School Climate & Safety Opinion

Every Day We Fail to Take Action, We Choose This Fate

By Nancy Flanagan — February 16, 2018 3 min read
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The blog title is a quote from Gabby Giffords, and, of course, she’s referring to gun violence. There are lots of things to say about gun violence right now, and there is no more justified spokesperson than Giffords. Here’s my personal pick—a through synopsis of just who is taking money from the NRA, contrasted with their faux-pious devotions for the families now experiencing hideous, raw grief and anger.

Giffords is hitting on something more with these words. Passing gun control legislation—in waves and layers of restraint and regulation, defying the monstrous NRA and showing the courage of our convictions—is just one of many ways to take action. For those who feel powerless and vulnerable right now, there’s the option of starting small, using our voices to speak the truth about who we are, as a nation, and who we want to be.

We live in a country that turns its back on our very future: our public schools, the precious children who attend them, and the teachers who sacrifice their energy, spirit and personal resources to keep these children safe and growing.

Over the past two days, we’ve seen a number of articulate teachers and students at Stoneman Douglas speak out, forthrightly, about what happened there Wednesday—and what should happen to make their idyllic planned community a better, safer place to live. Like Gabby Giffords, there are no more qualified spokespersons.

These students and teachers are heroes and need to be recognized as important voices, leading a national conversation.

What other small steps can we take?

We can stop demonizing mental illness as root cause of violence. In my 30 years in the classroom, I taught a number of students suffering from severe emotional distress and psychological pain. Most were self-destructive, not violent. When potentially dangerous violent tendencies are identified, teachers have been taught to isolate and send the student on—to counselors (if the school has them), to administrators (for permanent removal), or out into the community, where there is virtually nothing for them. You can’t blame the mentally ill for catastrophic violence. It’s simply not true.

We can work to elect leaders who are not beholden to the NRA, cravenly trying to pay off their donors.

We can forcefully reject any and all suggestions that the solution is arming teachers or custodians, or building fortress/prison schools, with metal detectors, lockdown mentalities and armed guards. Stoneman Douglas rigorously followed all prevention and active-shooter protocols with an armed and trained police officer on-site. There is no foolproof safety plan and treating students and teachers like prospective criminals and law enforcement is both foolish and ineffective.

We can inform ourselves about the ways social media twists and amplifies messages. Pro-gun Russian bots are already racking up big wins in controlling the conversation around gun control: ‘Characterizing shooters as deranged lone wolves with potential terrorist connections is a popular strategy of pro-gun groups because of the implication that new gun laws could not have prevented their actions. Some accounts with large bot followings are already spreading misinformation about the shooter’s ties to far-left group Antifa, even though the Associated Press reported that he was a member of a local white nationalist group.’

We can invest in relationships. Jim Gard, another teacher at Stoneman Douglas, was asked to comment on his experience with the shooting, from his classroom. You can hear the caution and restraint in his voice, trying to stick to the facts and remain calm, before he and his students were even evacuated. And then he says this: The kids were wonderful.

And that is the building block for schools where students are known and cared for: Yes, my students are wonderful. I believe in them. I’m here to help them, no matter what. I trust them to do the right thing.

We cannot prevent gun violence now—our ‘rugged individualist’ mindset and feckless Congress have seen to that. But we can invest in healthy relationships and we can speak out, one by one. We can get to work on a political solution.

Every day we fail to take action, we choose this fate.

The opinions expressed in Teacher in a Strange Land are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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