Category Archives: school violence

#NationalSchoolWalkout – Grown Ups Need to Listen

Student activists, responding to the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, organized a national walk out to memorialize murdered classmates, to protest gun violence, and to call for national action from elected officials.  Across the country, at exactly 10am, 100s of thousands of students (100,000 in New York City alone) walked out of their classrooms to participate in a 17 minute long protest, one minute for each victim of the Parkland shooting.  Scenes from across the country:


Adults had various levels of difficulty accepting what the students had to say.  Citing safety and disruption concerns, school districts around the country threatened disciplinary action if students participated in the walk out.  And, of course, people continued to lob vile opinions about some of the organizers of the Never Again movement, such as Republican candidate for the Maine House of Representatives, Leslie Gibson, who called Parkland survivor Emma Gonzalez a “skinhead lesbian” and referred to her schoolmate David Hogg as  a “bald-faced liar.”  Fox News host Sean Hannity used his radio show to first brag a little about the purity of his racial ancestry and then to dismiss the student marchers as indoctrinated.

It is 2018 and gun violence is a polarizing issue, so the vileness is expected and fairly easy to flip on the perpetrators.  What is less expected but also troubling is the viral response that students should not “Walk Out” but rather “Walk Up,” meaning that they should make an effort to include others and to break down social barriers that are at the root of bullying and exclusion in our schools.  #WalkUpNotOut trended on social media, typified by images like this:

This idea is painfully, almost achingly, well-intentioned by most of those promoting it.  However, it misses the mark in several important ways. First, the syntax of “Walk Up Not Out” directly tells students NOT to participate in the Walk Out and use their free speech rights in their chosen manner.  Several graphics for the idea actually cross out the word “Out” to replace it with “Up” as if participating in a one time protest is antithetical to participating in daily kindness.  Second, it conflates equally important issues that deserve their own platform.  The Walk Out was organized to signal that students and their supporters are weary of America’s massively disproportionate share of the developed world’s gun violence and that they are willing to take political action to change that.  The concept of walking up is one that tries to confront the issues of gun violence with issues of bullying and social isolation – issues that deserve their own independent attention.  It is true that bullying victims are twice as likely to bring a weapon to school, but the assumed link between bullying and mass shootings is empirically unverified. “Walking up” is likely a good basis for reducing the risks of teen suicide, but as a response to mass shootings, it is not strongly correlated.

Other critics quickly pointed out that the “walk up” meme is attempting to deflect attention from America’s outlier position regarding guns and gun violence and to place the blame for mass shootings on the victims themselves.  If the shooter had been treated better, then the victims would not have been victimized:

Although many quickly protested that was not their intention, I cannot help but to agree with the accusation of victim blaming.  Many places, frequently schools, could be much kinder environments that eschew bullying and offer people inclusion and warmth.  But the need for that change should not be held up as a reason to tell young people to halt their creative protests on other issues, nor should anti-bullying efforts be conflated with addressing gun violence.  And above all, the responsibility for addressing and alleviating bullying within schools lays squarely upon the shoulders of the adults who run the place and have ultimate authority over what goes on in school.  A school culture of bullying can be toxic – and it can be lethal mainly in the form of suicide – but the people who let it go on unchecked are the people with the legal and moral authority to intervene.

And additional problem with the walk up meme is that it is attempting to silence student protestors at the exact moment in time when those of us in older generations should be quiet and listening to what they have to say.  The survivors of Parkland have impressed a great many people, but they are not exactly atypical of their generation and the general awareness of inequity and the need for change that they embrace.  For two generations now, the adults in the room have largely stood by and watched as the economy decoupled rising productivity from wages, and as earning potential for anyone without a college degree has collapsed:


We’ve stood by as the concentration of wealth have made it possible for small groups of extremely wealthy people to wield power far disproportionate to their number, leading to inaction on issues as broad-ranging as climate change to gun policy.  We’ve stood by as two generations of African American and Hispanic men have faced mass incarceration and the economic, social, political, and racial costs that it inflicts.  We’ve stood by as police departments have been increasingly militarized in communities of color.  And yet, even as representatives fail to take action even on issues that have broad support, voting-aged Americans continue to send them back to Congress at rates as high as 90%.

