It’s a story we’ve told too many times before.
The young man accused of taking the lives of 19 fourth graders and two teachers in Uvalde, Texas, was bullied as child.
Salvador Ramos was only 18 years old by the time he had stockpiled several rifles and thousands of bullets, according to a Congressional House Committee investigation. He’d already dropped out of school and isolated himself from the outside world.
But the bullying started long before, when Ramos was in fourth grade.
Family and friends told the committee Ramos was picked on over his stutter, and one bully tied his shoelaces together, making him fall on his face.
Investigators say on May 24, Ramos returned to that fourth grade classroom with his guns, his ammunition and a vengeance, like so many school shooters, the majority of whom were bullied as children.
Nationally certified and Florida-licensed school psychologist Mary Crownover said 70% is the national statistic of school shooters who were bullied as children.
Crownover worked for Central Florida’s largest school district - Orange County - for nearly two decades. She believes in order to stop telling the same story, we need to switch up the strategy in schools and teach the youngest children about bullying, instead of waiting until they are bullied or become bullies.
“It is my position and the position of school psychologists nationally, like there’s a national position statement from the National Association of School Psychologists, that all students K through 12, the moment they step into our educational doors, that they receive education to prevent bullying,” Crownover said.
So in Osceola County, Florida, one county over from Orange down the road from the happiest place on earth, the local sheriff, Marcos Lopez, is speaking straight to the smallest of students -- elementary schoolers.
Lopez said since the proof is there, since elementary school is where so many school shooters are first bullied, that’s where he’s bringing his bullying prevention message -- all 30 of his elementary schools starting this school year.
“You know, when I first took office, a lot of parents were concerned with bullying in schools, the increase in active shooters who a lot of times will say they were bullied and cyber-bullied,” Lopez said.
Lopez said the anti-bullying talk in middle and high schools comes too late. Roles are established. Both bullies and their victims have been formed.
In fact, data from the Osceola County School District shows most incidents of bullying, harassment and threats happened in their middle schools -- 217 last year.
Elementary schools were next, with 130 incidents. High schools had the fewest -- only 84 incidents last year.
“So maybe if we target them a little bit earlier and make sure they’re understanding at an earlier age before they get into that, understanding the relationship, the real reasoning behind what’s wrong and what’s right, I think it’ll help deter this once they get a little older,” Lopez said. “Once you get to seventh and eighth and ninth, these kids all know it all. We’re really treating it at the root and this is all I know right now, this is just an educated guess, but it’s a start.”
Does he really believe as the elementary schoolers grow older the anti-bullying education will prevent a mass shooting?
“We’ve seen all over the nation every active shooter apprehended alive is blaming it on he’s been bullied,” Lopes said. “I don’t know if it’s an excuse or just a copycat excuse, but as of right now, we don’t have anything other to go on. So I’m thinking if we can strengthen anti-bullying at a lower level and talking to these children when they’re smaller -- second, third and fourth grade -- you’ll see a lot less of it.”
Crownover said anti-bullying talk is necessary at a young age to keep children healthy.
“The bullying prevention program is really about building the child’s resistance to bullying and victimization and harassment to even occur, whether you’re the bully or the victim,” Crownover said. “So bully prevention education is really teaching the child to be a socially emotionally healthy human.”
Crownover said the earlier children learn about bullying - how to protect themselves and protect their peers - the better they’ll all be.
Will it do what the sheriff is intending, preventing kids from turning into hardened bullies as they grow up?
“Yes, and it’ll also prevent more victims for the bullies to choose,” Crownover said.
But one lunchroom lesson like this once a year isn’t enough, according to Crownover. It’s not enough time and it’s not enough involvement.
“You cannot educate a child and expect him to survive in an environment five days a week for seven hours a day that doesn’t support his beliefs,” Crownover said. “So if he believes that bullying is wrong and he is being taught that he is not supposed to stand by and watch someone be bullied, and that he’s supposed to be intervening, but the environment that he’s in is not supporting it, we have not made any change.”
Crownover wants to see anti-bullying talk worked into the weekly curriculum at elementary schools to involve teachers and parents.
“Then the teachers are teaching it, so they’re already in the process, and if there’s homework assigned, just like there’s math homework and reading homework, then the parents are going to be involved,” Crownover said. “And perhaps in that homework there’s a component that the parents have to be involved.”
“You know, parents should be involved,” Lopez said. “As a parent, you should ask your child how did your day go. Your child might be a victim of a bully. Ask them, ‘Hey, are you OK? What happened today?’ If they don’t want to talk about it, it’s a problem. Also, as a parent, you might have a child who’s a bully, and you need to start addressing that as a parent. We can’t catch them all. We can’t address them all unless they’re brought to our attention. But as a parent, you should really be talking to your child and making sure they understand bullying is bad.”
The Osceola County School District, however, is not getting involved. A district spokesperson said the district relies on the Sheriff’s Office to teach the bullying prevention message.
Even the sheriff admits that might not be enough.
“You know, there’s no perfect system to help prevent anything. All we can do is try and try new things and experiment,” Lopez said.
But is it enough to make a dent in the school violence epidemic?
“Yes,” Crownover said. “Because our students, and therefore our population of young people, will be emotionally healthier, more resilient, have better coping skills for when bad things do happen and they’ll be healthier. Less violent.”