End of the innocence
Several years ago I did some education reporting in New York, including some time spent at a high school struggling to keep its doors open in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn. Labeled “failing,” the school was headed toward either a turnaround or a takeover by a charter school, and to be fair, had students with many more problems than just abysmal test scores.
The school was housed in a beautiful but neglected old building, its oversized wood front doors locked. Students the same age as my kids were diverted to a side entrance, where a line would form as they waited outside to pass through the metal detector.
I witnessed plenty of jarring things while reporting on city schools, but this struck the most.
How very sad, I thought, that these kids have to shuffle past police officers and through the metal detector each day, subject to suspicion and possible search - daily reminders that their school, like so many other aspects of their lives, was no longer a safe space.
I think about that often again lately as talk abounds about arming teachers and installing metal detectors in response to repeat shootings in schools across the country, most recently at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.
Since the Columbine shooting 18 years ago, more than 135,000 students attending at least 164 elementary, middle and high schools have experienced a shooting on campus, according to a Washington Post analysis.
And yet still the talk remains cheap and common sense reforms illusive. Instead of aiming to get the guns and control the shooters, we talk about arming teachers, installing metal detectors and running our children ritually through active shooter drills.
With those proposed reforms, many children from preschool through high school may never again know what it’s like to learn in a safe space. Even in the absence of violence, there will be the daily reminders of danger always lurking.
I get the palliative effect these so-called reforms have on parents in panic, for whom protection and safety of their children is priority number one. I've been one of those parents.
But more guns in schools, even if in the hands of the good guys, will only lead to otherwise avoidable accidents and injuries and do little to confront a mass shooter. Metal detectors may pick up a knife or a handgun, but do little to stop a gunman intent on blasting away at the entrance.
And active shooter drills? What are we doing to preschoolers when we’re hushing them quiet while pretending a murderer is on the loose? Or reminding students huddled under desks to keep their scissors open, so they can stab better?
What does it say about us as a nation that we allow ourselves to accept that fate?
That in the land of the free, we’re okay with sending our children to learn in buildings armed to bear?
We know it doesn’t and shouldn’t have to be that way, and we know from the examples set by many other countries that the easiest and most direct solution is to get the guns.
If there’s been one bright light since Stone Douglas – and it’s been a brilliant one – it’s the resilience and determination of its students and their peers across state lines, taking control of their own futures and shaming the lawmakers across this country who have stood by, taken money from the National Rifle Association and done nothing to protect our children.
Blood has certainly been on their hands.
In less than six weeks since the shooting in Parkland, the students have pulled together what is destined to be a global protest for the ages. At this Saturday’s March for Our Lives, the students and supporters will gather in Washington, D.C., and at more than 830 events worldwide, to say they’ve had enough of the gun violence in this country and demand action by their elected representatives.
They aren’t asking for armed teachers, more guns in school, or metal detectors. Instead what they want, at least as a start, is a common sense gun bill that bans assault and high-capacity weapons and requires background checks for all gun sales, including online and at gun shows.
And the students are reminding lawmakers to ignore them at their own peril, recognizing now the voting strength in their numbers.
Here’s an excerpt from a New York Times editorial penned by three New Jersey students:
"We are Generation Z, the generation after millennials. We outnumber them by nearly one million and may be the largest cohort of future American spenders since the baby boomers. We have more than $30 billion in spending power and wield enormous influence in family spending. Our spending power will only increase as we begin to earn our own wages.
We will flex our muscles at the ballot box, too. Many high school seniors will cast their first ballots this November, and in 2020, a majority of today’s high school students will most likely be able to vote in their first presidential election. And we will not forget the elected officials who turned their backs on their duty to protect children."
Truth to power, spoken out of the mouths of babes.