Collateral Damage

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Two days before the Newtown massacre, there was another shooting near an elementary school in East Oakland. No one was shot, but many students were witnesses. Parents pushed their children to the pavement to avoid rogue bullets. A mother stood in the street, speechless and motionless, staring at small bodies on the ground, thinking they had been gunned down. Not until her young son hugged her did she scream in horror. Children arrived to school in tears.

Unfortunately, this is routine for Oakland youth. Children as young as five come to school sharing stories like war veterans. A few weeks earlier, a young woman was killed a few doors from the same school. A student described seeing her lifeless foot outside his front door. His mother screamed at him to retreat into the apartment, to shield him from seeing a murdered body at a tender age.

Working in a low-income neighborhood of East Oakland the past four years, I am familiar with this trauma. It's not the classic PTSD a of single event. Multiple traumatic events are piled on top of one another.  They experience the fear, helplessness and horror of believing that their life, or the life of a loved one, is about to end, repeatedly. Our children live with domestic and gang violence, fearing for their safety in their homes and on their streets. If they manage a sense of normalcy again another event threatens it. Their central nervous systems struggle to reconcile being on high alert with trying to function in a classroom. Many are mis-diagnosed with ADHD and medicated. They are often called "disruptive" or "defiant", then suspended.

Newtown has called our national attention to how we are failing as a nation to keep our children safe. President Obama described providing that safety as "...our first task." I hope Newtown can push the needs of all our children to the forefront of our national agenda. That as we talk about gun control, we can also talk about ending poverty. That while we stand up in the name of those lost in Newtown, we can also raise our voices for the lost innocence of Oakland kids.

With a Perspective, I'm Elizabeth Schiffrin.


Elizabeth Schiffrin is a social worker in Oakland. She lives in San Francisco.