2 Category 2: ENGL 1020

Melissa Whitmer; Stephen Searcy; Moses Jefferies IV; and Jameson Brown

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Saving the Vets That Save Our Pets: Solving the Urgent Need of Suicide Awareness and Resources for Veterinarians

Awarded to Melissa Whitmer for work submitted in Fall 2021 to Amy Fant in ENGL 1020: Research and Argumentative Writing

Veterinarians are always there for us when our pets are in need, but are we there for them? You probably weren’t aware that veterinarians have one of the highest suicide rates of any other profession or occupational group worldwide. In fact, according to an article published by the American Veterinary Medical Association or AVMA, “nearly one in 10 U.S. veterinarians might experience serious psychological distress, and more than one in six might have contemplated suicide since graduation” (“Study: 1 in 6”). But the next question is why? According to Marta Brscic et al., there are several factors that are thought to be the cause for this high statistic, including easy access to lethal euthanasia drugs, heavy workload, and a poor work-life balance, along with sometimes difficult interactions with clients. Due to this, there needs to be more suicide-awareness and resources made available to both vet school students and currently practicing veterinarians.

The high suicide statistic within the veterinary profession is not a new issue, though it is a growing one. Malinda Larkin of the AVMA presents a study showing that male veterinarians who died between 1947 and 1977 had a proportionate mortality rate by suicide that was 1.7 times that of the general U.S. population. Additionally, Larkin expands on this idea by revealing that a larger study of 11,620 veterinarians of both genders conducted over a 36-year period from 1979 to 2014 indicated that “male veterinarians were 2.1 times as likely and female veterinarians were 3.5 times as likely to die from suicide as were members of the U.S. general population.” What is even more concerning is the higher number of female veterinarians dying by suicide paired with the fact that there is a much higher proportion of female vets practicing compared to males (“Study: 1 in 6”). Consequently, it is predicted that much more than 80% of students enrolling in veterinary schools will be female in the years to come, indicating that there will be a higher proportion of veterinarians experiencing risk factors (“Study: 1 in 6”).

With the recognition of the high suicide statistic within the veterinary profession needs to come a recognition that euthanasia drugs must be stored safely. What this means is that all clinic staff including veterinarians should have restricted access to controlled substances such as euthanasia solution during all lengths of time that they are not being actively administered or prescribed to a patient. This is because it has been revealed in preliminary studies on veterinary suicide rates that easy access to lethal euthanasia drugs were found to be a cause of more veterinary suicides (Brscic et al.). In fact, Brscic et al. argues that the most common mechanism of death among veterinarians is poisoning by euthanasia drugs meant for animals. What is even more concerning is that in a recent study by doctor Randall Nett et al., in 13 out of 18 veterinarian deaths attributed to pentobarbital, the active ingredient in euthanasia solutions, they found that “the death-related injury occurred at home.” This evidence provides proof that the failure to safely store euthanasia solutions is allowing the veterinarian suicide statistic to continue to rise, though the main concern here is that there is enough negligence allowed that the vets are able to take the euthanasia solutions home. The solution to this problem is to make sure that controlled substances are locked up during periods of time that they are not being used for patients. A way to ensure that this process is followed through with is to allow a trusted employee such as a hospital manager to be in charge of the safe keeping of controlled substances. Additionally, this person should go through extensive training to ensure the continued safe keeping of the controlled drugs.

Each year, veterinarians are required to complete a certain number of C.E., or continuing education credits that focus on medical topics that keep vets up to date with new technologies and practices within the veterinary profession. Along with these required credits needs to come a requirement for all veterinarians to participate in suicide prevention and awareness training. Additionally, other veterinary employees such as technicians, assistants, receptionists, and hospital managers should also complete suicide prevention and awareness training in order to be educated on how to assess negative mental health warning signs in their coworkers. According to the AVMA’s website, a suicide prevention training C.E. credit is already available, and is free of cost to all veterinary practice employees; however, this training has not been made mandatory for veterinarians or other veterinary employees across the profession (“QPR Suicide”). I know this personally, since my current and previous job in a veterinary setting has not required suicide prevention and awareness training of their employees. The only way to ensure the effectiveness of this suicide prevention training by the AVMA is to make it mandatory across the profession.

Currently practicing veterinarians are not the only ones in need of suicide awareness programs and resources. Perhaps the best way to ensure that the high veterinary suicide statistics are decreased is to provide education and resources for suicide prevention to vet school students. Doing this will ensure that vet school students are educated early on about the mental health risks associated with the veterinary profession so they can identify the signs of suicidal thoughts and depression and know when to seek help. Additionally, educating vet school students on suicide prevention and mental health may even help them navigate anxiety and depression associated with the demanding expectations of vet school. In fact, a recent study by Drake et al. reveals that anxiety and depression are “particularly high for students in their second and third years of veterinary school” (Brscic et al.). Furthermore, it was found that “perceived physical health, unclear expectations, difficulty fitting in, heavy workload, and homesickness” were reported as the most relevant causes of the prevalence of anxiety and depression symptoms in veterinary students (Brscic et al.). Educating vet students early on how to manage their depression and anxiety symptoms is key to preparing them for stressful situations they will likely experience in the veterinary profession.

