We Just Want To Be Safe

Time has passed, and I’ve worked through my stages of grief after yet another school shooting.

Schools must be safe places, places where students feel safe to be themselves, to try and fail, to learn and grow. Students should not be afraid to show up.

But recent events say otherwise. From the tragedies to the threats intended as jokes, students are not feeling safe.

Listen to their voices.

It is not just a political problem. It is not just a mental health crisis. To cast the problem off in that light places blame. It is not my intent to point fingers at any individuals or groups. We will find a solution only when we look forward rather than look back. We must work together and stop pointing the fingers of blame.

Reality Checks:

1. Nothing we will do will prevent every school shooting. Strict DUI laws do not prevent some people from drinking and driving. But they prevent many, and they save lives.

2. Solutions take time. Let’s agree to give ourselves the gift of time.

3. We won’t get it “right” the first time, or the second. But we must do something. Then fix it, and fix it again. To do nothing out of feeling that nothing we do will solve the problem is no longer acceptable.

4. We are dealing with a paradox. Factors leading to the incidents are both simple and complex. The solutions must be also.

5. Nobody is coming to knock on your doors and take your guns away. But if you are more worried about losing your gun as a result of a mass shooting than you are about the loss of innocent lives…


In Winter, 2000, I was working for the Department of Defense Education Activity, assigned to the school district at Fort Knox, Kentucky. My primary assignment was in Curriculum and Staff Development. But I also wore the hat of “Anti-Terrorism/Force Protection Officer” for the base school system. That role required a security clearance and a lot of training that wasn’t part of my administration preparation program. Because of the nature of our system, it is safe to assume that we had some plans and procedures in place besides the fire drills, etc that every school had at that time.

I was part of the planning team for a post-wide anti-terrorism exercise that would take place in Summer, 2001. It was loosely based on the Columbine shooting. Our team spent 6 months studying the events that led up to that morning, what happened that day, and the months that followed. We were able to examine the shooters school lives, we watched the video from inside and outside the building, listened to the 911 calls, news footage shot that day, law enforcement communications and response. The after-action report was almost as long as War and Peace.

I was still in that role on September 11, 2001. Between the time of the 2nd tower crash and the crash into the Pentagon, the threat level on post jumped from the lowest level to the highest. Fort Knox was under credible threat of an imminent attack. Part of the response protocol at the highest level was the placement of armed soldiers inside each school building, and patrolling outside on each campus.

We were reacting to events, and secure in our confidence that we were as prepared as possible. Procedures were in place, and everyone was implementing our plans.

While we felt secure, we did not feel safe.  No amount of practice can replicate the emotions and adrenaline rush of an actual event. Trust me, been there, done that.

So what are your solutions, Gary? Seems like you have a bit of first hand experiences to draw from that most of us, fortunately, don’t.

This may fly in the face of conventional wisdom and/or popular opinion. So be it.

1. We do not need school staff to be armed. The worst kept secret in a school will be which staff are the winners in the “concealed carry lottery.” They will likely become the first targets of a planned event. Responders to an active shooter incident will not know who they are, and, as many have told me during trainings, “When we enter a building in search of an active shooter, anyone with a gun is going down.” They are highly trained to respond to these types of events, they don’t need marginally trained amateurs roaming the halls with a weapon. Run, lock, fight is fantastic. Don’t expect educators to become first responders in the heat of the moment.

One lesson learned in trainings with the DOD was about the physiological effects that occur in live fire scenarios. Adrenaline surges, blood pressure escalates at a rapid rate and breathing become very erratic. In times of chaos, it takes a tremendous amount of focus to just breathe. Erratic breathing leads to erratic shooting. Missing your target by an inch or two in a crowded setting can have a devastating and deadly effect. What I have seen thus far about arming teachers is that they would get minimal training and be required to certify on a target range once or twice a year by putting a few rounds into a silhouette target. Not too tough. The target isn’t moving, it isn’t threatening to shoot back, hearing protection is being worn, breathing and heart rates are normal, all focus is on the task. Staff would certify with hand guns.

The reality of  an active shooter situations is very different. The target will be moving, shooting back, and most likely will have a more powerful weapon than the handgun. The likelyhood of casualties due to friendly fire is extremely high.

We can do better.

Put another way, every school has rules prohibiting throwing rocks on the playground. Yet, in every school, there are still a few kids who throw rocks on the playground. The solution is not to give all the other kids a rock to throw back. Hence the paradox, complex yet simple…

2. Reasonable gun control legislation, including banning devices that can transform a legal weapon into a weapon of mass destruction, must be enacted and strenuously enforced. I am not going to enter into any discussion about the definition of an assault rifle, it serves no purpose. When it is your child’s school which is being attacked, and you cannot reach your child because their cell phone was left in a classroom or locker during an evacuation; when you are sitting in your office or classroom and hear the sound of rapid gunshots and the cries of victims; when you are called to the scene to help with identifying the deceased victims, the parsing of language is meaningless. The membership of the NRA is overwhelmingly in favor of reasonable gun control laws leading to gun safety. In my peronal opinion, it is the leadership of the NRA who need to listen to the voices of their members, to the majority of the American people, and the cries of those who can no longer speak for themselves.

3. Enforce existing laws. Many mechanisms and procedures are already in place, if only all of us would follow them. Hindsight is is always 20-20. Let’s all learn from the past, heed the warning signs, and act both proactively and responsibly in the future. The video really captures how the system should work, hopefully, in the future, it will.

4. The world has changed since we were the ages of our students. As I have written before, we are no longer responsible for only teaching them, we are now, in many cases, raising them. Our roles, as must the roles of others in our communities, must change to meet the changing needs. We need school counselors who spend less time building schedules and checking off boxes on college admissions forms and more time with students who need their particular expertise. Given the capabilities of our LMS, scheduling has become a clerical task, it doesn’t require an advanced degree. Every teacher at the secondary level can work with their students on the post-secondary stuff. The models are there, I was principal of one school where we pulled it off. And let’s face it, given the student/counselor ratios in most of our schools, the teachers know the kids, and their dreams, better than the the counselors ever can. We need school psychologists who spend less time testing kids, and in meetings explaining the testing, and more time with kids who are screaming for their unique expertise. We need social workers in every school who can address student and family issues rather than armed guards patrolling the hallways. We need to find ways for teachers to spend more time building relationships, teaching and guiding learning.

Mostly, we need communities to trust the decisions of those to whom they send their most valuable possessions, their children. Things must change. Life is not worth living if we have to live with the fear of what may happen simply because the kids go to school, tomorrow.

And so it goes…

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