I have no magical words to say; no clever phrases to string together; no step-ahead-of-the-rest wisdom.

I feel like a failure.

As a journalist, as a citizen, as a resident of Mattoon, as a human being -- I want to say something that helps our community heal in the wake of the Sept. 20 shooting at Mattoon High School.

I reach down inside my mind, and all I find are inadequate words.

We only know the basics.

A male freshman student took a semiautomatic handgun to school that day, and a teacher interrupted and subdued him as he began to shoot in the MHS cafeteria. Students fled. A police officer based at the school disarmed him.

One male student was shot; he was in stable condition as per the latest official report. One other youth apparently had a wound on his knuckles received because of the incident. Young people and adults ended up outside in safe areas -- the corn field, the parking lot -- as law enforcement officers from practically every department in the area arrived to help.

Police aided those at the school and then cleared the building room by room.

The alleged shooter's motivation was somehow related to bullying. He is 14, and the first step in the court case against him is a round of mental evaluations.

You know more, do you? Well, you may think you do. And you may be right.

Journalists -- and real newspapers -- don't print hearsay. We don't typically reveal the names of juveniles. We're barred from doing so under certain circumstances.

The JG-TC hasn't revealed the names of the alleged shooter's parents or family, the victim or his family.

Plenty of things are going around on social media, but we report facts, from verified sources. That's our job.

We've reported the teacher's name, and yes -- she's a heroine. But I'm going to be so bold as to try to read her mind and surmise that she wouldn't want attention focused on her right now.

What we'll need to be focusing on is where we go from here.

Building that path to healing and a better future for our community began immediately after the shooting suspect was in custody. Students were bused, walked or otherwise transported to Riddle Elementary School. They, school staffers and parents comforted each other.

Mattoon residents consoled each other. Tears were shed by those who didn't even know someone at school that day. Support was everywhere.

Other schools in the area began to wear green. #Mattoonstrong and other mantras sprang up. Taylorville High School students and staff became practically famous for performing Mattoon's school song via video as a show of support. Charleston sent counselors and food to Mattoon schools, and some of the Trojans sports teams wore Mattoon colors after the incident.

Out of something bad have come many good things.

We're drawing on each other and our sense of community to be strong. We're supporting the most vulnerable among us -- students and staffers closest to the tragedy who are dealing directly with the aftershocks.

Comfort dogs were brought to the high school to ease students' anxiety. A movement to sell #Mattoonstrong T-shirts is underway, with proceeds going toward security at our schools.

I feel that we're strong.

But we have to stay strong, and stay unified.

In coming days, weeks and months, the questions will be raised more loudly. They will divide us.

Who bullied this young man accused in the shooting? What led him to the extreme of taking a gun to school? How did he get the gun? Do our schools need more security to prevent this kind of incident?

Make no mistake: Mattoon is one of the luckier schools among the devastating statistics regarding school shootings. No one was killed. The injured student apparently will be just fine physically.

But that doesn't necessarily mean that this pain will fade any faster.

Tough questions will have to be answered. Did the school system as a whole somehow fail the shooting suspect? Did bullying continue so long and so intensely that it drove him to extreme action? Is this who we have failed to weed out of our community -- some relentless bullies?

There is no doubt that there is only one person to blame for this incident, and that is the person who pulled out a gun in school and started to shoot.

But is painting with a wide brush of blame all we'll do in response? Will we vilify one person and then just go on?

If we do that, we're wrong.

If we have any hope to prevent any other school shooting in our community, we have to understand how this happened. That includes an honest effort not to damn this child -- and, at 14, he is a child -- but to try to understand.

Bullies may, as well, share blame. So may adults who could have done more to make sure this didn't happen.

But blame gets us nowhere. Blame is a waste.

Understanding is what we need. We need to know why bullies are the way they are. We need to know how we prevent young people -- and adults -- from bullying others. We need to teach young people what to do when they experience or witness bullying.

It will take all our strength to have the debates, and ask the tough questions, and be open to what may be incredibly tough answers.

But not now. Not in this moment.

We humans instinctively want to be quick to solve a problem -- debate, offer solutions, make the wound heal in the time we prefer.

We can't do that.

We have to be #Mattoonstrong enough to know that comforting each other comes first, not bickering debates. We have to stay #Mattoonstrong enough to not hatefully spread blame in thick doses. We need to be #Mattoonstrong enough to be patient, ask fair questions, accept tough answers and take action for the good of all.

We adults have to set good examples for our children. We have to cooperate and look at all the angles and make hard decisions if necessary.

Right now, we have to stick together in comfort, but, in the future, we also have to stick together in constructively discussing the problems that led to this sad incident, and work hand-in-hand to come up with solutions to benefit all.

Hold on to #Mattoonstrong, folks. We may have many questions, but we also already have an answer: our strength together.

Penny Weaver is the associate publisher and editor of the JG-TC. Her columns include her own opinions and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinion or editorial position of the JG-TC. Contact her at pweaver@jg-tc.com or 217-238-6863, and follow her on Twitter @PennyWeaver.


Load comments