There is, indeed, some work already being done to control the rise of veterinary suicides. One organization that exists for this purpose is Not One More Vet or NOMV. According to their website, Not One More Vet is a nonprofit organization that was created in 2014 by Dr. Nicole McArthur following the loss of a world-renowned vet named Dr. Sophia Yin, to suicide (“Story”). What started as a Facebook group formed as a space for fellow veterinarians to discuss all aspects of veterinary medicine both good and bad, quickly grew to include over 26,000 veterinary professionals today (“Story”). Though this organization has, no doubt, greatly increased the awareness of veterinary suicides and depression, it is just the start. There is still much more work to be done in order to significantly reduce the number of vets lost by their own hand across the entire profession.

In order to significantly reduce the number of veterinary suicides worldwide, there needs to be more suicide-awareness and resources made available to both vet school students and currently practicing veterinarians. Additionally, it is vital that the safe keeping of controlled drugs such as euthanasia solution be acknowledged and followed through with. Along with taking these measures, there is more that the general population of pet owners can do to help contribute their aid to benefiting individual veterinarian’s well-being. When you go to the vet with your pet, consider that your vet may likely be overworked, and be patient with them. Take assurance that your vet is doing what is in the best interest for you and your pet. With these simple measures, you may have significantly benefitted your vet’s mental state, allowing them to more easily progress with their workday. If more pet owners are educated on the issues surrounding the high suicide statistic associated with the veterinary profession, this may allow for pet parents to be much more considerate when it comes to the demeanor they use when speaking to their vet. Lastly, continued research needs to be done to evaluate the ongoing statistics associated with veterinary suicides and to determine what is or is not helping to lower the statistic.

Works Cited

Brscic, Marta, et al. “Challenging Suicide, Burnout, and Depression among Veterinary Practitioners and Students: Text Mining and Topics Modelling Analysis of the Scientific Literature,” BMC Veterinary Research, vol. 17, no. 1, 6 Sept. 2021, p. 2. Academic Search Ultimate, doi:10.1186/s12917-021-03000-x.

Drake, Adryanna A. Siqueira, et al. “Predictors of Anxiety and Depression in Veterinary Medicine Students: A Four-Year Cohort Examination.” Journal of Veterinary Medical Education, vol. 39, no. 4, 1 Jan. 2012, pp. 322–330., doi:10.3138/jvme.0112-006r.

Larkin, Malinda. “Suicide Trend in the Profession Stretches Back Decades.” JAVMA News, American Veterinary Medical Association, 30 May 2018, www.avma.org/javma-news/2018-06-15/suicide-trend-profession-stretches-back-decades.

Nett, Randall J., et al. “Storage of Euthanasia Solution as a Factor in Addressing Veterinarian Suicides.” Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, vol. 256, no. 12, 15 June 2020, pp. 1321–1322. Academic Search Ultimate, doi:10.2460/javma.256.12.1321.

“QPR Suicide Prevention Training.” American Veterinary Medical Association, 2021, www.avma.org/resources-tools/wellbeing/qpr-suicide-prevention-training.

“Story.” Not One More Vet, 2021, nomv.org/about/story/.

“Study: 1 in 6 Veterinarians Have Considered Suicide.” JAVMA News, American Veterinary Medical Association, 18 Mar. 2015, www.avma.org/javma-news/2015-04-01/study-1-6-veterinarians-have-considered-suicide.

 

For-the-Job Training: A Closer Look at Vocational Education

Awarded to Stephen Searcy for work submitted in Fall 2021 to Amy Fant in ENGL 1020: Research and Argumentative Writing

Congratulations: you just graduated high school! Now what? Maybe you should go on to a university to get a bachelor’s degree. After all, your parents say getting a four-year degree is the only way to obtain a high-paying job, and you know they want the best for you. Maybe the idea of four more years of school sounds like a bad fit for you, though. What are your other options? Well, your grandfather never went to college, and he did alright for himself. After a couple decades in the machine shop, he finally worked his way up to a manager’s role and worked there happily until he retired. You watch the news, though. You know today’s job market is competitive and that employers are always looking for potential employees that have a leg up on their peers, so jumping right into the workforce seems like a bad idea, too. So, where can you find a happy medium? Vocational education may be just what you need: a sub-baccalaureate degree or certificate earned in preparation for an occupation. Community colleges and technical schools offer a path for students who want to pursue post-secondary education but feel that a four-year college or university is not for them. This option is not without its detractors, though. The reputation of vocational education has been diminished through the years due to unjust practices and a perception that it leads to low-paying jobs. Today, however, vocational education may be a more valuable resource than ever, and it should be considered as a post-secondary option for more students.

