Student Shooting: ‘Could it happen at my school?’

The end of the school day comes and I see an email from my superintendent sending condolences to those affected by the tragic shooting at a Connecticut elementary school. Struck curious by the words “tragic shooting,” I went to the Web to find out what had happened.

As a father, it was hard to hold back the tears. As a teacher, it awoke a sobering reality: how safe are schools from such madmen?

Any massacre at a school is tragic, but this one is so heart-wrenching – it got an emotional response from President Obama – because it was an elementary school. Too often have shootings happened at high schools and college that we expect news of a shooting rampage at a school to be there.

But these were little kids.

Obama said it best: “The majority of those who died today were children — beautiful, little kids between the ages of 5 and 10 years old. They had their entire lives ahead of them — birthdays, graduations, weddings, kids of their own.”

I’m not sure how a six-year-old is any more defenseless than a 16-year-old, but my heart throbs and eyes burn more so with this shooting tragedy than say the one that occurred at Virginia Tech.

And among the dead were teachers – people trained to educate and nurture, not to fend off gunmen and protect dozens of innocent lives.

It makes me wonder: Could it happen at my school? Could it happen at my kids’ school? I have daughters in the first and fifth grades. I do not want to imagine, not even for a second, what anguish those parents are going through. Just their images alone make my eyes well up.

My school system appears to be already restating and addressing its security policy. After issuing condolences, the email I got Friday went on to review safety protocols and renew calls for vigilance in our schools, which thankfully hasn’t experienced a tragedy like Newtown or Columbine.

It would be a lie if I said I never pondered a scenario where an armed madman begins shooting while I was teaching. My school is no more of a target than any other school because shootings can happen anywhere at any time – from quiet suburbia to the big city. But given the recent incidents that have happened, it’s unfortunately quite reasonable to think of such situations and how you would react.

Lock the door. Cover the windows. In a calm, reassuring voice, move the students to corners of the room where they are away from the door and windows. Grab some type of weapon – a screwdriver or yard stick – for defense. Every time there is news of a school shooting, this is plan I go through in my mind.

What do we do to prevent this? Lock down the schools? Fire safety says we can’t do that, as free exits are needed to avert another type of tragedy. Many high schools in Maryland already have police officers stationed on campus. Do we need them at elementary schools now? Do all visitors need to pass through a metal detector?

Concerned parents may agree, but implementing such measure would fail. Locking down schools goes against American ideals of setting few restrictions. People will cry out that such measures would turn schools into prisons (though some believe they’re already that way). One can argue that armed guards and courthouse-like security protocols could hinder the instructional environment of a school. To some degree, that is true.

We do need to address school security through monitoring the campus for suspicious activity, issuing identification badges for staffers, students and visitors, and creating a positive environment to stem violence among students. But most of all, we need to reassure students at all schools that teachers, administrators, and security staff are constantly vigilant and will do their best to protect them. Honestly, what more can we do without becoming an outright police state with no discernable differences between jails and schools?

Lastly, one must keep in mind that school shootings are reported by the media with such frenzy because it is a newsworthy event, as I would tell my journalism students that such stories contain human interest. But do not let the media saturation fool you: school shootings like Newtown and Columbine are rare.

(The obvious and already-mentioned argument of gun control is avoided here not because it is unimportant. Instead, we should address an issue that will not lower ourselves into a heated, visceral rhetoric in the moments after 27 people were slain. There is a time and place for the gun control argument.)

It’s been said you can’t legislate against crazy, and even with the best of security measures, an individual bent on destruction will endeavor to reach his bloody goal. As parents and teachers, we have to hope that effective security measure, quick thinking, and a little bit of luck – like the Perry Hall High counselor who subdued an armed student earlier this year – can thwart such people and make our schools a welcome place of learning.