What Conversations About School Shootings Sound Like In Europe

Photo: Courtesy of Karin Nijkamp.
Marieke Nijkamp is the #1 New York Times bestselling author of This Is Where it Ends, out in paperback today, and Before I Let Go. She is a storyteller, dreamer, globe-trotter, and geek. She holds degrees in philosophy, history, and medieval studies, has served as an executive member of We Need Diverse Books, and is the founder of DiversifYA. She lives in the Netherlands. Visit her at mariekenijkamp.com.
The first time I set foot inside an American high school, I stared at signs that said “No guns allowed” and “Gun free zone” for what felt like an eternity.
I went to high school in a post-Columbine era. I went to high school at a time when the first school shooting in my home country occurred. (In the years since, there’s been exactly one other school shooting in the Netherlands. Number of casualties: 1.)
Both events shocked us, of course, but neither affected my school life as far as I could tell. My high school was quite loose on matters of security. We had fire drills, sure. It was just that the fire alarms didn’t always work. The doors were always open. We regularly climbed out of the windows to do our math classes on the track field. People could come and go as they pleased.
In the schools I visit here, a lot has changed over the years, but not that. The signs on the doors — at the strictest — say things like: “No smoking on the premises” or: “Mobile phone free zone." There are no metal detectors.
When I talk to students at Dutch high schools, I have to explain what active shooter drills and lockdown drills are.
Photo: Courtesy of Karin Nijkamp.
When I talk to Dutch students about This is Where it Ends, we talk about how they’ve never had to worry about going to school and not coming home.
It’s a sobering discussion, but an empathic one.
School visits on the other side of the Atlantic are quite different. Which is to say, in many ways, they aren’t: every class has a few jokers. Every class has artists, whether they are comfortable admitting to it or not. Every class has its own triumphs and its own scars. Every class has a few students who hide the questions they really want to ask behind smiles and glances and quickly looking away. Some of them come up to me afterwards. Some of them don’t.
But when I talk to students at American high schools, I have to explain that Dutch students have never done, and likely will never do, an active shooter drill in their lives.
When I talk to American students — and teachers for that matter — every single one of them has thought about going to school and not coming home. And too many of them have personal connections to situations where that fear turned out to be only too real.
Some use This Is Where It Ends to talk about that fear. To talk about the pain. Or to talk about activism. Fiction, after all, helps to open up conversations that are too difficult to have when the context is too real. Art and fiction can be, and sometimes should be, ways to explore the world safely.

When I talk to students at Dutch high schools, I have to explain what active shooter drills and lockdown drills are.

Marieke Nijkamp
To me, as the author, it’s humbling. But I’m also well aware that it is far bigger than the book.
This Is Where It Ends was first published in January, 2016. In the three years since it came out, there have been 218 shootings and incidents of gun violence at schools (per the K-12 School Shooting Database, featuring data from the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School). In those three years, 324 students, teachers, and others were injured, and 97 of them were killed.
I kept up with active shooting situations as I was writing the book, because I felt I owed it to my readers not to flinch away. I still keep up with them as much as I can, for the exact same reason — and now because inevitably, I’ll hear from some of the students and I owe it to them to be aware.
Because it’s been well over three years since the book was first published. Almost one entire high school generation. So many readers have reached out to me. To tell me they loved the book (or — sometimes — hated it, which is entirely valid, too). To ask for information for school assignments. And once every few readers, to tell me about their own experiences with school violence and school shootings, about the people they’ve lost, about hurting and healing.
I listen to them, just like I listen to the stories I hear during school visits. In a very real sense, it’s my privilege. Listening is the very least I can do. It’s the most important thing I can do.
Because they’re empathic conversations — instead of sobering ones. They’re fierce. Stubborn. Unflinching. Hopeful.
Because every conversation also turns to this: what they’re doing to stop this from happening again. To advocacy, to speaking up, to shouting.
And in every school I visit, on either side of the Atlantic, I see the same determination. That schools should be safe. That one day, the doors can always stay open. That no one will have to worry about going to school and not coming home.
And that someday, stories like these will be history — or fiction and nothing more.

More from US News

R29 Original Series