School Climate & Safety

Amish Not Seen Likely to Embrace Security Measures

By Mary Ann Zehr — October 05, 2006 4 min read
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The Amish in Lancaster County, Pa., are not likely to respond to the fatal shootings in one of their schools by adding technology for security, according to scholars of Amish society.

Giving teachers in the one-room schoolhouses where most Amish children are educated cellular telephones to use in an emergency, for example, would go against the religious community’s views on education.

In Amish schools, where children are taught the values of what it means to be Amish, the only gadgets are battery-run clocks, said Donald B. Kraybill, a sociology professor at Elizabethtown College in Elizabethtown, Pa., and an expert on the Amish.

“The cellphone idea wouldn’t fly because it’s a point of controversy in a lot of Amish communities right now,” Mr. Kraybill said.

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Amish leaders in Lancaster County allow church members to use cellphones at work, such as for contractors to make business interactions, though they’re urged not to take them home. Leaders are not likely to extend that permission to educators, said Mr. Kraybill, who is writing a book about Amish use of technology.

“The school is the most protected area in the whole spectrum of Amish culture in terms of technology,” he said. “When you move to the home, you see more technology; if you move to the barn, there’s more. If you move to shops and businesses, there is even more.”

Members of the Amish Christian denomination don’t use electricity or drive cars and reject many other kinds of modern technology because of their belief that they should live apart from the world.

The Amish, who number 200,000 in the United States, use guns to hunt animals, but they believe it is wrong for a Christian to defend himself with a gun or participate in the military. Thus, observers found it all the more horrific that Amish children should have been killed last week by a man who barged into one of their schools wielding three guns.

School Doors Unlocked

The nation has about 1,500 one- or two-room Amish schools, including 150 in Lancaster County, according to Mr. Kraybill. The county, about 60 miles west of Philadelphia, is the heart of what is called Pennsylvania Dutch country, though that label actually refers to its numerous German settlers.

The Amish are likely to view the violence at the West Nickel Mines School in Paradise, Pa., as “an isolated incident,” Mr. Kraybill said, and “not some campaign by the outside world against them.”

But he added that teachers might become more cautious, taking more notice of any strangers in the schoolyard. Amish also might be more likely to build new schools near an Amish house, where the school would be less isolated, he said.

Steven M. Nolt, an associate professor of history at Goshen College in Goshen, Ind., who has studied Amish school issues, agreed that Amish educators aren’t likely to make big changes in response to the Pennsylvania slayings.

Typically, Amish school doors aren’t locked during the day, and Amish parents stop by at any time unannounced, he said. He also said he has occasionally visited an Amish school in Indiana or Pennsylvania that has an outside telephone booth that is used by the whole Amish community.

In the 1940s, almost all Amish children attended public schools, but that changed in the 1950s and 1960s as states consolidated rural schools. Mr. Nolt said the Amish didn’t want their children to be bused outside of their communities, and felt the consolidated schools were shaped by the state and didn’t reflect local parental concerns, particularly in the curriculum.

Today, most Amish children attend private schools run by their own people. Several Amish men who are parents—not church leaders or bishops—constitute the school board that manages an Amish school, according to Mr. Nolt. Amish schools in Lancaster County use reissued mathematics textbooks from the 1930s and basal readers from an Amish publisher, he added.

Like the West Nickel Mines School, Amish schools across the country teach children only through the 8th grade. Teachers are usually young, single Amish women.

Under a 1972 U.S. Supreme Court decision, in Wisconsin v. Yoder, the Amish are exempt—because of their religious objections—from attendance laws that otherwise would compel their children to go to high school.

Helping Hands

The Amish are descendants of Anabaptist groups that formed in 16th-century Europe around their rejection of infant baptism. A group of Anabaptists led by Jacob Amman, a Swiss Mennonite, split off from the Mennonites in 1693 and became known as the Amish.

Across the country, Mennonites and Amish often reside in the same communities, and when a crisis affects the Amish, Mennonites help out by driving the Amish wherever needed or offering other support. That was true last week in Lancaster County.

Philhaven, a mental-health-care facility owned by the Lancaster Mennonite Conference, an umbrella group for Mennonite churches, held a meeting at a firehall near West Nickel Mines School to provide counseling to Amish families. It also set up a toll-free phone number for Amish to call to receive counseling.

Two Mennonite organizations—the Mennonite Central Committee, an international relief organization, and the Mennonite Disaster Service, which cleans up after natural disasters—set up a fund to raise money for the affected families. Amish participate in both organizations.

The donations, said a spokesman for the Mennonite Central Committee, which is based in Akron, Pa., will be spent on medical care, transportation, and possibly on a new school to replace the site of the shootings.

A version of this article appeared in the October 11, 2006 edition of Education Week as In Wake of Shootings, Amish Schools Not Likely to Boost Security, Experts Say

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