The young people at the center of yesterday’s walk out event are well aware of these facts, but when they decided to take a day of collective action to tell the rest of the country that they are finding a common voice on an issue the adults have not figured out in decades, they are being told that they are doing it wrong.  This is as completely backwards as the media firestorm aimed at Colin Kaepernick’s protest of police brutality that somehow make even the most understated of protests the wrong thing to do.  We need to comprehend that we’ve made at least as much of a hash of domestic policy as the “Best and Brightest” managed to make of foreign policy in the generations before ours (and to be fair — foreign policy is not exactly in an upward spiral). Young people are telling us that they are paying attention to how we have failed to be stewards of a “more perfect union” for our Posterity, that they can command the attention of the media, that they can energize their peers in great numbers – and that they want change.

It is time for us to listen.

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Filed under #blacklivesmatter, Activism, Media, politics, school violence, schools, Social Justice

What, Exactly, Am I Preparing My Students For?

On February 14th, 19 year-old Nikolas Cruz entered his former high school, Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, armed with an AR-15 rifle and proceeded to murder 17 students and staff before he fled the scene and was quickly apprehended.  The tragedy was the third mass shooting with more than a dozen fatalities in only 4 months and the seventh mass shooting in the same period.  The event also brought a swift round of accusations and counter accusations about responsibility and apparent inaction to repeated calls to law enforcement over Cruz’s behavior.  The fallout of that is still ongoing, and it will certainly sort itself out over time.

What was less expected was the swift and, for now, sustained call for action from the very victims of the mass shooting, the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas.  America is caught in a cynical cycle where a mass shooting tragedy is met with a chorus of political “leaders” offering their “thoughts and prayers” and declaring that now is “not the time” to discuss policy changes that might address America’s unique problem with gun violence in general and with mass shootings in particular.  It was widely, sadly, believed that after 20 first graders were murdered in Sandy Hook in 2012 with little more than a round of “thoughts and prayers,” a call from President Obama for action, and zero action by Congress for years that nothing will change.  That belief seemed validated as the years ticked by with over 400 additional people shot in more than 200 shootings in schools.

There is a chance that might change.

The reason for that hope is the unexpected but inspiring “Never Again” movement that the high school survivors of Parkland have put together at breakneck speed. These students, raised entirely after the Columbine massacre, well-educated, media and social media savvy, have captured a tremendous amount of attention and have openly expressed the frustration and exasperation with the nation’s complete standstill on gun policy purchased by millions of dollars in political donations by the NRA.  Consider this speech by Senior Emma Gonzalez:

This interview with her classmate, David Hogg:

Cameron Kasky, asking Senator Marco Rubio if he will reject NRA donations:

Or Delaney Tarr explaining to lawmakers that they will not go away:

For their efforts and their eloquence, the teenaged leaders of the past three weeks have been subject to bizarre conspiracy theories, patronizing mocking by conservative pundits, and death threats.  So far, they show no signs of being deterred nor of losing their platform.

It would be remiss to not mention how activists and supporters of Black Lives Matter expressed both admiration of and support for the Parkland survivors, and dismay at how powerful figures in the media, in entertainment, and in politics never afforded similar attention and support for their protests:

It is also important to note the passion and dignity that Black Lives Matter brought and continues to bring to their protests, despite constant misrepresentation, backlash and police response, as evidenced by the arrest of Ieshia Evans in Baton Rouge after the death of Alton Sterling:

This is important because both Black Lives Matter and Never Again ask at least one clear question in common:  Is it possible to go about a daily life without constant fear of violence and death?  Both movements deserve answers in the affirmative, but neither are likely to get those answers soon.

It appears, also, that America’s teachers have been forced into the same question alongside the student activists.  Educators have been present at every one of the 400 school shootings since Sandy Hook, and they have been victims.  Teachers in American schools are tasked with training students through mandatory “lock down” drills in the event that the increasingly thinkable visits their schools.  During actual school shootings, teachers are responsible for following school procedures that are hopefully designed to keep their charges safe.  In the days after the Parkland murders, teachers shared stories of their discussions with students about what would happen in the event of a shooting in their school, and they have been, frankly, heart breaking.  A teacher in Ohio, Marissa Schimmoeller, explained how her students promised to “carry her” to safety as she is confined to a wheelchair, and other teachers took to twitter to explain their gut wrenching conversations with students in the wake of the Florida attack, like this one about how a teacher would have to lock her students into a closet from the OUTSIDE:

