A mother falls to her knees and weeps. Another screams in agony. A father sits broken, staring in disbelief into a seemingly endless abyss.
These are not images commonly associated with a school environment. But Columbus Municipal School District Superintendent Cherie Labat has been in these rooms all too often, trying to comfort grieving parents who have lost their child to gun violence.
“There are no words to describe that,” Labat said Thursday, as tears welled up in her eyes. “I don’t know how a parent ever gets over losing their child, especially to gun violence.”
Along the spectrum of grief are teachers, traumatized students who have lost a friend or classmate, and the shooter who now faces legal consequences for a life-altering decision.
“You mourn the shooter and the child that’s been shot because there’s hopelessness in both,” Labat said. “… Kids are not born killers. They are not born shooters. What happened?”
More to the point, Labat wants to figure out ways to prevent violent crime in the community, particularly violence involving minors.
The school district is hosting a public forum focused on community safety at 5 p.m. Monday at Brandon Central Services. Labat has invited a panel of city, county and state officials to discuss effective community-based solutions to reduce violent crime, as well as answer questions from the audience.
“This is about partnering with the community to find sensible solutions,” Labat said. “We can’t always point the finger at the police because they’re trying to solve yesterday’s shooting. Our goal has to be to prevent tomorrow’s shooting by working with the community and with young people who are at risk of shooting or being shot.
“Our institution of education is not built to deal with what society is bringing in,” she added. “We just have to give young people hope and a reason to put the guns down.”
While guns and shootings at school have become more common nationwide, Labat said the incidents in Columbus are occurring in the streets. Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, those problems are getting worse.
“We do have students who are up for capital murder, aggravated assault,” she said. “These are not things we didn’t expect with the pandemic, but it still hasn’t been easy to deal with. Every time a child dies, especially at the hands of another child, it should be the most tragic thing in the community. … We have to figure out at some point what we are doing as a community and what’s failing these kids.”
As a school district, Labat said CMSD is diligently putting response measures in place — working with Community Counseling Services to develop a Critical Response Team, providing a strong social and emotional wellness response for teachers and students and forming a support group for parents whose children have been victims of gun violence. Playing defense, though, isn’t enough.
“Don’t ask what (the district is) doing,” Labat said. “I want to ask what we’re doing as a community. Are we talking to families? Are we talking to parents? Are we asking how we can help them keep their child off the street and get the guns out of their hands?
“This is not a school issue, but it’s a community issue,” she added. “We need every aspect of the community working toward the same goal.”
District Attorney Scott Colom, who will serve on Monday’s panel, agrees with Labat.
“The community loves to get together and talk about how bad crime is, but I think too often when these terrible things happen, we don’t do the self-reflection for how we got to this point. Healthy communities do this to prevent these things from happening.”
Gun possession, Colom said, has become more common, particularly with young people. He cited a recent trend of children posting photos of themselves with guns on social media, something that “should not be normal.”
“It’s unreal how many young people have guns,” Colom said. “When that happens, the decision-making and consequences for those decisions can be drastic. We have to have real conversations as a community about this issue.”
Normalized gun culture on a national level, and its local effect, is also a concern for Labat. She believes communities can and should be catalysts for stricter gun laws on the state and federal level.
“We’ve made practicing active shooter drills normalcy in a school environment and that’s all OK. But it’s not,” she said. “Only in America do we have a manmade disaster that’s entirely preventable. This doesn’t happen in other countries, as it relates to gun violence. The answers are simple. This isn’t finding a cure for cancer or putting a man on Mars. We just simply lack the courage to do what’s right.”
Zack Plair is the managing editor for The Dispatch.