Education in the Shadow of Violence

This nation has been here before, facing the aftermath of an unspeakable act of wanton violence and hatred. The shootings in Florida have destroyed families, scarred children, and left another indelible mark on our nation’s schools. It is sad to read about a predictable pattern of reaction by lawmakers and others to a school shooting. Nothing about this should be predictable. Nothing should be routine.

Violent episodes like this undermine the very fabric of the education system. Students are tasked with vigilant watchfulness over their peers. They go to school with periodic reminders that their school could be next. And they prepare for the worst.

Intruder drills after the horrors of Columbine focused on “shelter in place” tactics. Teachers were taught to lock and secure doors, keep children hidden from sight, and demand silence while violence raged around them. Eliminate visibility, the thinking went, and everyone will be safe, bypassed by adrenaline-pumped teenagers out for a body count. Those very tactics made for easy targets, as was evident at Virginia Tech and Newtown.

And so the tactics changed again. Teachers were given discretion over the best course of action. Maybe running for the exits, maybe hiding, and always being ready to attack anyone who posed a threat. The burden of explanation devolved from a school to a staff, each teacher possibly having to answer for any casualties on their watch. More options, more responsibility.

Meanwhile, students have been subjected to drills, discussions, and precautions. The school has become a potential battleground. And try as we might, students are still scared by even the most abstract of scenarios. Students victimized by violent episodes return to classrooms that once were battlegrounds and are asked to put it behind them and focus their attention on academics.

Teachers, myself included, now come to work wondering if one day they will be asked to choose between the role of protector and that of survivor. Whether it is more important to safeguard their students or come home to their families. Many classrooms now have intruder kits in case of an active shooter situation. In many areas of the country, people are suggesting that an armed staff may be the best solution to a potentially dangerous situation.

All this has fundamentally changed our system of education. Students no longer are assured of a safe place to prepare for their future lives. Teachers who chose the profession to improve lives now worry about their own. And they worry about how their actions in the classroom might trigger violence.

My heart breaks for those students recovering from the violence at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. My heart breaks for the families ripped apart by this act. I can’t imagine what they are going through. As a father, a teacher, and a coach, I live in fear as each new school day begins.

We need to do something to change this. If America is to be defined by the adults of the future, we have to provide them the tools to make that future better than the present. Lawmakers, communities, schools, and individuals need to find ways to prevent mass violence. We need to curb rampant bullying among students. We need to identify and help those that are hurting and alone. We need to make it more difficult for those intending to do great harm to be able to do so.

We need to fix this problem without militarizing our schools. And we need to act now.

Paul Sargent