Families & the Community

Heated Rhetoric Muddies Policy Debate in Wake of School Shootings

By Mark Walsh — May 29, 2018 5 min read
Mourners embrace in front of Christian Riley Garcia's casket during a funeral service on May 26 in Crosby, Texas. The 15-year-old Santa Fe High School student was one of 10 students and staff slain in a shooting at the school on May, 18.

The comments that went viral and that flashed across cable news screens in the days after a gunman killed 10 students and staff members at Santa Fe High School in Texas mirrored the fractured and emotional national response to the latest eruption of school violence. They also threatened to muddy the debate among educators and policymakers about what to do next.

Oliver North, the new president of the National Rifle Association, blamed recent school shootings on youngsters “steeped in a culture of violence” and who have taken the ADHD medication Ritalin since early childhood.

Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, a Republican, said “we have devalued life” through abortion, the breakup of families, and violent video games and that authorities need to arm teachers.

Arne Duncan, who was a U.S. secretary of education under President Barack Obama, seized on an idea tweeted by his own communications chief—a parental boycott of schools, withholding their children until Congress strengthens the nation’s gun laws.

And singer-songwriter Kelly Clarkson told a televised awards show audience that moments of silence weren’t accomplishing anything in the aftermath of mass killings, “so why don’t we not do a moment of silence, why don’t we do a moment of action? ... Why don’t we change what’s happening?” She gave no specifics.

There is no shortage of opinions, it seems, about the causes and potential responses to school shootings such as the one at Santa Fe High School or the Feb. 14 massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., in which 17 students and teachers were killed.

But while the explanations and ideas make good fodder for a wave of TV news shows and memes on social media, they may be removed from the everyday concerns of educators.

“The comments that are made in the initial 48 hours [after the latest incident] are along the lines of ‘something’s got to be done’,” said Dan Kelley, the principal of Smithfield High School in Smithfield, R.I. “In the heat of the moment, people throw out a lot of ideas based on emotion.”

A Parent Walkout?

Peter Cunningham, the former communications director for Duncan and the founder and executive director of the online opinion and advocacy site Education Post, said in an interview that he was prompted to tweet his idea about a parent-led boycott of schools by what he saw as a familiar pattern after each school shooting.

“The pattern here is just like everywhere else,” he said. “Outrage for some period of time, followed by calls for action, followed by zero action. There are the usual attempts to steer the conversation away from guns to mental health, school security, and school access.”

So in the hours after the Santa Fe shooting, Cunningham tweeted, “Maybe it’s time for America’s 50 million school parents to simply pull their kids out of school until we have better gun laws.”

Duncan expanded on his own retweet of Cunningham’s idea with a May 24 op-ed in the Chicago Tribune.

“If the boycott focused on members of Congress who are in the pocket of the gun lobby, it could be especially effective, even if Congress refuses to act,” the former secretary wrote. “They would face the voters at the polls in November and hopefully pay a political price. The [boycott] idea is complicated and inconvenient. But the current reality is horrific.”

Of course, the debate over responses to school shootings is wrapped up in competing views about gun control measures. So it is no surprise that not everyone would embrace the boycott idea.

“No one would say emotional responses are bad, but emotions should not be dictating public policy,” said Amy Swearer, a legal policy analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation in Washington.

Swearer had participated in a panel discussion on responses to school violence at the Education Writers Association’s national seminar in Los Angeles just two days before the Santa Fe shooting. On May 22, she published an essay on Heritage’s website aiming to dispel “false narratives” in the wake of that tragedy. Among them, in her view, is that “common sense” gun control would effectively solve the problem.

“Not a single commonly proposed gun control law would have been more effective than existing laws at preventing a teenager—already too young to buy or own firearms—from stealing his father’s legally owned ‘non-assault weapons,’ taking them into a gun-free zone, and murdering 10 innocent people,” Swearer wrote.

In an interview, she somewhat embraced the Texas lieutenant governor’s idea of limiting entry points to schools.

“We control security at sporting events,” she said. “Why aren’t we treating our schools the same way we treat concerts and sports?”

Common Sense Improvements at School

While pundits and analysts opine on various ideas for addressing school shootings, on-the-ground educators see part of the debate as out of their sphere of influence.

Kelley, the Rhode Island principal who is currently the board president of the National Association of Secondary School Principals, said that administrators in his state want nothing to do with the idea of arming teachers and others in schools, as President Donald Trump and others have proposed.

But he has realized that educators in states such as Texas and Wyoming are much more likely to embrace guns. “It’s part of their culture,” Kelley said.

The idea of limiting the entry points at a school sounds reasonable on one level, he said, but “nothing is going to stop high school kids from propping doors open” for various reasons.

Educators have to focus on building relationships with students and learning as much about them as they can, Kelley said.

“We can’t solve it all at our level,” he said.

Joseph V. Erardi Jr., who became superintendent of the Newtown, Conn., school district two years after the 2012 mass shooting that killed 26 children and adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School, agreed that some of the issues debated on television and social media after school shootings are far removed from what educators should concentrate on.

“You have to believe that your [safety] plan is never done,” said Erardi, who retired last summer. “The only time you are in a bad space is when you get comfortable.”

Erardi lectures around the country and stresses things such as making sure classroom doors can be locked from the inside and that windows have shades or blinds to limit a perpetrator’s sightlines. The exteriors of school buildings should have numbers for each classroom to aid first responders, he added. And superintendents and other administrators need to maintain good relations with the local police department.

Many of these suggestions are low cost and common sense, but “they haven’t been done everywhere,” he said.

Erardi said that anyone who offers ideas about preventing school shootings after such incidents is doing so “with a terrific heart, and I won’t cast stones at those trying to help.”

But he added, “I just hope they become part of a larger voice moving the country in the same direction.”

A version of this article appeared in the May 30, 2018 edition of Education Week as Heated Comments Highlight Divisions In Wake of Shooting

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