“Did you hear there was another school shooting today?” I hadn’t. It was a domestic violence shooting at North Park Elementary in San Bernardino, California, where the victim worked. The cold-blooded killer also shot the children who were near his target. [Note: this post was written on Monday, April 10, the day of the shooting.]
School shootings and domestic violence shootings are two separate, complex problems—even when they become intertwined, as they have today. Crucial in the development of this tragedy is that the victim, Karen Elaine Smith, had recently left her abuser—the most dangerous time and circumstance for a battered woman. In our righteous grief and anger because this shooting took place at a school and included child victims, we must not forget the women like Ms. Smith who need us to address this story as a domestic violence issue.
When I read the news and found out the shooting was a domestic violence murder with multiple victims where the victim worked, I thought It could have been anywhere. Ms. Smith was not the first woman murdered at work by her abuser, and this is not the first time other people who were present lost their lives as well. Women are murdered at work because abusers know that’s where to find them. Between 2003 and 2008, 142 women were murdered in their workplaces by former or current intimate partners, according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV).
How horrible that Ms. Smith’s place of work was a school, that her estranged husband didn’t care if he shot children when he shot her, that a child, Jonathan Martinez, was killed. How horrible that other children at that school were hurt by what they witnessed, that they were all hurt by the fact of the shooting, and by the loss of their schoolmate and a teacher.
I am heartbroken and angry that school children could be further harmed psychologically by the primary identification of this tragedy as a “school shooting” when they have enough worry already.
I am heartbroken and angry that “school shooting” is a familiar term in our culture. I am heartbroken and angry that school shootings happen.
I am heartbroken and angry that domestic violence shootings happen.
I’m concerned and angry that domestic violence shootings aren’t all primarily identified as “domestic violence shootings.” And I’m concerned and angry that this domestic violence shooting is called a school shooting on TV and in news headlines. Perhaps it’s because school shootings are one of the most monumental and visible issues we face, while domestic violence has become a tired topic, despite the number of women killed by intimate partners each year– 1,640 in 2007 alone.
This tragedy is horrific, and the repercussions of the killings at the school touch our entire country. But the dynamics underlying this tragedy are different from those underlying the tragedies plaguing our country that we term “school shootings.” School shootings and domestic violence shootings are separate, complex problems even when the two meld into one, as they have today. They still create separate, complex waves of terror and grief. They still beg some different questions about why they happened and how to keep them from happening again.
No matter how we identify this shooting, it once again sounds the alarm alerting our country to the need for stricter gun control; the murderer had a criminal record, including criminal weapons charges, according San Bernardino Police Chief Jarrod Burguan. If we had stricter gun laws, maybe he wouldn’t have had that .357 revolver.
Because I know the futility of trying to address domestic violence in its entirety, I want to focus on one aspect of the domestic violence shooting today. I would like to focus on women like Ms. Smith, women who will soon leave an abusive man or have recently left one. These women are in danger, and they need to know what they can do to protect themselves.
If you were an abused woman who needed to leave your abuser or had just left him, imagine how you would process the news that an abuser shot his innocent wife at work and didn’t care if he killed children along with her. That’s what happened. That’s the particular kind of fear and terror abused women have to deal with.
Domestic violence attacks are not predictable, but there are many precautions an abused woman can take to protect herself. The precautions are outlined in a safety plan, which is tailored to fit the circumstances of the individual. A woman may not be able to do everything suggested, but then again she may not need to.
Would it have helped if Ms. Smith had changed jobs? Her mother stated to reporters that her daughter was afraid of her estranged husband, but maybe Ms. Smith didn’t think he posed a lethal threat to her. Even if she did, changing jobs isn’t easy for everyone. I have had clients who changed jobs to prevent their abusers, whom they’d recently left, from harassing them at work. I have had clients who changed jobs and went to the domestic violence shelter because they were afraid their abusers would kill them. One client wouldn’t go to the shelter or change jobs no matter how many times I told her I was afraid her husband would kill her. Thankfully, he eventually accepted the end of their relationship and let her go. There is no predicting.
A safety plan covers more than finding a way to keep an abuser from knowing where his victim is after she leaves. While the woman is at home, what should she do if her abuser attacks her? It’s recommended that she not lock herself in a bathroom or hide in a closet, because she will be stuck there. Before she leaves, she can buy a pay-as-you-go cell phone and hide it so that if he takes her phone, she can leave without out it. She can also stash an old cell phone and keep it charged, because those phones will work to dial 911. What should she take with her when she goes? What should she have handy if she’s not ready to leave yet, but thinks she may have to leave in a hurry? What things will she absolutely need for herself and for her children? What should she do about money, bank accounts, Social Security cards, car titles, family photos? What if he takes her car keys to keep her from leaving? That’s right; she should stash an extra set of car keys just in case.
Being asked what you would take from your house if it was on fire while you have the calm and time to think about it is different from having to decide what to take when your house actually is on fire and you have to get out of there now–and you have to suddenly figure out how you’re going to get out. In making a safety plan, a woman can decide these things when she is calm and thinking clearly. There are so many suggestions for safety plans that I can’t list them all here. To see them, click on this link to the safety plan page, which is for all victims of abuse–those who are still with their abusers, those who are planning to leave, and those who have recently left.
If you’re nervous about making a safety plan or you think you may need help, ask a trusted family member or friend to help. You can also create a safety plan with the help of a domestic violence advocate by calling the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233, TTY: 1-800-787-3224.
Finally, if you are leaving your abuser, don’t let this tragedy stop you. Don’t let it make you afraid. Let it make you aware of options you have for keeping yourself safe. If you think you should leave, DO IT. If you need a place to go, click here to find your local domestic violence shelter. If you’re afraid you’ll be seen by your abuser in public even if you go to a shelter, consider going to one that isn’t near you so you have no chance of that. You can start a new life. You can.
I am writing as though all victims are female and all abusers are male, which is not true. I’m writing it this way for the sake of clarity with pronouns (if I kept switching from “she” to “he,” etc., it could get confusing). Most domestic abuse/domestic violence is the abuse of women, perpetrated by men. However, anyone, regardless of how they self-identify, can be a victim of domestic violence. Read here about LGBTQ Relationship Violence. Read here about how men can be victims of domestic violence.
How to Get Help if You Are a Victim of Abuse
IF YOU ARE IN IMMEDIATE DANGER, CALL 911.
It is recommended that you protect yourself by clearing your browser history so your abuser does not learn that you are becoming educated about domestic violence because woman is most in danger when she is leaving her abuser or when he is afraid she will leave him. If your abuser is computer savvy, he still could find out which websites you’ve visited. If you think he might be savvy enough to find out, use a public computer at your local library or get help right away.
You can call the National Domestic Violence Hotline anonymously 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) and speak with a victims’ advocate. As with computers, use someone else’s phone to ensure your safety. You can also chat with a victims advocate through their website.
Other Places You Can Get Immediate Help:
Your state coalition against domestic violence, which you can find here. State Coalition Search
Or your local domestic violence shelter, which you can find here. Domestic Shelter Search
The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence is an excellent resource for: