May 25, 2022

Dear Students,

Once again, in response to another mass shooting – this time at Robb Elementary in Uvalde, Texas, where 19 children and 2 adults were killed, all in the same classroom – I want to connect with you in shared grief, anger, and frustration. Our hearts go out to the children, families, and their entire community – for those who lost their children and loved ones and for those who must now cope with severe sorrow and trauma.

Words are of such little comfort when coping with another tragedy of this magnitude. In the immediacy of the moment, it is our feelings that ground and connect us, mine amplified because I immediately thought of my grandchildren, one of whom attended their kindergarten graduation ceremony on Monday. Then I remembered where I was in 1999, when we learned about Columbine High School; and in 2012 after Sandy Hook Elementary; and in 2018 after Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School; and later that same year at Santa Fe High School.

The questions I posed in my messaging last week after the massacre in Buffalo still remain, but I also am asking myself why we continue to fail our children and communities in this way. Why are these killers all teenagers? Why are we unable to protect the most cherished and vulnerable members of our communities? How will this trauma continue to impact our children as they grow into adolescence and adulthood? What does the healing process even look like at this point in time for those grieving families and communities?

The way our nation has historically responded to these mass shootings is woefully deficient, evidenced by this tragic recurring ritual of targeted violence, the sending of “thoughts and prayers,” and no substantive action taken. After the Parkland, Florida, shooting, I was so thoroughly impressed by those students and how they responded – the way they organized and demonstrated true leadership in their efforts to actively address gun violence. They gave me hope. And I hope our nation’s leaders can tap into their leadership moving forward to promote meaningful change.

In many ways, we see that we are a divided country these days. However, I sincerely hope that we can all agree that reducing gun violence is something we should strive for in our communities. This goal is so fundamental, so basic at a humanistic level. While there are many ways to approach this, it will require us to lean into and embrace the complexity of this work – through empathic understanding, promoting self-actualization for all human beings, understanding and acknowledging the impact of violence and trauma on our individual and collective development, and overcoming our current political climate to prioritize the well-being and health of our communities over profits and self-interests.

Most of you have grown up with the reality of mass shootings in schools and communities. And we are seeing the longer-term impact in real time – increases in depression and anxiety, with such violence being just one of the existential threats defining our time. We can help each other by recognizing, destigmatizing, encouraging, and accessing mental health resources when and as needed. We can be mindful of the impact of simple, everyday kindness – making eye contact, saying hello, asking someone who is in distress if we can help, being a friend to someone who is struggling. The world is big, but our campus isn't. Each person here can feel seen, heard, and valued if we all pitch in. The need for fundamental human kindness, care, and support is where we are.

I encourage all members of our campus community to take the time you need to reflect, be with loved ones, and support one another.

Richard Yao, Ph.D.

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