For opponents of vocational education, the system has long carried a certain stigma. Rather than being viewed as a tool for empowerment, it has been considered just another apparatus to divide the “haves” and the “have-nots.” For many years such programs were considered nothing more than a system where “kids from poor families were tracked off into becoming the worker bees” (Hanford). For much of the twentieth century that was true, and according to author and educational theorist Jeannie Oakes, “an underlying function of vocational education has been to segregate poor and minority students into occupational training programs in order to preserve the academic curriculum for middle- and upper-class students” (153). In other words, the system was created for the malevolent purpose of furthering social stratification. This stratification is glaringly highlighted by the economic gap today in America. According to a USA Today article written by Christopher S. Rugaber, the gap between Americans with and without degrees began growing faster after the Great Recession of 2007, and as it grows, income isn’t the only economic indicator that shows the disparity. Marriage, home ownership, retirement, and geographic mobility are all factors that are affected by post-secondary education. Opponents of vocational education see the system as a contributing factor to this stratification, not a stalwart against it.

Claims of segregation and inequity are always concerning, but even more so when they are regarding programs that are, in theory, supposed to be promoting a reduction in such social issues. Vocational education ceases to serve as a benefit if students are being ushered towards it for the wrong reasons. Unfortunately, there is a history of such ushering taking place. The idea that students are grouped together based on ability, and socioeconomic factors in some cases, is known as tracking. According to an article from Education Week, the practice of tracking began with the development of separate curricula for students deemed to be headed for higher education and those deemed to be headed for the workforce (“Tracking”). The secondary education system should be geared towards guiding students in making a decision about their future, not making a decision for them and then guiding them to that path. If teachers and school counselors are deciding whether or not a student is worthy of or qualified for the university path, then vocational education becomes nothing than a trap to provide a supply of “worker bees” deemed unqualified for a four-year degree. Vocational education can, and should, be a pathway to higher earnings and more equity for students who feel that a four-year degree is not for them, but only if harmful practices like tracking are not present.

Vocational education may have a checkered past; however, with a better understanding it can be used as a tool to fight the social issues to which it used to contribute. The baccalaureate path is not for everyone, but that does not mean that those who choose another route must be excluded from post-secondary education, and it certainly does not mean that sub-baccalaureate degree-seekers are destined to earn less than their peers with four-year degrees. In an article from The Russell Sage Foundation Journal of the Social Sciences, Changhwan Kim and Christopher R. Tamborini note that though the common perception is that bachelor’s degree holders will naturally earn more than sub-baccalaureate degree and certificate holders, that is not necessarily the case. When considering career earning potential, field of study becomes an important factor. Kim and Tamborini highlight that sub-baccalaureate degrees and certificates in technical fields yield higher earnings over the first twenty years after high school than bachelor’s degrees in liberal arts or humanities over the same span. These findings provide a clear path forward and a possible solution to the economic gap problem we face today in America. Rubager asserts that the way to close this gap is by growing what he refers to as the “New Middle,” a class of workers with vocational training that qualifies them for medium-wage jobs. And although the gap is growing, there is hope. Rubager also posits that, “some of these trends might eventually reverse themselves if more high school grads acquire the skills needed for higher-paying work.” Vocational education can provide those who feel that the baccalaureate path is not right for them an opportunity to keep up with the earnings of their four-year degree-holding counterparts through degrees and certificates in valuable fields like healthcare and technology. Equipped with this knowledge, high school educators and counselors can begin to better advise students looking for a different path to higher wages.

One such path would be in the healthcare field, a field in which there are a multitude of careers that only require sub-baccalaureate degrees and certificates. For example, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median income in 2020 for occupational therapy assistants was $60,950 (“Occupational Therapy and Assistants Aides”). That type of income would put someone comfortably in Rubager’s “New Middle.” Another field with a plethora of opportunities requiring less than a bachelor’s degree is the technology field. Again, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median income in 2020 for computer support specialists was $55,510 (“Computer Support Specialists”). These are just two of the many examples of fields and occupations that can provide higher wages and more equity. Students who choose not to go to a four-year institute are not fated to a life of playing catch-up. They can continue their education at a community college or technical school, and then go on to make a decent living for themselves. Furthermore, thanks to programs like “Tennessee Promise” that provide students the opportunity to complete an associate’s degree tuition-free, these degrees and certificates are accessible to students from all economic backgrounds (TN Promise Annual Report). This means that today’s students are empowered to break the economic cycle of being “worker bees.” I believe that most of us would love to see greater social equity and a reduction in the pay gap. Historical concerns about vocational education are valid, but the system has come a long way, and it can now serve as a tool to help make these goals a reality. The evolution of these programs has put our educators and counselors in a position to be able to guide students towards a more financially successful future, even when pursuing a four-year degree is not in their plans. Armed with this knowledge, more students may begin to consider vocational education as a post- secondary option, and as a result, fewer of us will feel left behind in the economic race.

Works Cited

“Computer Support Specialists : Occupational Outlook Handbook.” U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 20 Oct. 2021, www.bls.gov/ooh/computer-and-information- technology/computer-support-specialists.htm.

Hanford, Emily. “The Troubled History of Vocational Education.” APM Reports. 21 Aug. 2021, www.apmreports.org/episode/2014/09/09/the-troubled-history-of-vocational-education. Accessed 10 Nov. 2021.

Kim, Changhwan, and Christopher R. Tamborini. “Are They Still Worth It? The Long-Run Earnings Benefits of an Associate Degree, Vocational Diploma or Certificate, and Some College.” RSF: The Russell Sage Foundation Journal of the Social Sciences, vol. 5, no. 3, Russell Sage Foundation, 2019, pp. 64–85, doi.org/10.7758/rsf.2019.5.3.04.

