School Climate & Safety Opinion

How Can We Learn From Newtown?

By Deborah Meier — December 20, 2012 4 min read
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A version of this piece appeared initially on deborahmeier.com.

Dear friends,

If we extended the logic of the NRA, one could say, “atomic weapons don’t kill, people do.” So why are most people, including almost all NRA supporters, so worried about Iran developing a bomb? Because countries (like people) can’t kill without the weapons to do so, and they can’t kill a lot of people in one stroke without weapons of mass destruction.

That’s why we rightly fear the spread of such weapons. That should go for guns of mass destruction, too. I find it incredible that about half our nation is so worried about a country half a world away, yet seemingly unconcerned about massively lethal weapons in their own midst. We are not talking about weapons anyone would take out on a hunting expedition; I doubt any self-respecting hunter would use these weapons on a herd of deer.

There seems something wrong, even six days later, to be talking about the politics of the massacre in Connecticut. None of this discussion is of any help to those dead children and their grieving parents. Nor for the millions more affected, by the fear and distrust it has spread. But it is the right time for such talk.

It is, of course, symptomatic, a signal, an indicator of something rotten in America. Yes, we far outnumber all other industrialized nations in private madman massacres. Isn’t that somewhat more worrisome than being in the middle on international math test scores?

This tragedy raises so many conflicting thoughts for me. As a
professional entrusted with young children and a parent of young ones, my job was to keep them from situations where their limited experience could endanger them. Still I also wanted them to be risk-takers. At Central Park East and Mission Hill I prided our schools on our openness. Our accessibility, the easy coming and going, was part of our precious character. Should we abandon all this?

Personally, I doubt that the killer in Newtown would have been deterred by any normal precautions. In fact, the Newtown school had locked doors and protocols for dealing with unwelcome intruders. The odd thing is that he stopped at 26.

How can we learn from this without turning our schools and communities into armed fortresses, which might lead to even more gun play? I just heard a TV commentator suggest, that from now on we should interrogate our children at the end of each school day with probing questions that might lead us to see dangers they may unknowingly face. Can you imagine the cost (and not just fiscal) to following up on every potential danger raised when in many cases, such as this recent tragedy, there are few obvious signs?

I went to Litchfield, Conn., last Saturday for a memorial service for an old high school friend, Ann Mott Booth. I listened to the stories told about Ann’s treasured openness to others, her joy, her inclusiveness—even in the midst of her own personal tragedies. How can that special spirit be passed on to our youngsters when our own fears, not of a “foreign” enemy, but even of our neighbors, are so rampant?

“Freedom from fear” was one of the Four Freedoms that FDR proclaimed as the purpose of World War II. Shouldn’t it outweigh the freedom to own weapons of mass destruction?

Let’s not lose sight of that goal in the name of security, big and small, and thus diminish our capacity to trust each other. Let’s listen to the violence of the language that surrounds us, including the language that permeated the last election.

But as I write these words, I remember how many other children have died this month from bombs we Americans have dropped on our enemies. And how many weapons of mass destruction we are stockpiling for ... for some possible future use. Is it really any less crazy than the weapons owned by the mother of that 20-year-old boy in Newtown?

As we think about these issues, brought to the fore by this particular brutal act, let’s grieve and comfort each other. But let’s also explore together what risks we face in efforts to promote trust, and what compromises we must make if we are to think through common solutions. How do we balance our love for our individual freedom and our equally powerful love for our common causes, our families, neighborhood, country, and planet?

I once wrote, in defense of small schools, that probably not a day passes in the average large comprehensive high school that some child is not grieving for the death of someone dear to him or her. If we stopped to take each death seriously we’d be in a perpetual state of mourning. I was glad that in the schools I’ve been a part of we had the time to stop everything and join together around each other’s needs. That was a good habit that cannot often be lived up to in modern times.

I commented also on how often I see adults rushing over when they witness a child being hurt by another angry child, to scold the perpetrator—rather than rushing first to console the victim. There’s a time for punishment, retribution, or whatever—and a time for loving. But our “habits,” and I mean mine, too, are far behind the rhetoric we preach.


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