Kiss and Tell: Making Schools a Lot Safer Isn't a Lot Harder

Each year I meet with my accountant, whose office is just north of the city, to prepare my taxes. Before getting to the numbers, he usually asks me a handful of questions, mostly about schools or how things are going in Baltimore. We chat. It’s friendly. Then we move on. This year was different. This time he asked, “So, what would you do about keeping schools safe?” His reference point was, of course, the shootings that took place at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, located in suburban Parkland, Florida. My thoughts were there, too. But I also thought about my schools, city schools. Nowadays being an expert school leader requires being, or becoming, an expert in school security and safety. Even if there are big differences with respect to safety issues in urban and suburban environments, the issues aren’t mutually exclusive, and when policies are implemented in one jurisdiction they inevitably have implications, often unforeseen, in another.
Photo: Commanding Officer of the Northeast District, Major Jeffrey Shorter, stands proudly with Ms. Marlatt and her first-grade class. 
Mass shootings in schools are almost exclusively perpetrated by white males. The histories of these killers tell us that they are angry and depressed and have a deep-seated rage towards others. They believe they are outcasts. They believe they are victims. They seek power and revenge. They themselves are broken human beings. They respond by breaking down and destroying the lives of others. Their weapon of choice is the AR-15, a killing tool with an evil mythology that mass-murderers find appealing and comforting. In their delusional hands, these killers hold a machine that gives them, for a few brief minutes, the ultimate power.
Safety issues in urban schools are fundamentally different. Weapons can be a problem, but they are usually handguns and very often they are look-alike pellet guns. Knives are an issue, too. Kids bring knives to school to defend themselves. Usually the worry they have is not in school, but traveling to and from school. When safety is a significant issue in urban settings, schools have a chaotic feel to them, there’s an uneasiness that’s ever-present, the intensity of emotion is thick and raw and pervades the space. The school feels disorganized. The violence and chaos of the streets, which in Baltimore are as violent and chaotic as they get, seeps into the school community, become the school community. These types of schools are overwhelmed with trauma and the resulting effects.
In previous posts here on this blog, I’ve talked at length about the best ways to build stronger and better urban schools. In this post, I’d like to deal directly and specifically with school shootings of the sort we’ve been reading about and watching all too often lately. In doing so I’ll make connections to urban situations, as there are related safety issues.
The proposal to arm teachers needs to be addressed first. It’s tempting to say such an idea is just plain outrageous. But it’s more than that. It’s actually quite calculated and diversionary, a deeply cynical ploy to grab headlines, suck up intellectual space, and immediately tilt the conversation to the most extreme and radical position as a starting point. It’s tempting to dismiss the idea as impractical and extreme. It’s better to address it directly, honestly, and specifically.
Within the context of an active shooting situation, it is understandable why someone might believe or hope that an armed teacher could make a difference. Teachers are there, on site. The response time would, potentially, be immediate. Teachers love their students and would do anything to protect them. Yes: Arm the teachers!
Thinking through the implications of this strategy leads to only one conclusion, however: This is an NRATV-type story, dreamed up by those who fantasize about heroic intervention by good guys with guns, by those with ulterior motives surely linked to the further proliferation of guns, those committed to the continued militarization of society and the escalation of state-supported authoritarianism. The Second Amendment says that a well regulated militia is necessary to the security of a free State. Arming teachers would be a final step towards the total-security State.
And if implemented around the country, it will not make a difference. In fact, based on what we know, it might even attract more daring ventures, increasing the thrill. Before long, as these incidents continue to occur even with armed educators, teachers won’t be concealing mere-handguns, they’ll be bearing automatic weapons out in the open, for all to see. When even this doesn’t work, we’ll post special weapons and tactical teams right near the main office. Schools will become absolutely safe…and absolutely worthless as institutions of teaching and learning. The militia will become unfettered and all-present.
As awful as this would be, the bigger issues, the scarier ones, the ones that are far more dangerous, are the problems that will surely arise when there isn’t an active shooting in progress, which given the rarity of those situations is literally the other 99.9 percent of the time. Research tells us that having a gun in a household ensures that the people in the home are less, not more, safe. According to research presented by the Brady Center, a gun in the home is more likely to be used in a homicide, suicide, or unintentional shooting than to be used in self-defense. For every single time a gun injures or kills in self-defense, it is used:
  • 11 times for completed and attempted suicides (Kellerman, 1998, p. 263).
  • 7 times in criminal assaults and homicides, and
  • 4 times in unintentional shooting deaths or injuries.
There is little reason to believe these ratios would improve with a weapon inside a classroom. Imagine the legal and liability implications for schools. Imagine the American carnage. All students would immediately be at risk to enormous danger. Students of color, as Jamelle Bouie rightly points out, would be in particular peril. 
At this point, the most troubling part of this idea is that the President proposed it and now is sliding away from it, saying it’s up to the states to implement it. This is an abdication of responsibility. If this issue of mass school shootings is an issue of national defense—and it is—then it requires a unified and coherent Federal response. Anything less is unwise.
What is wise, though? What should be done?
The phrase “keep it simple, stupid” is a design principal believed to be coined in the 1990s by Kelly Johnson, an engineer at the Lockheed Skunk Works. The principle was used to develop airplanes. I remember, early in my teaching career, using the principle to teach writing. The idea was to simplify writing instruction so students would be organized, their thinking linear or logical.
