If you want to know what it’s like to attend high school in America, the best place to start would probably be a macabre corner of TikTok, where teens post videos from inside barricaded classrooms while active-shooter sirens blare over PA systems.
Videos posted under hashtags like #schoolsh00ter, #activesh00ter, and #lockdown offer a glimpse into a world where the threat of violence, and sometimes violence itself, is almost regarded as normal. And the only way to make sense of that reality is through the language, humor, and tropes associated with Gen Z’s preferred social media platforms. Many of the videos feature dark songs about America’s gun problem as a social commentary on the mundanity of gun violence or satirize the dystopian safety measures adopted by schools.
The most recent example came less than a week ago, when students at Oxford High School in Michigan posted to TikTok and Snapchat as one of their classmates went on a shooting rampage, killing four and wounding seven.
One 50-second video shared to Snapchat and then widely reposted on TikTok transports viewers to a classroom where the teacher is talking to an individual on the other side of a barricaded door. The voice is suspected to be the shooter posing as a law enforcement officer, saying, “It’s safe to come out.” (They were later determined to be an officer.)
When the officer refers to the teacher as “bro,” the language confirms students’ fears that the shooter is trying to gain access to the classroom. “He said ‘bro,’” one student says on a video. “Red flag.”
The video is still recording as they frantically rush to climb out a window, dropping down into the snow-covered ground, and running into another school building across the way.
The original version wasn’t posted with music—but many other videos in the genre integrate a decade-old song by Foster the People called “Pumped Up Kicks.” The pop song’s upbeat tempo and synth sound stand in stark contrast to its dark lyrics, written from the perspective of a would-be school shooter, warning their peers to “outrun my gun.”
That song was the soundtrack to a video posted to TikTok by 18-year-old Cannon (who requested his last name be withheld) when his Utah high school was forced into lockdown in October due to shooting and bomb threats.
“Guys, we out here, school shooting,” Cannon says to the camera, laughing with his friends, just as “Pumped Up Kicks” starts up.
“It was the first [real] lockdown I’d ever been in,” Cannon told VICE News. “Growing up, ever since probably 7th grade, we’ve always practiced lockdowns in case there was a shooter: Turn off the lights, get in the corner. We knew what to do.”
Additionally, Cannon says that the clowning around and lighthearted tone he took in the videos are just part of a coping mechanism.
“It’s better to laugh in a hard situation than cry,” Cannon said. “If me and my friends hadn’t been laughing and making jokes, other students in that class might have been having anxiety or panic attacks. It lightened the mood and made everyone feel safer.”
The video has been viewed 2.7 million times, and many of the nearly 4,000 comments remark on his choice of song. (“NOT PUMPED UP KICKS IN THE BACKGROUND TOO LMAO.”)
“That song is about a school shooting,” Cannon said. “It felt appropriate to put that in the video to lighten the mood.”
That song, and a more recent track commenting on gun violence and racism, “This is America,” by Childish Gambino, function as the soundtrack to a generation who’ve been raised in a system that regularly reminds them there’s a non-zero chance they might get shot at school.
The Oxford High School shooting was the latest incident in the humdrum of gun violence at schools that’s continued, unabated, ever since students returned to schools after prolonged periods at home for COVID-related remote learning. It’s a grim sign that for the so-called school shooting generation—kids whose entire school experience has been bookended by horrible tragedies—that the country is back to business as usual.
But the incident was by no means the first this year. According to the Gun Violence Archive, 53 shootings, including last week’s massacre, have taken place on school property so far in 2021, leaving a total of 17 dead and 73 injured. That tally doesn’t include shots fired without injuries.
In October, a 25-year-old former student of the YES Prep Southwest secondary school near Houston brought a gun onto the premises and shot the principal.
One TikTok user documented the panic that ensued following the shooting. The videos show students evacuating from the cafeteria and hiding in dark classrooms, plus text exchanges with friends who were sheltering in other parts of the school. “I shouldn’t be scared to go to school,” the caption read, while “This is America” played over the images.
Many more incidents have occurred just this year where someone brought a gun to school or made a shooting threat online, actions that routinely force schools into lockdowns. Although most of those scares are resolved without incident or eventually determined to be hoaxes, they’re treated as real threats in the moment.
In September, for example, three students at Lake Central High School in Indiana were in the bathroom when they heard what sounded like someone loading a gun.
That prompted a massive police response and a huge lockdown. Officers methodically swept the entire building, floor by floor, room by room, and eventually determined there was no gun on the premises. In the meantime, students documented frightening scenes on TikTok showing heavily armed officers and SWAT teams searching the school and young kids holding their hands above their heads, lining up along the sides of hallways, and sheltering in locker rooms.
Many schools have implemented school security systems and drills from the ALICE Training Institute, the largest for-profit provider of active shooting training in the United States. ALICE, which is an acronym for “alert, lockdown, inform, counter, and evacuate,” has been criticized for its alarming, hyperrealistic mock shooting scenarios.
Last week, a student in Kansas documented the dystopian moment in a since-deleted TikTok when she was locked out of her classroom and forced to hide in the bathroom during an ALICE alert. “ALICE, ALICE, ALICE,” a female voice blares over the PA system. “An intruder is in the seventh-grade hall.”
In addition to documenting shooting-related drills or active threats in real time, students also use TikTok to lampoon the absurd security measures that schools implement in reaction to threats.
When a school district in Eastern Idaho banned students from having backpacks at school after a 13-year-old girl was arrested for bringing a gun to Rigby Middle School in late September, students in the district shared videos to TikTok of their creative workarounds to the backpack ban: They’re seen carting their school supplies in dog cages, toy strollers, and wheelie trash cans, even pulling their belongings down hallways on boogie boards.
In Cannon’s video from the lockdown at Utah’s Payson High School, his teacher is heard reading an email from her colleague that recommends they “hunker down, build forts, and attack anybody who enters with our staplers.”
Cannon said that he and his friend were discussing setting up table barricades at the door or throwing heavy books at possible intruders. And ultimately, he said, many guys his age have secretly fantasized about how they’d fight off a school shooter given the chance.
Asked whether he thinks it’s fair that he’s had to even consider these scenarios, Cannon said, “That’s just the risk that comes with doing high school in the United States.” (He added that he’s a supporter of the Second Amendment but would like stricter measures to ensure guns don’t get into the wrong hands.)
But while some might have accepted regular lockdowns, drills, active shooter alerts, and gun violence as normal, others feel like they’re in a never-ending nightmare.
One teenage TikToker, who survived the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012 (which left 20 young children dead), posted a video this week that incorporated audio from the penultimate episode of the animated tragicomedy series Bojack Horseman.
In the scene she’s referencing, the title character finds himself in limbo. “See you on the other side,” Bojack tells one of the other characters. “Oh, Bojack, no, there is no other side. This is it.” As the TikToker lip-synchs the dialogue, text flashes above her.
“Me after going through the Sandy Hook school shooting in Kindergarten wondering if everything will be okay again.” And then. “Everyone telling me it’ll be okay and things will be back to normal in no time.” And finally, as she’s in tears, “Me now a freshman in high school and it hasn’t gotten better.”
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