As the father of a 3rd Grader, I expect my School District to do everything within its powers to protect that child, and every other student, during the school day. As a Trustee serving my School District’s electorate, I know how seriously the subject of safety is being treated in the wake of the Sandy Hook atrocity. Earlier this year, I attended a one-day seminar, hosted by the New York State School Boards Association, entitled ‘Safe Schools, Safe Students,’ at which heavy hitters from the FBI and Secret Service, among others, were brought in to discuss the (very real) dangers we face from school shooters. Two weeks ago, at the annual NYSSBA convention, resolutions regarding security provoked the most heated debates during the Annual Business Meeting. There were also many panels on the issue, one unequivocally entitled ‘Active Shooter Incident Awareness’; another, ‘Exploring School Safety and Security Following the Sandy Hook Tragedy,’ had a State Police Trooper passing around bullets and their effects on a bullet-proof jacket to help us differentiate the firepower we may face in the classroom. This, sadly, is where we find ourselves in American public education in the year 2013.
While several of us were at the Convention, one of our District Primary schools discovered a written threat on its premises, and parents were understandably un-nerved. (See Woodstock Times, 10/31 and 11/7.) In response to growing concerns and rumors, then a full week after the threat was reported the District spent tax dollars hiring our local police force (who we already finance through our tax dollars) to provide armed security on school premises, and hiring outside consultants to audit the building’s safety measures. This is the start of a process that can well seem necessary in the immediate wake of a threat, but which has no definable conclusion. Should armed police offers be hired in perpetuity, for example? Should there be one for every building, of which there are four in this District? Should they be on hand during recess, standing armed guard over the playground? Should there be scanning machines for staff and visitors, and metal detectors for students? Should there be bullet-proof windows, and surveillance cameras in the Primary Schools to join those that were controversially installed in the Middle and High School? Should there be searches of third-graders’ lockers and kindergarteners’ backpacks? And should the wider community be denied access to the schools for after-hours activities, just in case? That’s all without discussing transportation safety.
Let us acknowledge first that any and all money spent on new security measures is money that can no longer be spent in the classroom: on the teachers who educate our children; the social workers, psychologists and others who help care for them; on pre- or after-school activities. It is also money that frequently leaves a District entirely, going to outside contractors whose motivation is profit. There is big money in schools security. Very big money.
Let us next confront the elephant in the room. The reason parents are unnerved is because this country has a cataclysmic ongoing record of fatal school shootings — over 50 of them since the year 2000. No other leading nation endures this kind of routine horror — because no other leading nation casually permits such deadly weaponry to begin with. For as long as we allow the likes of Adam Lanza to get their hands on assault weapons that belong only on the battlefield, for as long as parents fail to lock up their guns and ammunition, for as long as guns can be bought on street corners, we will continue to have school shootings both large (the horrors of Columbine, Virginia Tech and Sandy Hook) and “small” (the shooting death of a middle school teacher in Nevada this October by a 12-year old).
Meantime, it’s a bitter truth of the Sandy Hook atrocity that the school had done just about everything possible regarding security: doors were locked, drills conducted, the staff knew their emergency plans and as a result, lives were surely saved — but not before six teachers and 20 first-graders were mowed down in cold blood. Yet here we are, a year on, and despite the overwhelming call from the public for action, we have absolutely nothing on a Federal level to show for it. The House of Representatives would rather shut down the Government entirely than discuss the epidemic of gun violence.
Public schools don’t have that luxury. Nor should they: it’s important for community members and School Boards alike to ask hard questions about safety. But schools don’t promote the use of guns, they don’t teach young children how to use them, and they don’t provide the access to them. Those are external factors that schools, for every penny in their budget and every safety plan in the world, do not control. If we want to make our schools safer, we can all do our part by making our society-at-large safer. As parents and community members, we owe that to our children.
In the meantime, let us please remember that our schools are considered “public” for a reason: they are designed to be welcoming community resources, not armed fortresses where every child is treated as a potential criminal.
Writer Tony Fletcher is a member of the Onteora Central School District Board of Education.