This summer, on the same day a man with a gun took over a Trader Joe’s in Los Angeles, a family friend asked me what I thought about parents keeping their kids home on the first day of school in protest of school shootings.
I understood her frustration. Parents want and expect their kids to be safe at school. Educators want that too.
Teachers, counselors, secretaries, custodians, aides, and administrators, we all want to protect our students and keep our schools the safe places we know they should be. To that end, we do what we can to develop protocols (locked doors, safety plans, ID badges), vigilant attitudes, and prepared schools. We get to know our students, listen to them, and support them.
When we hear scary rumors or are told about a threatening posting online, we act right away. We’re friends with police and know that law enforcement is a partner in our efforts to keep everyone safe.
It’s because of this that I told that family friend that the school probably isn’t her target audience in any action around gun violence. Keeping students home is a big deal, and her motivation behind it is both justified and real, but it isn’t educators who need to be shaken by the lapels and told to change the situation.
When kids walk out or stay home, schools work very, very hard to handle the situation in a way that is both safe and respectful. We’re not, however, often in a position to make the kind of changes those protesting would like to see, and lawmakers, those determining funding for mental health and the availability of weapons, may not be directly impacted by students staying home.
Work with educators, sure. Parents, students, teachers, and administrators can all benefit from joining in real conversations about safety, but the answer to this difficult reality doesn’t rest entirely on schools.
Ask Trader Joe.
That isn’t to say that principals like me don’t want to engage in the important work of keeping students (and staff too) safe. Every year many of us go out of our way to learn more, discussing the issues with our school resource officers, attending conferences, and finding out more about what we can do.
Two books that have helped me understand the horrible reality of school shootings are Columbine by Dave Cullen and Rampage by Katherine Newman.
Columbine traces the events and personalities that led up to the 1999 mass shooting at a high school in Colorado. The book takes time to explore the lives of the two shooters as well as many of the victims, students, school personnel, and law enforcement. By not simply focusing on the event itself, but going back to better understand the context of what happened and the aftermath as well, the book helped me understand this horrific shooting in a way that the media at the time, so hungry for quick answers and rationale that conclusions were easy to jump to, didn’t. Before I started Columbine, I thought I knew what had happened and imagined I knew a bit of they “why,” but as I read more I realized the immensity of the problem and got a much clearer sense of how these two teens got guns, formulated their plan, and carried out what Cullen describes as an act of domestic terrorism.
Cullen’s thorough research, his attention to detail and care for his subject matter makes Columbine an important, though not easy, read. While much has changed in the two decades since the tragedy, the book left me with a greater appreciation for the complexity of the situation and a better understanding of some of the factors that can lead up to an act of violence like this one.
Rampage takes understanding the social context of school violence as its starting point, and Katherine Newman (and a staff of four graduate students: Cybelle Fox, David J. Harding, Jal Mehta, and Wendy Roth) brings a thoughtful and thorough approach to analyzing two terrible events, a 1997 shooting at a Kentucky high school and a gun attack by two Arkansas middle schoolers in 1998.
Newman et al. do their best to understand the events through the lens of the societies around them, including school and community forces, cultural pressures, and the reality of adolescence.
The book brings a sociologist’s perspective to the complex issue of school shootings, and the result is both thought provoking and revealing.
Taken together, Columbine and Rampage have given me better perspective about the problem and some sense of how I might use my role as an educator to work toward creating a school community that is proactive and purposeful in what we do to support all students.
Knowing that gun violence on school campuses is an ongoing concern is a sobering part of being an educator at the start of the 21st century. When I started teaching, years before the violence described in Columbine or either of the cases addressed in Rampage, I never thought about someone bringing a gun to school. I thought about teaching, about creating community in my classroom, and contributing to a positive school environment.
Just a couple of years ago my wife asked me if I was ever afraid to go to work.
How times have changed, and schools with them.
But the truth is that I’m not afraid to go to work. Schools are still some of the safest places on the planet, and as educators we’re committed to keeping them that way.
I recognize that our world, certainly our country, has changed since I was a young teacher, but despite those changes I firmly believe that the best thing I can do is go to school every day thinking about teaching, about creating community in my classroom, and contributing to a positive school environment.
Old truths win out. So does good, I believe, though it often needs help from some of us.
Back to that issue of civic engagement that prompted our family friend to question having her student sit out the first day. If I were a wiser person I would have had the presence of mind to offer those book suggestions, the addresses of lawmakers, and the invitation to collaborate with other parents to raise the discussion beyond the schoolhouse walls.
But I recognize that in addition to making a broader statement, sometimes parents and even students, feel compelled to stay home out of fear, not politics. Whether prompted by national events or more local rumors or threats, in the greater context of our current world, I understand how this response makes sense.
Too often educators like me don’t have all the information we wish we did, information that we could share with parents, students, and staff that would help assure our school community that things are safe. Whether this is because such information is still with the police, or that it simply doesn’t exist, makes no difference; we, who want so much to be strong and steady voices of comfort and assurance, feel as frustrated as those we serve. And then we go to work.
We go to our classrooms and offices, vigilant as always, trusting that the police who have final say over lockouts and lockdowns (and all those scary words that have become a part of the 21st century education lexicon) have our best interests at heart. We arrive on campus, greet our students, and do our best.
In those situations that rattle our communities, educators like me look for our own inner Atticus. We don’t lie, or make promises we can’t keep. At our best, we don’t panic or fan the flames of worry, but strive to live up to that line from To Kill a Mockingbird: “You just hold your head high and keep those fists down. No matter what anybody says to you, don’t you let ’em get your goat. Try fightin’ with your head.”
It seems to me that “fightin’ with our heads” means educating ourselves, connecting with each other, and raising our voices to those who can make a difference. Parents, students, educators, I believe we all want the safest schools we can have. Police, lawmakers, they too want a world where students can go to school, and citizens can go shopping, to worship, and about their daily lives in safety.
The world can be uncertain and things happen that justifiably raise our concerns, whether at school or the grocery store. Combating this is best done with our heads, hearts, and the allies all around us.