people will commit a crime if the benefits outweigh the cost or consequences of committing the offense. This theory gives nuance to why adults living in poverty are three times more likely to be arrested than those not living in poverty. A large portion of these gun-related incidents takes place in historically poor neighborhoods which are a result of longstanding racist housing policies. 

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. often spoke of the three evils: racism, economic exploitation, and militarism and their interdependence with one another. He instead envisioned a society free of poverty, hunger, and homelessness which he referred to as the Beloved Community, where a balanced justice system and economy gave way to less violence, death and hatred.

Therapy is an important tool that is becoming more prevalent among Black individuals. But mental health services aren’t a substitute for justice and equitable living conditions. As Black Americans have been subjugated to gun violence for decades, it’s time we implement systems that prevent trauma not just reactive services that work to heal years of anguish.

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