Oakes, Jeannie. Keeping Track: How Schools Structure Inequality. Yale University Press, 2005. “Occupational Therapy Assistants and Aides : Occupational Outlook Handbook.” U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 8 Sept. 2021, www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/occupational-therapy-

assistants-and-aides.htm#tab-1.

Rugaber, Christopher S. “Pay Gap between College Grads and Everyone Else at a Record.” USA Today, Gannett Satellite Information Network, 12 Jan. 2017, www.usatoday.com/story/money/2017/01/12/pay-gap-between-college-grads-and- everyone-else-record/96493348/.

TN Promise Annual Report, 2021, www.tn.gov/thec/research/tn-promise-annual-report.html. “Tracking.” Education Week, 1 Sept. 2004, www.edweek.org/leadership/tracking/2004/09.

Accessed Nov. 11, 2021.

I’ll Save You or I’ll Die Trying

Awarded to Moses Jefferies IV for work submitted in Fall 2021 to Amy Fant in ENGL 1020: Research and Argumentative Writing

The American Fire Service is a dynamic entity. Filled with a cross section of the bravest men and women you will find. And unlike any other profession, they possess a broad number and range of skills to complete the many tasks they are faced with throughout the course of their duties. It is this multitude of skills that makes them the quintessential Jacks of all Trades. The world views firefighters as heroes, and based on everything we’ve witnessed personally, seen in the news, as well as what the entertainment industry depicts in movies and on television, is it hard to disagree? At what could be defined, more times than not, as our darkest hour, these men and women show up to brave the tragedies that befall us, often at great risk to themselves. And when thanked for such actions, those on the receiving end of such heroics are met with a simple phrase, “Ma’am/Sir, it’s no problem at all, we’re just doing our job.” That is the job after all, seeing to the public in their time of need no matter the cost, day after day, year after year, until retirement. And therein lies the serious problem for the men and women who swore oaths to their communities to place themselves in harm’s way for the public. The inherent risk to firefighters performing their duties has become a minimized factor in their profession. There needs to be more emphasis placed on the culture of not accepting certain risk as common place as well as the long-term health effects that result from hazardous exposures throughout the course of a firefighter’s duties.

Somewhere in its over 200-year history, the American fire service culture has turned the haphazard acceptance of risk into a badge of honor. As a result, poor leadership and the lack of organizational accountability prevents fire service organizations from developing robust risk assessment and management standards. Without such standards, the indiscriminate acceptance of risk while operating on the fire ground is an ill-fated factor contributing to occupational injury and Line of Duty Deaths for firefighters. Some may argue, it is the primary factor.

I became a firefighter in the fall of 2004, just a few days past my 24th birthday. At the time, I couldn’t imagine what I was really getting myself into. I was a first-generation firefighter, who, like so many others, were drawn to the profession due to witnessing the events of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the U.S. Pentagon and World Trade Center. Viewing days of news coverage of the men and women of the New York City Fire Department’s selfless acts of bravery inspired me join the ranks of the Nashville Fire Department. There, I could act to aid the citizens of my city, all while being a part of something larger than myself, which is the default answer that many new recruits give when asked why they joined the service. But there was an interesting discovery made shortly after beginning my training. The instructors would inspire us by using phrases like “When everybody is running out, we’re gonna be running in!!” and “When the heat gets turned on, we’ll see who’s made for it and who’s not.” What those instructors were looking for is courage, but when you put a bunch of young men together who have Type-A personalities, something strange happens. The moment that training is complete, the newly minted recruit hits the street and the focus shifts from proving their capability to performing a given task in the riskiest fashion possible to impress their seasoned crew mates.

And there lies the issue: firefighters face a certain level of risk in the course of their duties. However, the way we perform those duties can sometimes be void of a plan to actively address the risk of harm to ourselves. Alan V. Brunicini, former Chief of the Phoenix Fire Department was considered one of the greatest chiefs of modern fire service. Touted as America’s Fire Chief,” he wrote several books on the art of managing incidents and leadership within the fire service. Prior to his passing in October of 2017, one of his most popular coined phrases was “Risk a lot to save a lot, risk a little to save a little, and risk nothing for what is already lost,” addressing what he saw as a culture in danger of misguiding the next generation of the fire service (Sendelbach).

The prevailing thought is firefighters come into this profession with an understanding that they will be injured, or, possibly worse, with the basic sentiment that this is what you signed up for. This sentiment is reinforced by the label that is required to be printed on the interior of every fire helmet manufactured and sold in the United States. The requirement of the labeling “Warning, firefighting is inherently dangerous” by the National Fire Protection Association should make the idea crystal clear that there are significant risks, and there will, in fact, be times where those risks cannot be mitigated, resulting in firefighter injury or death “NFPA 1971.” The presence of risk in the fire service is something that cannot be denied; however, the trend toward greater risk-management measures has placed the profession at a cross-roads of risk aversion. There are cases, such as the Charleston Sofa Super Store fire in June of 2007, in Charleston, SC where 9 firefighters were killed. Stated by Dr. Burton Clark in his book, I Can’t Save You But I’ll Die Trying: The American Fire Culture, the fire chief implied that there was nothing that could have been done differently. The mayor was interviewed following the event and was quoted as saying, “The fire was beyond the firefighting capability of any fire department” “Clark.” And while it can be rightfully said that “The fire was beyond the firefighting capability of any department” should the chief, with this knowledge, have committed his fire department to this task?