Teachers were further forced to wonder what their lives and safety mean when the President of the United States insisted upon using his social media platform to claim that arming teachers would be a big step in “solving” the problem:

I have already written at length about how absolutely terrible an idea this is.  Mark Webber details further points about the impracticality and expense of such an idea.  Peter Greene points out the incredible juxtaposition of all of the explicit criticism of teachers that has been at the center of our national education debate for, well, forever, but then assuming teachers can carry guns in school and be first responders in an actual crisis.  Unfortunately, since the President of the United States decided to interject, repeatedly, this terrible idea into the national discourse, it has become a part of the debate on what teachers ought to do in the face of gun violence in schools.

It would be tempting at this point to take comfort in raw numbers.  The reality is that the vast majority of America’s 50 million school aged children and their 3 million teachers go to school 180 days a year and never have more than a preparedness drill.  American education is a vast enterprise spanning 98,000 public schools spread across 15,000 school districts.  Students spend a total of 54 BILLION hours in public schools in every year, and Americans’ odds of dying in a mass shooting in any location are about 4 times less than the odds of choking to death on food.  But that is not how terrorism really works.  The sheer randomness of mass gun violence in our society means that even if we are very unlikely to die from such violence, we can never really dismiss the possibility, and the unique position America occupies in the developed world as the undisputed capital of gun violence and mass shootings cannot be dismissed either.  Besides, the odds of dying in a tornado in Kansas are also very low for any individual.  It is still prudent to have a storm cellar and a plan to get to it in an emergency.

Does this mean I have to change my teacher education curriculum?

This isn’t an idle consideration.  Since I moved from the classroom to teacher education in 1997, one of the core principles that has guided my work has been preparing future teachers for work far beyond instruction.  Gary Fenstermacher, interpreting the work of John Goodlad, states that teachers have to learn how to be “good stewards” of their school, meaning that they take responsibility for the well-being of the entire enterprise within the school within the context of free public education in society.  Further, teachers must practice communication and be informants to the community, they must understand and promote the role of citizenship in a democracy, and they must model transformational learning, demonstrating to students that they themselves are always learning deeply and meaningfully.  This is complex vision of teachers’ work that takes a tremendous amount of dedication and knowledge to put into practice and which the best teachers refine over the course of their careers.

The work beyond instruction points to an ethical responsibility for teachers that is both humbling and daunting.  How can I practice stewardship of the school and its role in the community if I do not confront bullying and abuse regardless of its source?  How can I be an effective communicator to parents and the community if I condescend to them or embrace pernicious stereotypes?  What kind of citizenship will I promote if I do not challenge injustice and the complacency that lets it flourish?  Teacher education that does not present these questions to future teachers fails to provide even the barest preparation for what teaching really is.

Do we now have no choice but to fold “What will you do if someone aims a gun at your students?” to teacher preparation?

On the one hand, this does seems like a “storm cellar in Kansas” concept.  You can go your entire life without ever needing it, but if you do not have it if the time comes, you are far worse off.  On the other hand, merely acknowledging this as a responsibility of teachers – as if it were taking attendance – without at least trying to challenge the insanity is a massive failure of moral imagination.  Perhaps this is why Black Lives Matter activists make so many people uncomfortable and why the Never Again activists have captured an available platform.  As the young people who have grown up in a system that is insufficiently outraged by the outrageous, they are not simply accepting it and are demanding to know why those in power will not use their legal authority to make it better.

Perhaps it will be sufficient for teacher preparation to follow the lead of NYU’s Steinhardt program with a crisis preparedness seminar centered on case studies of situations that arise in school and which brings in guidance counselors, other professionals, and students themselves to consider what can arise in schools — including shootings.  But I think this is stunningly insufficient if we do not add our voices to those calling for real and comprehensive answers to our gun problem, and if we fail to highlight how many schools are insufficiently prepared to meet their most pressing needs — a rich curriculum, guidance and full care of students, nutrition programs, fully funded and staffed libraries, working facilities — then we are merely acquiescing to further neglect of our students and co-workers.  Responding to the tragedies that have spanned Columbine and Sandyhook and Marjory Stoneman Douglas requires not to simply run children through preparedness drills, but also requires that we add our voices to the young activists demanding why our political system can offer them nothing more than drills layered with thoughts and prayers.


