Columbine occurred when I was still in the classroom. My heart broke for those who lost their lives as well as those who survived and had to live with the trauma. I remember being asked by friends if I was going to school the next day. I didn’t hesitate to say yes. Most of them asked if I was afraid. My answer was a simple no. I didn’t realize at the time that my response would take me on the road to thinking about why mass school shootings happen in certain places and not in others.
Reasons I Wasn’t Afraid to go to School after Columbine
Our students considered the school a safe space. They found it to be a sanctuary from the real world. We were organized into four mini-schools and worked in teams with common planning and lunchtime which allowed us to share problems. Each student had a good relationship with at least one teacher on the team. In addition, support staff helped to give us eyes everywhere. Rules were clear and expectations for students were high.
Although Philadelphia, like many major cities, has an illegal handgun problem, assault type weapons aren’t usually an issue. Therefore, the sight of a young Black male walking down the street with a gun like an AR-15 is likely to be noticed quickly.
Being Prepared Before an Emergency Helps
We were trained to do lockdowns long before Columbine. Our electricity went out often because of an overloaded generator in the neighborhood. Our building without electricity left many areas in complete darkness so a lockdown plan was initiated. Students who were in class remained there. Personnel without students were assigned to different hallways to support those who had classes. Administration walked the building to be sure everyone stayed calm. The local precinct captain was notified in case we had to do an early dismissal.
The Response to School Shootings
Columbine, Sandy Hook, and Parkland have all left schools tackling how to protect their students from mass shooters. The decisions being made for the most part are traumatizing our children. Some of this trauma could have been avoided if schools had always been prepared for a serious incident.
The preparations in too many schools are focused on safety measures that aren’t likely to save anyone. Live shooter drills are causing students to actually live through a traumatic experience. Even our youngest students have figured out that hiding under a desk isn’t going to stop a shooter. Those who are being told to hide in closets know that there is not enough room for everyone. They should not be in a position to decide who might get saved in the closet. Students should not be in a position to decide “to go down fighting” when they see no other alternative. We need to focus on preventing the next shooting.
The Commonality of Perpetrators
Perpetrators of the most deadly school shootings have several aspects in common.
The major mass school shootings have been committed by White Males
The shooters have access to assault-type weapons and multiple rounds of ammunition
Some have been determined to have learning issues at an early age that were never addressed
Many have few or no close friends
Some had disciplinary problems that were handled by expulsion or change of schools without looking at causality
A few felt like they were being bullied
Students in all socio-economic neighborhoods can experienced turmoil in their families
School districts are spending money on metal detectors, armed guards and paying companies to do mock school invasions. I don’t believe these tactics have stopped any school shootings. That money might be better spent hiring more counselors, training staff to recognize students who are having social and/or emotional issues, as well as being more vigilant in identifying those who are struggling academically. Lastly, schools need social workers available to them for those students who struggle with issues in their homes.
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