Regardless of the fact that risk is ever present in emergency response, those charged to lead fire service organizations have just as much of a duty to the men and women that make up the boots on the ground workforce as they do to the citizens they swore oaths to protect. Fire Chief Gary Ludwig encourages other department heads to adopt a the buck stops here attitude and “set the example through practice and action, not just saying so.” This would mean fire service leaders look to the close calls, near misses, significant injuries, and fire deaths in other departments to ask a couple of simple questions. Does our fire department suffer from similar organizational culture? If we faced a similar occurrence, would we suffer the same loss of life? The most permanent consequences for poor performance on the fire ground are injury and death; moreover, when those injuries and deaths are investigated, a very distinct pattern begins to emerge.

The National Institute for Occupational Health and Safety identifies several factors in its investigation of firefighter deaths and significant injuries. These factors have come to be known throughout the fire service at large as the “NIOSH Five” (Ludwig). Amazingly enough, and to no surprise, the number one factor in fire fighter deaths and significant injuries has been identified as “improper risk assessment” (Ludwig). To call back to the Charleston Super Sofa Fire that claimed the lives of nine firefighters, several factors were identified that contributed to their deaths:

  • The lack of initial size up of the incident scene before beginning interior firefighting operations.
  • The lack of continuously evaluating risk versus gain to determine if fire suppression operation should be offensive or defensive
  •  The lack of proper communication from interior operating crews as soon as possible to provide regular updates to the incident commander outside of the structure.
  • The lack of crew integrity maintained during fire suppression operations.

There were many other factors regarding improper risk assessment; however, these are among the most prominent on the day of this incident. So, with this knowledge, can we as members of the fire service continue to hold the belief that there will be things that we just can’t control? I submit that we can logically dissect the results of these findings to identify what risk went unnoticed, unknown, or all together dismissed and accepted as the cost of doing business. In doing so, it is my hope that we can influence a cultural shift in the fire service toward safer fire ground operations by associating fire fighter death and injury with certain, plainly identified, risk factors. Once these factors are made clear, Dr. Burton Clark challenges all in the fire service, from the rookie to the seasoned veteran, to ask themselves the question: “what will I start doing today and stop doing today?” to make their respective organizations safer (33).

Through the normalization of deviant behavior, those tasked with a responsibility to oversee the department eventually promote the poor and reckless behavior they condone. It is the ethical responsibility of department leadership to see to its people and rechart the course of risky behavior. I will freely admit that I find it exhilarating and rewarding to perform the functions of my profession, but there must come a point where we are realistic about the efficacy of our efforts. Yes, there will always be risk, and the only way to truly avoid those risks is to do nothing. Since this cannot be an option for us, we mustn’t be so driven by blind pride, but take a moment to reflect on the task at hand, formulate a plan to bring the risk level to as low as reasonably achievable, then…commence to save the day.

Works Cited

Clark, Burton A. I Can’t Save You But I’ll Die Trying: The American Fire Culture. Premium Press America, 2015.

Ludwig. Gary. “Examining the Role of Culture in Firefighter Deaths.” Fire Rescue1, June 2019, www.firerescue1.com/fire-chief/articles/examining-the-role-of-culture-in-firefighter-deaths-8ndTaFl986zrxm81.

“NFPA 1971: Standard on Protective Ensembles for Structural Firefighting and Proximity Firefighting.” National Fire Protection Association, 2018,

www.nfpa.org/codes-and-standards/all-codes-and-standards/list-of-codes-and-standards/detail?code=1971.

Sendelbach. Timothy E. “Honoring America’s Fire Chief.” Firehouse, December 2017, www.firehouse.com/leadership/article/12379908/tribute-to-chief-alan-v-brunacini-firehouse-magazine-tim-sendelbach.

 

Sandy Hook Conspiracy Theories: Why They Are Believed, and Why It Should Matter

Awarded to Jameson Brown for work submitted in Fall 2021 to Dr. James Comas in ENGL 1020: Research and Argumentative Writing

On November 15, 2021, 10 families in the state of Connecticut gained a major victory over an issue that had troubled them for years. On December 14, 2012, these families lost their children in a school shooting that occurred at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. Since then, they have experienced nonstop harassment from right wing conspiracy theorists and their followers, with one of the families having to go into hiding in order to avoid getting their address discovered[[1]. Almost a decade later, these families won a court case against Alex Jones, a conspiracy theorist and radio host, by default for the defamation of the victims of Sandy Hook and their families. Jones, the owner of the website and internet show InfoWars, has a massive following in the United States, with InfoWars averaging a total of 9.6 million visits in October of 2021.[2] This obviously caused a large number of people, especially Jones’ followers, to believe these conspiracy theories about the events at Sandy Hook. But it is already well known how these theories became widespread. The real issue is why these theories became widespread. What causes us to believe false conspiracy theories about a tragic event to the point that some of us would choose to harass the families of the victims of said event? This question hasn’t been covered in the media as much as the perpetrators of these theories have. Luckily, there is a large amount of academic literature dedicated to this question. But in order to understand the reason for why these theories are believed, it’s important to understand several of the theories themselves, and why they would be believed.