Filed under #blacklivesmatter, Activism, classrooms, Corruption, politics, racism, school violence, schools, Social Justice, teacher learning

Arming Teachers — Still a Bad Idea

It was never my intention to fold gun politics into this blog.  I prefer to keep my focus on issues directly related to schooling, school policy, and the politics of education.  Our nation’s seemingly intractable issue with gun violence in general and with mass shooting incidents in particular is an issue without direct connection to our schools except via tragedy.  The politics and policies involved with the issues are deeply complex with very hardline opponents on either side of the issue seemingly incapable to finding means of discussion with each other.  Pro-gun advocates in particular appear to have extremely well organized and highly influential lobbying groups that successfully prevent any action on new laws about guns, even ones that enjoy broad support among the American people, including gun owners.  To delve into the politics of guns in America would be to expand the scope and nature of my writing.

But then politicians seem intent to kick the issue right into my wheelhouse.

Presidential candidate Dr. Ben Carson responded to the recent mass shooting at an Oregon Community College by joining fellow front runner Donald Trump in saying teachers should be armed in our schools, even in Kindergarten.  Dr. Carson said, “If I had a little kid in kindergarten somewhere I would feel much more comfortable if I knew on that campus there was a police officer or somebody who was trained with a weapon.  If the teacher was trained in the use of that weapon and had access to it, I would be much more comfortable if they had one than if they didn’t.”  Donald Trump also said, “Let me tell you, if you had a couple teachers with guns in that room, you would have been a hell of a lot better off.”  While Dr. Carson and Mr. Trump are regarded as buffoons by the media, they are not alone on this issue.  Wayne LaPierre, President of the National Rifle Association, spent a blessed few days after the 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut being quiet – before holding a press conference that called for more armed people within our schools.  Legislators across the nation have either proposed or passed laws allowing teachers with concealed or open carry permits to bring their guns with them to work, and by 2014, two dozen states had such laws, although it is currently impossible to know how many teachers are taking advantage of their legal ability to bring weapons with them.  The logic is that armed teachers will either deter violence or allow the school staff to stop a shooter themselves.

While I will concede that some states, especially our large, mostly rural, western states, have much deeper gun cultures than most and have an environment where the presence of weapons is normalized and largely safe, and while I will concede the emotional appeal of giving teachers options beyond lock down in an emergency, I also have to state that vastly increasing the number of armed people in our schools is one of the worst ideas I have ever heard.  I was tempted to post any number of comedic responses to Dr. Carson’s and Mr. Trump’s bloviations on the issue or any number of cartoons of Mr. LaPierre’s logical pretzel maneuvers.

But this isn’t funny.

While we do not apparently know how many teachers are going to school armed every day (and we can dismiss as logically fallacious the claims that Utah’s current lack of a mass school shooting recently is the result of the “bad guys” not knowing who is armed), we do know realities about schools, and some of those realities are not pretty.  I’m going to rely upon anecdote for this, but I believe it is illustrative – and important.

My 7th grade year was the year bullies ruled our junior high school.  It was the early 1980s, and, frankly, the teachers and administrators did a terrible job of taking control of our school’s culture back, and by “a terrible job” I mean they did practically nothing.  I was bullied pretty relentlessly that year, as were many others, but nobody was bullied as relentlessly and as brutally as one of our classmates who eventually took his own life – which, perversely, finally gave the bullies something to think about and finally led to at least some relief from the physical and emotional abuse.

Sadly, that did not apply to our teachers who were targeted by the school’s bullies as well.

My 7th grade social studies teacher was especially hard pressed.  He was not a bad person.  Under better circumstances, I believe he would have been a moderately forgettable teacher – not greatly skilled, but knowledgeable and able to create an organized curriculum.  But with my classmates, he was pushed to his limits.  The bullies in the class were resolutely non-cooperative and sought any available chance to interrupt him, mock him, or otherwise undermine him with the rest of the class.  They stole from his desk and briefcase.  He found rude messages on his chalkboard.  He persevered throughout the year, but he was simply pushed to his limits by students who did not care how many times they were sent to the office and who saw him as an easy victim to torment – even after that same behavior aimed at a classmate had resulted in tragedy.  Perhaps because he was an adult, they thought different rules applied to the lessons they supposedly had learned earlier.  At the end of the year, they pulled a serious prank in class — setting off a firecracker — and he lost his control.  A desk was flipped over and one of the bullies found himself violently pushed against the wall by our teacher.

