I will warn you now, this is the longest post I have ever written. It poured from my heart and my mind onto the screen. I do not apologize for its length, but I do appreciate anyone who takes the time to read it.
This is the second time I have passed over a topic I have in reserve for something that is pressing. This time, it is neither with excitement or joy, but with sorrow that I discuss this topic. Today I heard about a school shooting on the radio. It was in Oregon. My first thought: I know a teacher in Oregon, (I will concede I have no idea where Doug lives, only that he lives somewhere in that large north Pacific state) and I was immediately concerned.
Upon reflecting more about this my own initial feelings made me feel even worse. It does not matter that I know someone who could have been directly impacted by this, we are all impacted by this! Two kids are dead. It could have been more, but it should never come to this. As I sat down to work on my professional development plan for next year, I noticed that Doug (@theweirdteacher) had written about this incident (http://t.co/RDFruSqehP) and would be making it the topic of his twitter chat on Wednesday night, #WeirdEd. If you have never been involved in an educational twitter chat, Doug’s chat would not give you an idea of what most are like, but instead what most should be! They are creative, fun, stimulating, and full of incredible metaphors. But, this will not likely have the same feel. While it will take a more serious tone, I have no doubt that it will be a place for open, honest discussion. This is a topic that still resonates with me deeply. I cannot possibly contain my heart, nor my mind in 140 characters each.
It is hard to pick a starting point, but I will go back to when I was first starting in education. I worked nights as a waiter at a local restaurant and days as an aide. At the restaurant I worked with a girl who had been a high school student in Columbine and was in the school on that horrific day. I had no idea until one day she talked about it to help a friend with a college project. She was open about the incident, described it clearly as if it had just happened, and then mentioned that she would not be repeating the story again. I was filled with sadness, because this had been a day of fear and destruction that changed schools forever.
Despite so many horrible days in our history where schools had continued to be a target, none hit me more deeply than on December 12, 2012. I was out of the school in the morning, attending a meeting with my school’s Chief School Administrator as part of the hours I needed for a MSA class. In the car driving back to our school I heard the news: another school, another shooter, another tragedy. I went in to school still not really knowing what had happened. I was happy to see my first graders and they were thrilled that I was back. I had been with this group for over a year and a half. We were close.
I went home, listening to the news on the radio (not something I normally do.) I found out it was an elementary school called Sandy Hook. It was in Connecticut, they were first graders. I sat watching the news in horror. I held my three month old child, and literally wept as I saw the faces of those children and the faces of the children in my class. They were innocent, 6& 7 year old children, who died in fear. Recalling that day still causes my eyes to well with tears. Not just for those children and their families, but because I wasn’t there with my kids that day. What if it was at my school and I wasn’t there to keep them safe.
I emailed all of my parents talking about what I felt was best. I would address the issue if I needed to, but otherwise, I was going to spare my kids the horror that I saw on the news. Not one brought it up. I hugged each child that morning and again when they left. In the days that passed I heralded those heroic teachers, children, and staff members that kept others safe and sacrificed that day. I blasted those who would had the audacity to make insane comments about conspiracies. Children died. Adults died. Why, I thought? Why?
In the weeks that followed we enacted stricter security measures, developed policies that would continue to try and make our kids feel safe. Eventually it happened, during a lock down drill one of my 7 year old girls said, “this is so that we can stay safe when someone comes to shoot us.”
After the drill was over, I sat on the floor with my class. We spoke for about 10 minutes. I told them this: We practice because practice will make us safer if something ever happens. No matter what happens, I will do EVERYTHING I can to keep you all safe. I answered questions for a little while, and we moved on with our day. I am not sure how I can say this with such certainty, but I know I would have put myself in the same situation as those teachers in Sandy Hook. I do not say this for any recognition. I feel confident that nearly every teacher I know, would never put a child in danger before themselves. It is part of who we are as teachers that we care and love children.
My first job as an educator is to make children feel safe!
So now on to why? Why does this happpen, and what do we do about it?
Why? A simple answer is guns, but questions like this are often never as simple as that. Sure, I believe that there is a limit to what you genuinely need for fire arms. How many bullets do you need to be able to fire and at what pace to protect your home or family? Or to hunt? If guns were the only answer, we would have a much easier problem to solve. Yes, school shootings in countries where guns are not common are subsequently rare, as is gun violence in general. There is a bigger issue however, and it goes far beyond limiting weapons: Mental Illness. The stigma, treatment, and overall quality of how we treat people with mental illness in our country is appalling. If any other country were treating people the way we treat people with mental illness, we would probably condemn them.
In nearly every school or public shooting since Columbine, the person involved has been diagnosed with some form of mental illness. They had either been un-medicated, untreated, self-medicated, or a combination of all three. There is so little that people can do for help. So little that the loved ones of these people can do to help them, that these tragedies are cropping up around the country. If we can treat alcoholics, drug addicts, and gamblers like someone with a disease that simply cannot help themselves, how do we treat those with mental illness? This is the biggest issue for public safety in regards to these tragic shootings.
So, how then do we keep school’s safe? Schools are a place for children, educators, and all of us to learn. While we must be safe to learn, we must also be in a place of genuine mental comfort. Last year we kept a “locked door” policy. Classrooms were to be closed and locked at all times, along with windows. Is this really an atmosphere conducive to learning, or is it starting to feel more like a prison? How do we balance student safety with students feeling safe. Our school is in a tiny town in rural southern New Jersey, the students are not used to “locking up” everything at home and school. When we did that, it promoted talk about shooters, violence, and fear.
Arming schools is reckless. Not long ago, my wife’s cousin was in High School in South Carolina where an armed officer at a school shot a boy walking toward him with a pen. He was killed. The teenager with a pen was so dangerous to the officer that he was shot. We do funny things when we think we are in serious danger, even if you are a trained professional. Putting guns in schools is a terrible idea. Fencing them off like prisons is also a terrible idea. Instead we should upgrade security measures that keep the building itself safe. Teachers and administrators should be discussing school safety with police and tactical units regularly. Drills should be repeated frequently and with a seriousness that reflects the seriousness of the potential danger. People should be diligent, schools should be diligent.
We will not get rid of this type of horrific incident easily. It will happen again I am sad to say. As we as educators build the best classrooms and schools we can, we must also be weary of how to help those with either mental illness, or those that are treated poorly by peers. We must give those students a voice, an outlet, and an opportunity to be.
There is so much to say about this topic, most of it sad, sobering, and in no way fun. There is no simple solution, but many multifaceted solutions that will not likely come easily. Too many people have invested too much money into diverging sides of the line to realize that we have drawn the line in the wrong place…
When we start drawing the lines to discuss what is good for people, and as educators, what is good for kids, then we are moving closer to a real solution. Until then, the world may see these horrors repeated in schools month after month. We hope it never comes to our door, but we have no way of knowing it won’t.
If you stuck with this, I thank you for reading. It is easily my longest blog post ever, but a topic like this could go on much longer. My wish is that it could end here. This be the final word and never shall we speak of it again. But, I am not an ostrich burying my head in the sand. How will you do your part to protect your kids? It is up to us!
Thank you to every amazing educator who goes beyond their title and makes kids feel safe.