With respect to school shootings specifically and guns in society generally I’d say, Keep It Simple, Stupid. More specifically, I’d say, Beware those people who say this issue is complicated. It’s not. These people make the issue more complicated than it needs to be in order to create a divisive fog.
I’m watching The Crown now. One of the best episodes in the first season described the deathly smog that came down upon London in 1952. Initially Winston Churchill and Queen Elizabeth ignored it. They believed it was a fog like any other and it would soon lift. It wasn’t and didn’t. This fog combined with unregulated sulfurous fumes from coal fires and exhaust from vehicles and power plants and blocked out the sun for days, creating a public health disaster and killing between 8,000 to 12,000 people. Finally, Churchill acted and responded to what was right there in front of him. (Interestingly, today, power generated in England is completely coal-free.)
The proliferation of guns and gun violence is our smog, our fog of war. We must act. Here are a few simple ideas:
Hardening schools is becoming a popular term all of a sudden, one that has a military feel to it. This theory shouldn’t be directly applied to schools, which should remain in spirit places of learning and creativity. Harden the building too much and this spirit will be quickly lost. Having an armed guard or resource officer on site makes sense. They aren’t, in and of themselves, enough, but they can do a lot, especially if they are well trained and willing to act, something that armed personnel on site at Marjory Stoneman Douglas didn’t seem willing to do, at least initially.
I was at a community meeting with Dr. Santelises last night at Brehms Lane. This issue of having more officers available did come up. She was quick to point out that this was a resource issue. We have a force of about 100 school police officers right now in the city, a reduction from past years. We need more money, she said. This is true. But we also need considerably more coordination between Baltimore City and Baltimore School police at the beginning and end of the school day. Seven-to-eight in the morning and three-to-four in the afternoon need to be priority times for all officers in the city. They should be visible on bus stops, present on larger high school campuses, and on foot as much as possible. In this city, this sort of visibility isn’t really about stopping a mass shooting—it’s about ensuring a better quality of life. When kids leave school and get robbed in plain day light this becomes a story, an ugly narrative, that courses through the community and social media raises our collective anxiety. We can’t let this happen. The Mayor’s office, in coordination with other local agencies, including police, could surely prioritize this and coordinate actions so that it does not happen.
We can make improvements and upgrades to technology and security systems. Single-point-of entry could be considered in some cases, and at some times. But remember, schools should be about the free flow of ideas and people. Kids should be able to move about inside and outside a building, to learn and to play, to explore and to grow intellectually and physically. Schools shouldn’t be hardened to the point that they become prisons. But more can be done. In the city, again, the issue of money will come up. Ok. But if it’s a real issue, then it must really be addressed. I read recently that Baltimore City Police just received a grant for $5 million of security funding. Surely we could seek similar foundational support for upgrades to our school security systems.
Another interesting idea is to pursue a role for drones to play, especially in an active shooting situation. Is there a scenario where a drone could launch, within a school that was under attack, to potentially neutralize an active shooter? There are complications and needed coordination to such an idea, but why rely on the heroism of a human when the tactical and technical proficiencies of a machine might be quicker, safer, and more efficient?
We can educate. In urban environments, we do gang awareness outreach. In the suburbs we should be doing similar outreach and awareness related to what we know about school shooter profiles. Kids need to know what to look for among their peers, even in themselves, and what to do with the information if they do notice something. Schools shouldn’t shy away from teaching students about the reality of guns as a health issue. This will be as controversial as sex education is in some places. But it’s necessary. There are fine reasons to own a gun, including for hunting and target shooting and self-protection. But gun ownership brings with it enormous responsibilities and certain health risks. Students should know this, should be taught this.
How we think about gun ownership needs to be reformed. David Frum, in a recent video essay, rightly says that too many gun owners and advocates have become the new hippies, more concerned with indulgently exercising their individual right to a weapon than the collective right to safety and a sense of community. In our schools, we can’t shy away from teaching about the norms of a life-giving community. We are doing more and more of this in schools now with respect to social media use. We have to be willing to do this with gun use, too.
As we do this, classrooms will immediately sit in the crosshairs of our most challenging social issues, issues like gun violence, race, religion, the environment. To this I say: Great. Better to arm and equip our teachers with the skills they need to engage students, challenge students, in conversations of this sort, then to arm them with a gun. These conversations should be about democracy and the pursuit of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. These conversations, which will be chaotic and messy and aggressive and fraught, will also lead to wisdom. They will not tear apart life, which is what school shooters do: They will build a better community, a better democracy, a better country.
As for automatic weapons of the AR-15 kind, it seems like we have two options. First, we could ban them all together. If you want one, join the military, be a tactical response police officer. In normal civilian life there is no need to have such a weapon, which has but one purpose: to kill human beings at a horrific clip. In lieu of banning them all together, I’d recommend an age-requirement to such machines, and not 21.
It seems to me that 80 is about the right age for owning this kind of weapon. By then you’ll be smarter. By then you’ll fully understand that owning such a thing isn’t necessary, so you won’t even pursue one. By then you’ll be old enough, hardened enough by experience but softened by wisdom, to kiss the ones you love and tell them mass shootings in schools were once a terrible problem in this country but because the citizenry, most certainly led by its youngest and most courageous students, confronted the fog and the smog of gun killings and mass shootings, and lifted the country to a better place, a more peaceful place. Yes, you will be able to kiss and tell about it.

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