Several theories were created in response to the possibility of stricter gun laws. The events that occurred at Sandy Hook sparked a renewed debate about gun control in the United States, and whether our country should have stricter gun laws. Multiple gun restriction laws were put into the spotlight; On the same day of the shooting, Michael Bloomberg, the mayor of New York City at the time, continued his advocacy for gun control, lobbying for “Renewal of the assault weapon ban that expired in 2004, required background checks for every gun sold right now…and a requirement that states enter criminal and mental health records into the federal background check system.”[3] Because this posed a threat to reform the 2nd Amendment, many right-wing, fringe figures believed that the attack was a hoax, staged by the U.S. Government as an elaborate plan to push new gun control laws through congress.[4] The urgency of Democratic politicians and members of Congress to promote stricter gun laws strengthened conspiracy theorists’ beliefs. Clyde Lewis, host of the radio show Ground Zero, asked in one of his episodes, “Don’t you find it at all interesting that Adam Lanza, the alleged shooter at Sandy Hook, woke up one day and decided to shoot up a school and kill children at about the same time that Barack Obama told the U.N. that he would sign the small arms treaty?”[5] Orly Taiz, a politician and dentist, best known for her promotion of the “birther” conspiracy theory, which questioned the legitimacy of former president Barack Obama’s U.S. citizenship, was quoted asking the bizarre question, “Was Adam Lanza drugged and hypnotized by his handlers to make him into a killing machine as an excuse as the regime is itching to take all means of self defense from the populace before the economic collapse?”[6]

Many conspiracy theorists saw a similarity between the Sandy Hook shooting and a planned school-shooting drill in Iowa called Operation Closed Campus. Operation Closed Campus was promoted as a “full-spectrum” drill, involving the Department of Homeland Security, state and local police, emergency medical personnel, the Red Cross, news media reporters, and more.[7] The drill was cancelled due to threats and public outcry, but conspiracy theorists believed that the event was modeled after Operation Closed Campus. This theory goes further, with some theorists claiming that the children that were killed in Sandy Hook, as well as their families, are crisis actors, with some of the children being seen in Pakistan shortly thereafter.[8]

The more common theory that is touted by conspiracy theorists is that the Sandy Hook shooting simply did not happen, and that the shooting was a classified training exercise that included crisis actors, federal and local law enforcement, and the news media, much like the proposed ideas for Operation Closed Campus. This theory was first adopted by James Fetzer and James Tracy, a professor and former professor. Fetzer promoted this theory through his book Nobody Died at Sandy Hook , claiming that the events at Sandy Hook were a classified Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) drill involving law enforcement and the media, that the government created false death certificates for the victims, and that the parents of the victims used photos of their real children and created new names for the subjects in the photo, among other theories.[9] These theories were further popularized by Alex Jones, the radio host that was referenced at the beginning of this essay. In 2014, Jones claimed that no one had died at Sandy Hook because no deaths had been reported by the Uniform Crime Reports in Newtown in the year of 2012, and that the murders were an operation perpetrated by the government, “Yeah, so, Sandy Hook is a synthetic completely fake with actors, in my view, manufactured…I knew they had actors there, clearly…And it just shows how bold they are, that they clearly used actors. I mean they even ended up using photos of kids killed in mass shootings here in a fake mass shooting in Turkey…or Pakistan.”[10]

In Jan-Willem van Prooijen’s book The Psychology of Conspiracy Theories[11], the two major roles that play in both the formation and belief of conspiracy theories is fear and uncertainty. Proiijen uses the scenario of the death of a sitting president or prime minister as an example, “It is perfectly possible for an otherwise healthy president to die from a tiny flu virus, just like everyone else. Now, imagine for a moment that this would actually happen to a sitting US president or UK prime minister? Would many citizens believe that this event indeed was caused by a simple virus, or would they believe a conspiracy theory?…In general I am quite confident that many citizens would come up with major conspiracy theories…The explanation of an event as big as the death of a president through a cause as small as a flu virus is just hard to swallow for many people.” Prooijen states that the outcome of this situation is the essence of what he calls the proportionality bias: the assumption that a big consequence must have had a big cause. In this case, the initial uncertainty about the events that occurred at Sandy Hook and the proportionality bias could go hand in hand with the creation of conspiracy theories related to Sandy Hook. Right wing conspiracy theorists began to create conspiracy theories in order to answer any uncertainties that they might have had about the information that was coming out of Newport. Of course these theories quickly became debunked as new information about the shooting was released to the public, but the theories that were developed as the world was beginning to learn about the matter at hand are still referenced to this day, and people still firmly believe in these theories almost a decade later. This is where the proportionality bias comes in; These conspirators cannot abide by the actual information that is released to them because it does not meet up to the standards of the possible scenarios that they have been told since the day of the shooting. In their mind, they’re thinking, “There’s no way that one 20-year-old man was able to walk into a school and kill twenty children and six adult staff members all by himself. There has to be more to this!”.

