I’m walking out of the gym, laughing about what my coach said about my deadlift. I step out into the sun and reach into my gym bag to pull out my phone. I flip up the screen, turn off the do not disturb button, and instantly my phone is bombarded with texts, all from my kids and my husband. The first one that comes through is:


If I don’t make it I love you and I appreciated everything you did for me.”


It’s my high school senior. The one who just signed a commitment to UC Denver and put a deposit down on her first apartment. There’s an active shooter at her high school.

As you might have guessed by now, this didn’t happen to me. But it happened to hundreds of parents in Parkland, Florida this week. I made myself imagine it. I made myself imagine my kid in that school, because if it happened in Parkland, in Sandy Hook, at Virginia Tech, it could happen in Fort Collins. Hell, it happened right down the road in Columbine, Colorado.


But I also did another imagination exercise. I imagined the life of Nikolas Cruz leading up to February 14, 2018. We don’t know a lot, but the details emerging are disturbing: history of threats and violent behavior, death of both parents (adoptive, which means he had biological parents no longer in the picture), teasing and torturing animals, expelled from middle school, etc, etc, etc.


Nikolas Cruz is 19, the same age as my daughter (who I’m not sure has ever stepped on a spider, and wouldn’t know where to begin to look for a gun to purchase).


I’m going to take a leap here because I work with kids who are on their way to becoming Nikolas Cruz’s. I’m going to guess that Nikolas Cruz has an extremely high ACEs score. ACE stands for Adverse Childhood Experience. Examples are poverty, neglect, abandonment, and abuse. The more we learn about childhood trauma, the more we find that an ACE, or in many cases, multiple ACEs, are predictors for all sorts of bad outcomes: health problems, chronic anxiety, and antisocial behavior, to name a few.


In her TED Talk, “How Childhood Trauma Affects Health Across a Lifetime,” Dr. Nadine Burke Harris details how trauma can actually change a child’s biology, making them more susceptible to everything from asthma to heart disease, to cancer. This should be enough to wake us up.


But even more insidiously, a high ACEs score can lead to violent behavior, especially in boys. In the California Health Report article, “Pipeline to Prison May Start with Childhood Trauma,” Leah Bartos notes:

According to figures from the National Institute of Justice, abuse or neglect in childhood raised the chances of juvenile arrest by 59 percent. The likelihood of criminal behavior in adulthood increased by 28 percent and violent crime by 30 percent, according to another study cited by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.”1


My point is, kids are falling through the cracks.

From what we currently know, there were a lot of people concerned about Nikolas Cruz for a long time, but the concerns weren’t put together or acted upon. It seems to me the buck got passed from adult to adult, no one wanting to take responsibility and do something about it. And believe me, when you’re faced with a raging, antisocial teenager, the last thing you want to do is place yourself directly in the line of fire. It’s frightening to see.


But I’m also here to tell say – there’s hope.

The California Health Report affirms this. Dr. Burke, the pediatrician mentioned earlier, has begun screening every child that comes through her office for ACEs. She then puts a network in place around kids who are at risk and follows through.

Again, from the CHR: “Many of the kids who end up in the juvenile justice system, the vast majority of them have been exposed to high doses of adversity,” said Nadine Burke Harris, CEO of the Center for Youth Wellness and a pediatrician. Screening is the key to prevention, not just for illness but for jail time, too. “We’re looking at it from a health standpoint, but we know for a fact that if we’re screening for ACEs and doing effective intervention, it’s going to impact justice outcomes.”2


I’m lucky to be involved with one of those service providers that intervene in cases like this. At Hearts and Horses, we have a program called “Changing Leads” where we speak life and truth into at risk teens. We don’t care that you threw the principal’s laptop through a window last week, or beat up a girl on the bus. We’re interested in what you can be right now for your horse. Who do you want to be when you’re your best self? I can help you with that. Watch:

And there are so many other types of intervention programs out there that can identify kids who are emerging at risk, and step in at a critical and vulnerable time in their life.


So what needs to be done?

  1. Screening – we need to catch these kids early and often
  2. Support Network – there must be resources and a system in place that follows through
  3. Mentorship – Yes, I’m looking at you. Can you volunteer? Studies show that one person who shows up for a child, when they’re used to being let down, can change the trajectory of that child’s life.
  4. Money – Our social welfare system is overburdened and overworked. Social workers often have more cases than they can possibly look into, and burnout and turnover are high.

It’s not difficult, but it’s complex. There are so many cogs in the wheel, and the problem seems so out of hand, that it’s easy to turn our attention to something else and let someone else deal with it.

But these sorts of murders at high schools – OUR high schools with OUR children, will continue happening until we address why young men are shooting their peers in mass. They won’t stop until we each do what we can, making healthy children, mentally and physically, a priority.


Maybe that means volunteering with me as a mentor at Hearts and Horses. Maybe being a Big Brother or Big Sister or coaching basketball once a week at the city rec center. Or maybe you can donate $10 a month to an organization that is doing the work.


I’m reading a book right now called Barking to the Choir: The Power of Radical Kinship. The author is a Jesuit priest, Gregory Boyle, who lives and serves in downtown Los Angeles. He has single handedly pulled hundreds of gang members out of the streets and shown them another way through his organization, Homeboy Industries. (If you want a read that will light a fire under you and give you hope, I highly recommend it.)


He tells the story of a young man in the program. He writes, “A homie once told me, as he was finishing our training program, ‘I feel like I fell in ‘like’ with myself here.’ At Homeboy, I suppose the “task” is attachment repair, but it’s really about looking into each other’s eyes and pulling each other across the expanse of a desk and seeing what God sees. This generosity with each other is gratuitous and abundant and who God is.”


I don’t know Nikolas Cruz, but I wonder how his life could have been different had someone like Gregory Boyle dropped in when he was 10 or 14, or even 18.


I can’t stop the next mass shooting. But, I can be a Father Boyle to a child in my community, pulling them into my eyes and showing them that the world has love and generosity and kindness, even for them.


1 Nadine Burke Harris “How Does Trauma Affect a Child’s DNA”

2 CHR – The Pipeline to Prison May Start with Childhood Trauma

3 Barking to The Choir – The Power of Radical Kinship by Gregory Boyle