We humans are very complex. We like to think that we have done everything to provide safety and security for our families, friends and neighbors, but invariably we learn of some freakish incident that seemed to bypass all of the fail safe provisions we have made. As a teacher for over four decades I learned to expect the unexpected. At the beginning of each school year as I prepared to meet and greet my new students I developed plans A through Z to deal with the many different scenarios that might occur. Even after thinking I had seen it all, there would invariably be an incident that confounded me. I learned that the best way of dealing with unforeseen disasters was to learn how to be flexible and have a willingness to change course in midstream as needed.
I have little doubt that the vast majority of us care greatly about our children. We may have different ideas and philosophies about what is best for them, but the things that we do to love and nurture them are mostly chosen with good will. The same is true of educators. They hold differing beliefs but more often than not feel passionate about being a positive influence in the lives of the children who become their second families for nine to ten months of each school year. No educator that I have ever encountered, no matter how inept or even unsuited for the profession he/she might have been, ever wanted to harm the young people waiting to learn from them.
When horrific things happen to our kids, we all grieve and wonder either aloud or quietly what we might have done to prevent tragedy. It often becomes a futile discussion of “what ifs” and even accusations instead of a proper determination to find reasonable solutions for insuring that such things are more unlikely to ever happen again. We know from history that even our greatest efforts may be flawed, but the innate rule of protection is to try our best and adjust we when find that our decisions were not leading us where we needed to go. That takes cooperative efforts that transcend ideologies, a willingness to step out of our comfort zones and rationally examine facts, a technique that is almost always imperfect unless it begins with the admission that we are indeed conducting a kind of ongoing research project.
There has been discussion of making schools safer by examining entry ways and the level of easy access that they may provide to intruders. I myself have suggested that this is a proper area for discussion but I do not think that it can be the only solution offered. That being said I have seen different configurations in schools that would be an improvement, but in almost every case would still possibly by hampered by human errors.
I worked in a school that was surrounded by a high metal fence. A guard determined who got inside the main gate. Sadly that guard was often rather lenient in granting access which was the first problem with the system. The next flaw was that the gate did not surround the entire perimeter of the property, so it was conceivable that someone wanting to come onto the grounds might find a way through the brush and bramble. Another problem was that there had to be multiple entrances and exits to each building because of city legal codes which required us to get the children out as quickly as possible in the event of a fire or even a bomb. Each of the doors locked automatically, but in a discussion of what to do in case of a shooter on campus by students demonstrated how to bypass the locking mechanism with a bit of jiggling. I was stunned by their revelation and felt a bit less safe since my classroom was right next to that door and the lock on my classroom door was defective. While the maintenance crew worked diligently to solve the problem, nothing ever worked one hundred percent of the time, so I was haunted by the idea that someone might one day come crashing into my classroom. My students assured me that we could form a barricade with all of the desks and furniture. I always wondered if we would have that much time.
I worked in another school that had a man trap at the front entrance that assumed that a shooter would enter from that access point. The other many doors on the sides and back of the building locked automatically and as far as I knew could not be manipulated by jiggles or other means. What those safety measures did not preclude was the possibility of a student innocently letting someone inside who did not belong there. I know that parents and other visitors sometimes came to the back doors and knocked until polite pupils who happened to be in the hallway let them inside and directed them to the rooms that they wanted to visit. Not even active shooter training seemed to impress on our kids that they had to be cautious of everyone. Again I imagined someone storming inside despite efforts to keep them out.
I am not suggesting that schools should not be retrofitted with safety features or that teachers and students should not receive safety training, but I know all too well that human error has a way of creeping into even the best laid plans. What really has to happen to insure that our schools are safe is adopting a combination of many different measures, most especially including making guns much harder to purchase for everyone and restricting ownership of certain types of guns to heavily licensed and trained professionals. The gun industry has made a fortune by frightening us and attempting to make us believe that more guns are the key to protecting us. It’s time we looked at the data and realized that the arsenal of weapons owned by private citizens have only heightened the likelihood that mass shootings and violent crimes will continue to escalate. I wonder when we will finally agree that we have had enough and use our common sense and love of each other to actually make a difference.