The second role that takes part in the development and belief of conspiracy theories is fear. When looking back on the number of conspiracy theories that I previously described, many of the theories that I mentioned involved the grand and imposing threat of gun control. Since the conspiracy theories about Sandy Hook are coming from right wing theorists, it makes perfect sense. According to the Pew Research Center, during the 2020 election, 60% of Republican voters and roughly six-in-ten Trump supporters saw gun policy as an important issue when it came to voting.[12] Right-wing media that create conspiracy theories, like InfoWars, recognize that the idea of tampering with the Second Amendment in any way invokes fear in their followers, which causes them to believe that these theories are true.

 

When speaking about how fear is invoked on humans through conspiracy theories, Proiijen uses two movies, The Truman Show and The Matrix, as examples of the types of fear that can come from conspiracy theories, “In The Truman Show, the lead character played by Jim Carrey is unaware that his whole life actually is a popular reality show under the control of a TV station. Everyone he knows…trick him into believing that he leads a normal life. Another example is The Matrix– a movie in which viewers are led to believe that life as we know it is a virtual reality illusion… Human beings actually are prisoners of a conspiracy of hostile and highly intelligent computers, who utilize our life energy as efficient batteries. What connects The Truman Show and The Matrix is that they portray rather existential conspiracy theories, implying that our life in its most minor details can be controlled by a conspiracy without our knowledge.”[13] The Truman Show and The Matrix both speak about fears that many of the Sandy Hook conspirators can identify with; a fear of the unknown; a fear of a lack of control over one’s life; and a fear of being lied to by those in power. All of these fears can be seen in the beliefs of these conspirators and how they act on them.


When looking at the beliefs that many of the Sandy Hook conspirators follow, where they come from, and what they cause people to do, it would be easy for an average person to consider the followers of Sandy Hook theories to be gullible, but it is urged that believers of these theories should not be dismissed as gullible, especially not by researchers. In
Belief in Conspiracy Theories: Looking Beyond Gullibility, Karen M. Douglas explains that conspiracy theorists won’t believe anything they hear, but will believe theories that appeal to three psychological motives; epistemic motives (understanding one’s environment), existential motives (being in control of one’s environment), and social motives (maintaining a positive image on one’s self and one’s social group).[14] When we look back at our reasons for belief in theories related to Sandy Hook, we can see that a believer of these theories may have their epistemic motives affected by not understanding the details involving the shooting. They would have their existential motives threatened by lawmakers and politicians pushing for increased gun control after the shooting. And their social motives would be affected because their images as a strong advocate of the Second Amendment would be tainted by the events that occurred at Sandy Hook and the accessibility of the assault rifle that was used in the shooting.


Much to the dismay of many American’s, including the families that have been affected by this event for nearly a decade, the false, harmful theories about the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary will not go away any time soon. During any tragic event, many theories will pop up in order to meet a group of people’s psychological motives. We are currently seeing this with the COVID-19 pandemic, and it has been creating the same backlash and discourse that we have seen over and over again. With a lack of immediate information being given to the public, many will try to figure out a reason for why an event occurred, often leading to an outrageous event being theorized. When the actual information is released, those theorists will feel unsatisfied with the results, and will continue to maintain their belief that there was more that occurred at a major event, and people will gravitate to this theory whenever they are confused or disappointed with the actual results. However, while conspiracy theories will continue to be distributed to the
public after every major or tragic event, we are finally starting to focus on the psychology of conspiracy theories, such as who believes them, why they are believed, and how they are made. As more and more information is being discovered, it seems like Americans will soon be able to identify and eliminate the effects of conspiracy theories before they cause more harm.

Bibliography

Williamson, E. (2021, November 15). Alex Jones loses by default in remaining Sandy Hook defamation suits. The New York Times. Retrieved December 7, 2021, from https://www.nytimes.com/2021/11/15/us/politics/alex-jones-sandy-hook.html.

Infowars.com Market Share & Traffic Analytics. Similarweb. (2021). Retrieved December 7, 2021, from https://www.similarweb.com/website/infowars.com/#overview.

CBS New York. (2012, December 14). Gun control debate reignited after Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. CBS New York. Retrieved December 7, 2021, from https://newyork.cbslocal.com/2012/12/14/newtown-elementary-school-massacre-pushes- gun-control-debate-back-into-limelight/.

Dean, M. (2013, January 16). Sandy Hook Conspiracy Cult: Shootings a hoax staged to pass gun control laws? Sandy Hook conspiracy cult: Shootings a hoax staged to pass gun control laws? Retrieved December 7, 2021, from https://web.archive.org/web/20150703103522/http://www.globalnewsdesk.co.uk/north-a merica/conspiracy-sandy-hook-hoax-emilie-parker/03040/.

Lewis, C. (2013, April 12). Groundzeromedia.org. Mental Hopscotch- April 12, 2013. Retrieved December 7, 2021, from https://groundzeromedia.org/mental-hopscotch/&lang=en.

