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Guns in Schools: Keep the Safety Lock On

It is SO incredibly hard to drop my kids off at school today. I just wanna lock the doors and stay home, but I know I can’t. Nothing is harder than being a parent and knowing there is nothing else you can do but trust and let go. — Facebook post the Monday after the shootings at Newtown

It was an ordinary Friday morning. After dropping my daughter off at school, I decided to go home and lie down for a while, because I was feeling a hadn’t gotten enough sleep the night before. When I woke up a couple yours later, still groggy, I sat down with a cup of coffee at my computer to read the news. At the top of my screen, I saw that the Olathe police were stepping up patrols at local schools in the wake of the shooting of children and teachers in some place called Newtown, Conn.

I held my breath, an instinctive fight or flight response. Someone had killed school children in Connecticut, and there was fear that children in Kansas might be next. Were we under a terrorist attack?

When someone dies, the surviving members of the family become more aware of their own mortality. When the children and teachers at Sandy Hook died, parents, educators and policy makers across the country became more aware of the need for school security. However, awareness of mortality and awareness of the need for security are a matter of perception.

Being more aware does not mean that anything outside of ourselves has changed. When we grieve for someone we have lost, the mortality statistics do not change. When we grieve for those who died at Sandy Hook elementary, the safety of children in other schools across the United States does not change. Children are safer at school than they are at home or elsewhere in their communities. Part of the definition of life is death.

By saying so, I do not intend to dismiss the deaths in that school in Newtown. Rather, I seek to honor those who have died. If we give in to fear, we do not honor them. The antidote to fear is to persist in thinking clearly as we can in a crisis, and to live bravely, even if we do not feel especially brave at the time.

To think clearly in a crisis, it is important to avoid acting in a reactionary manner. It is time to engage our critical thinking skills, the ones our teachers do their best to teach us in school. When thinking clearly, we examine that initial fear response as a visceral reaction to a perceived threat. If the threat is real, we are then aware and prepared to fight it or to remove ourselves and our loved ones to safety. However, if no personal threat is imminent, then one should take a deep breath to calm the mind and analyze the situation.

Visceral responses include … despairing and wondering where God was in the midst of the slaughter of innocents … worrying about the safety of all of our children when a few suffer terrible harm … lashing out in anger and blaming others who are in no way responsible for this tragedy … calling for a national registry of mentally ill people when no one is certain whether the shooter was mentally ill or not … proposing that we call out the national guard when the imminent threat is over … and suggesting that arming educators with weapons would make our schools safer. Although understandable, visceral responses are not necessarily rational.

Certainly children need to feel safe at school. Educators often refer to a model known as Maslow’s Heirarchy of Needs, which states that basic needs — such as physical safety — must be met before children are able to learn. Based on this widely accepted model described by psychologist Abraham Maslow, it would make sense to take additional steps to ensure safety, if schools were actually unsafe places.

Undeniably, Sandy Hook Elementary School two weeks ago was not a safe place, despite the administrators’ and teachers’ heroic efforts to protect their students.

I wasn’t aware of the terrorist attacks  of September 11, 2001, until later than most that day, because I didn’t have the news turned on. My daughter was one year old, and we had the television tuned to PBS children’s programming. However, when I called me aunt (who was a member of the World War II generation), she greeted me with, “It’s worse than Pearl Harbor!” She thought I’d called to talk about the attacks, and I’d only called because I was lonely and wanted to speak with another adult. As horrible as that terrorist attack was, it is still safer to fly than to drive. And children are still safer at school than at home.

Of course we need to ensure that schools remain safe places for our children, and I am sure that all the safety committees being set up in schools throughout the metro area and throughout the nation will serve a purpose in allowing districts to re-evaluate their security plans. These committee members should recognize that their work is part of the process of grieving for the victims of Sandy Hook, an attempt to give those deaths some meaning by making this an occasion to reassure the safety of other students. Members of these committees should also realize that weapons in the schools will not make students feel safer.

In many of our secondary schools today — especially those located in communities populated by large numbers of minority and disadvantaged students — armed law enforcement officers are already on duty. Of course the intent is to make the schools safer places. The effect, however, is that we transform student misbehavior– which should be dealt with by family and educators — into behavior that is being dealt with by the criminal justice system.

Even children who attend schools in more affluent neighborhoods and who have not been raised to think of themselves as potential criminals would hardly be reassured by the sight of armed guards. Well-meaning people hope that by posting such symbolic sentinels they will help students feel safer. Put yourself in a child’s place, though. Hoist your backpack onto your shoulder and walk past the armed guard on the way to class. Would you feel safer? Or would you hold your breath, a flight or fight reaction?

Yes, I worry. I know it’s irrational. I know the statistics. I still worry, though. I can’t help it. — a mother quoted in the Kansas City Star the week after the Newtown shootings


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About jwmartinez

JoLynne is a journalist and educator. She holds a bachelor's degree in journalism from the University of Kansas and a Master of Arts in Teaching from Park University and is certified to teach high school journalism and English. Former employment includes work for Cable News Network and the University of Missouri-Kansas City in addition to freelancing for clients such as the Kansas City Star and The Pitch.


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