I can think of no circumstance in which the presence of a gun would have made that day better — for either our teacher, the class as a whole, or the 13 year old bully who had finally gone too far.

And here’s the thing – there are tens of millions of students in this country, taught by millions of teachers in over 95,000 public schools across more than 16,000 school districts.  This is hard work, and despite the fact that the vast majority of teachers manage their classrooms very well, at any given time during the school year there are teachers who are being pushed to the limit of what they can manage. For some of them, that might be their daily reality, but for many of them it could simply be a matter of a very bad day or even a few student for whom they have not found a way to connect or who refuse to allow a connection.  Even if this problem only exists in one classroom every 1000 schools at any given moment, that leaves almost 100 classrooms across the country with an adult who is under serious duress.  Under normal circumstances, this can managed — perhaps some such teachers are not capable of classroom management and need to seek different work.  Perhaps some simply need a colleague to give them a 5 minute pause to regather themselves.  Perhaps some need better structural supports within their schools from colleagues, administrators, and families.  Perhaps the culture of the school needs adult and student leadership aimed at stopping bystander acquiescence in the presence of bullying.  There are many possible solutions and interventions.

A gun in the classroom is not one of them.  And although we do not know the number of teachers in the states that allow them to carry a gun to school do so routinely, if Mr LaPierre and certain legislators have their way, it is only a matter of time before a classroom gun tragedy does not come into school from the outside.  I do not mean that every teacher under extreme duress in the classroom is likely to turn into a shooter. But think about what we know about the presence of guns: more permissive gun laws are associated with higher per capita rates of deaths by guns; death by violence is more likely among adults who purchase guns; guns in the home are associated with a modestly increased risk of homicide and a greatly increased risk of suicide; the mere presence of a weapon can increase the aggressive behavior of others.  If we follow the advice of Mr. LaPierre and if we understand some of the high stress situations that are possible in school – well, it doesn’t take much imagination, does it?

Even in the hands of teachers who are in full control, the “more guns in school” argument is problematic.  We know that in active shooter situations, even highly trained police officers frequently have very high miss rates.  In 2005, New York City police officers were on target in 34% of all shootings — and in distances of zero to six feet, 43% of the time.  This isn’t because they are terrible shots, but because in a high stress situation, even highly trained people miss – a lot.

This is likely why the FBI provides advice for the general population on what to do in an “active shooter” situation, and the advice is to run, hide, and to fight as the absolutely last choice.  As both a father and as an educator, this is what I expect from my children’s teachers and from myself and my colleagues.  Tasked with caring for a classroom full of students, responsible action is to take them to safety or to make certain they are hidden from harm as best as possible.  Since teachers are in charge of many others and must keep control of them during an inherently chaotic and frightening situation, the chances of ever getting to the “fight” stage is likely vanishingly small. An adult with 25 Kindergarten kids under her protection has much more critical tasks in a crisis.

There are some extraordinary circumstances I am willing to entertain.  We have schools in rural areas that are very far from emergency help.  It could also be plausible for a weapon to be in school under extreme security that can only be accessed by a highly trained security officer.  But the immediate call for “more guns” in schools is a call for more problems and distracts us from debates we ought to be having.  We should discuss what levels of security are needed at school entrances and exits that still allow us to teach.  We should figure out the most effective actions school teachers and administrators can take in a crisis situation to protect the children in their care.

We also need to stop pivoting directly into the “mental illness is to blame” argument after every mass shooting event, and set aside the pipe dream that psychologists can easily sort out potential shooters from the population.  We need to have an honest conversation about the consequences of ready access to firearms, and what laws might be able to slow down or prevent some people’s ability to get a gun in the heat of anger.

And we need politics in this country that is not so craven as to actually ban the CDC from studying the causes and impacts of gun violence or to subsequently block legal funding for that purpose.  Gun violence and mass shooting events are problems that are almost unique to the United States compared to our peer democracies.  Suggesting that teachers should deter that violence from entering our schools by arming themselves and then doing what even trained police officers have trouble doing during shootings is not only absurd – it is abjectly dangerous.


Filed under classrooms, school violence, schools, teaching