Celock, J. (2012, December 19). Birther queen blames Obama for Sandy Hook Massacre. HuffPost. Retrieved December 7, 2021, from https://www.huffpost.com/entry/orly-taitz-sandy-hook-obama_n_2325671.

Reed, D. (2011, March 26). Exercise Plan. Pottawatamie County, Iowa; Pottawattamie County Emergency Management Agency.

Maheshwari, S., & Herrman, J. (2018, August 13). This company keeps lies about Sandy Hook on the web. The New York Times. Retrieved November 2, 2021, from https://www.nytimes.com/2018/08/13/business/media/sandy-hook-conspiracies-leonard-p ozner.html.

Fetzer, J. H., & Palecek, M. (2016). Nobody died at Sandy Hook: It was a Fema drill to promote gun control. Moon Rock Books.

Baddour, D., & Selby, W. G. (2016, September 1). Politifact – Hillary Clinton Correct that Austin’s Alex Jones said no one died at Sandy Hook Elementary. Politifact. Retrieved December 7, 2021, from https://www.politifact.com/factchecks/2016/sep/01/hillary-clinton/hillary-clinton-correct- austins-alex-jones-said-no/.

Prooijen, J.-W. van. (2018). The Psychology of Conspiracy Theories. Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.

Pew Research Center. (2021, April 28). Important Issues in the 2020 Election. Pew Research Center – U.S. Politics & Policy. Retrieved December 8, 2021, from https://www.pewresearch.org/politics/2020/08/13/important-issues-in-the-2020-election/.

Douglas, K. M., Sutton, R. M., & Cichocka, A. (2017). The Psychology of Conspiracy Theories. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 26(6), 538–542. https://doi.org/10.1177/0963721417718261


  1. Williamson, E. (2021, November 15). Alex Jones loses by default in remaining Sandy Hook defamation suits. The New York Times. Retrieved December 7, 2021, from https://www.nytimes.com/2021/11/15/us/politics/alex-jones-sandy-hook.html.
  2. Infowars.com Market Share & Traffic Analytics. Similarweb. (2021). Retrieved December 7, 2021, from https://www.similarweb.com/website/infowars.com/#overview.
  3. CBS New York. (2012, December 14). Gun control debate reignited after Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. CBS New York. Retrieved December 7, 2021, from https://newyork.cbslocal.com/2012/12/14/newtown-elementary-school-massacre-pushes-gun-con trol-debate-back-into-limelight/.
  4. Dean, M. (2013, January 16). Sandy Hook Conspiracy Cult: Shootings a hoax staged to pass gun control laws? Sandy Hook conspiracy cult: Shootings a hoax staged to pass gun control laws? Retrieved December 7, 2021, from https://web.archive.org/web/20150703103522/http://www.globalnewsdesk.co.uk/north-america/conspiracy-sandy-hook-hoax-emilie-parker/03040/.
  5. Lewis, C. (2013, April 12). Groundzeromedia.org. Mental Hopscotch- April 12, 2013. Retrieved December 7, 2021, from https://groundzeromedia.org/mental-hopscotch/&lang=en.
  6. Celock, J. (2012, December 19). Birther queen blames Obama for Sandy Hook Massacre. HuffPost. Retrieved December 7, 2021, from https://www.huffpost.com/entry/orly-taitz-sandy-hook-obama_n_2325671.
  7. Reed, D. (2011, March 26). Exercise Plan. Pottawatamie County, Iowa; Pottawattamie County Emergency Management Agency.
  8. Maheshwari, S., & Herrman, J. (2018, August 13). This company keeps lies about Sandy Hook on the web. The New York Times. Retrieved November 2, 2021, from https://www.nytimes.com/2018/08/13/business/media/sandy-hook-conspiracies-leonard-pozner.html.
  9. Fetzer, J. H., & Palecek, M. (2016). Nobody died at Sandy Hook: It was a Fema drill to promote gun control. Moon Rock Books.
  10. Baddour, D., & Selby, W. G. (2016, September 1). Politifact - Hillary Clinton Correct that Austin's Alex Jones said no one died at Sandy Hook Elementary. Politifact. Retrieved December 7, 2021, from https://www.politifact.com/factchecks/2016/sep/01/hillary-clinton/hillary-clinton-correct-austins- alex-jones-said-no/.
  11. Prooijen, J.-W. van. (2018). The Psychology of Conspiracy Theories. Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.
  12. Pew Research Center. (2021, April 28). Important Issues in the 2020 Election. Pew Research Center - U.S. Politics & Policy. Retrieved December 8, 2021, from https://www.pewresearch.org/politics/2020/08/13/important-issues-in-the-2020-election/.
  13. Prooijen, J.-W. van. (2018). The Psychology of Conspiracy Theories. Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.
  14. Douglas, K. M., Sutton, R. M., & Cichocka, A. (2017). The Psychology of Conspiracy Theories. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 26(6), 538–542. https://doi.org/10.1177/0963721417718261

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The Gen Ed Magazine Copyright © 2021 by Melissa Whitmer; Stephen Searcy; Moses Jefferies IV; and Jameson Brown is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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