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To Keep Students Safe, How Far Is Far Enough?

— September 30, 2019

Thoughts and prayers aren’t enough to keep young people safe from dangers like school shooters or the climate crisis, but neither are some favorite ideologically-based solutions.

The idea that anyone can walk into a public place and start shooting people is frightening. This is especially true at schools, the institutions we trust to keep students safe today while preparing them to succeed in an increasingly unpredictable tomorrow. We all want our kids to be able to enjoy the innocence of childhood. However, we also want them to be aware of the dangers in the world around them, and learn how to avoid those pitfalls. What’s the best way to protect young people while simultaneously giving them the tools and experience to navigate the world on their own?

For some, the answer is black and white: guns should be outlawed. The reasoning is attractively “common sense,” since without guns, nobody gets shot, right? If only it were so simple. Unfortunately, a completely effective gun ban would require the more violently minded people in our society to be unable to improvise devices that the Chinese produced in the 9th and 10th centuries, a level of civilization to which few Americans would want to return today. Some nations, such as Australia, have successfully reduced gun violence through buybacks and strict firearm legislation. Proponents of such solutions in the States have a more deeply entrenched gun culture to reckon with, though, and fellow citizens who are more likely to want to fight another civil war than to relinquish what they perceive as a basic human right. Would a faction bent on unilateral self-disarmament win such a battle? It seems unlikely.

If guns aren’t going away anytime soon and we want something more effective than thoughts and prayers to keep students safe, it makes sense to have drills that teach students what to do during an active shooter situation just as they do for earthquakes and tornadoes. However, it’s important not to go overboard and lose perspective. The odds of being killed in a school shooting are about 1 in 2,000,000. Drills should be comprehensive enough to give students the sort of muscle memory that will keep them safer than they would be otherwise, but that doesn’t require over-the-top exercises where actors fire blanks at students and traumatize them with fake blood. Aim for resilience, not emotional torture.

A young Native man wearing a grey zippered sweatshirt looks directly at the camera.
Xiuhtezcatl Martinez, a young Indigenous climate activist and director of the international conservation organization Earth Guardians, in 2016. Video still by Climate Strike, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. CC BY 3.0

If active drills are too much for some students and parents to handle, is there anything else that can be done? Absolutely. In 2016, Sandy Hook unveiled their newly redesigned elementary school. The old one, the site of the 2012 shooting, was torn down. The new building was designed with safety and openness in mind, including a forested area, a perimeter gate, breakout spaces where students can sit, and aluminum tree trunks running parallel to the lobby. Another defensively-designed high school in Michigan features curved hallways that reduce sight lines and jutting barriers that could provide cover against threats. One would think that parents and pundits would be glad to use every tool in the toolbox to keep students safe, but defensive school design strikes many as a sign of resignation to the inevitability of further school shootings.

Realism isn’t necessarily resignation. We live in a time when young people like the Parkland survivors, Greta Thunberg, Autumn Peltier, Isra Hirsi, Xiuhtezcatl Martinez, and even Little Miss Flint (Mari Copeny) are rising up. They know what’s going on (even better than some adults do), and kids can be smarter and more resilient than we think. It’s our job, as people with economic clout and voting rights, to keep students safe, not only from active shooters, but as many of the messes our culture created as possible, from lead in the drinking water to the climate crisis. If our ideologically-preferred solutions don’t work, try something else. Because if we can’t help kids grow into healthy adults, and leave them a world worth living in, what, finally, is the point?

Related: Liberals Begin Reconsidering Gun Culture


Sit With The Fear: Why The New Sandy Hook Promise Video Should Leave You Haunted
Why Schools Should End Active Shooter Drills Immediately
Mass shootings, school design, and the architecture of resignation
The History of Guns
Strict firearm laws reduce gun deaths: here’s the evidence
Beto’s Impossible Gun Ban Dreams
School Shootings and Lockdowns: How do Kids Cope?

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