First Person

Sheer Luck Shouldn't Be the Only Thing Stopping Our Students From Dying

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It is the first meeting of our "Fearless Females" women’s empowerment club for the 2012-13 school year. The students and I want to recruit new members, so we are making colorful posters to hang in the hallways. We chat as we color. Then the schoolwide PA system beeps to signal an announcement, and we hear our principal's urgent voice.

This is a lockdown. Everyone, lock down now.

At Joliet Central High School in Illinois, where I teach English, we have lockdown drills twice a year. But this doesn’t feel like a rehearsal. Drills don't happen after school. Drills don't start with the breathless voice of the principal.

This is not a drill.

One student, Elizabeth, is among those hiding behind my desk. She rapidly scrolls through her cellphone as we wait. I whisper to her not to post anything or text anyone that could give away our location. She shakes her head that she won't.

I just want to see if anyone is posting about what's going on, she types into her phone. She doesn't want anyone to hear us and know where we are.

Smart kid. Smarter than she has to be.

I try to keep my facial expression measured so as not to show the students I am terrified. The lockdown is the longest 25 minutes of my life. But we emerge unharmed.

I find out later that a student had brought a gun on to school grounds because another student was trying to fight him. The next day, as I walk into school, I look up. The bullet hole is in the middle of a glass pane—a visible battle scar.

"A classroom's distance to the right and it would have been our window," Elizabeth remarks later. "We got lucky."

The Problem Is Everywhere

Gun violence in communities has been a problem for a long time. In the United States, according to research by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 33,000 people die each year as a result of gun violence. In Chicago, as of May, 890 people have been shot this year alone.

Worse, this is happening in schools. So many schools. Seventeen dead in Parkland, Fla. Just last week, 10 dead in Santa Fe, Texas. Thirteen K-12 school shootings and counting in 2018.

This is everywhere. Every town.

Our school is about 40 miles away from Chicago, and many of our students have experienced gun violence in their daily lives. We do not have real lockdowns often, but gun violence is present in our community. The false alarms are just as terrifying as real threats.

In March, during our school’s walkout to protest gun violence and commemorate the victims of the February 14 Parkland shooting, a student yelled, "How many of you have been affected by gun violence?" Hundreds of students fell silent. Almost everyone raised their hands.

We teachers watch helplessly as the body count rises, waiting for the politicians to take action. Students walk out of school in protest. Their voices are getting louder; some legislators are paying attention. Since the Parkland shooting, 14 states have tightened gun control laws or attempted to increase school safety, and some local municipalities have either passed or challenged laws pertaining to gun control. But progress is slow.

Changing Our Own Luck

No student or teacher in my school has died during a lockdown. The school was hit instead of the shooter's target. But I can't call that luck. It was decidedly unlucky that a student decided to bring a gun to a fight in the first place. It seems like that's the kind of bad luck that we should change.

Sheer luck should not be what keeps our students from being shot. There should be calculated measures in place to avoid these senseless deaths: stricter background checks, gun bans for those convicted of domestic violence, research for smart guns that will fire only after sensing an owner’s fingerprint, and no sales to individuals under 21. Those would be places to start.

I don't want to take away hunting tools or hobbies. But I do want to keep guns out of the hands of people who will bring them to school parking lots or classrooms or movie theaters or concerts or places of worship. I want to keep them out of the hands of gang members and bullied teenagers and mass shooters.

It seems the best way to prevent a tragedy is not to prepare teachers with lockdowns and their own weapons—as some politicians have suggested—but to take the weapons away from the would-be perpetrators.

No gun, no tragedy.

Simple logic.

Teachers Are Ready for a Change

Months after the lockdown, my students and I are in another club meeting. The PA system beeps. The front desk is looking for a student. Elizabeth lets out an audible sigh.

"I don't think I'll ever get over that. Every time the PA system sounds, I get worried," she says. There's nothing I can say, because it happens to me, too.

The emotional scars run deep, and our situation does not even come close to the trauma and anguish in Santa Fe and Parkland and Sandy Hook and Columbine and so many other places. I cannot imagine how those students, teachers, and parents feel.

I want to live to see a time when there is no need for lockdowns, no senseless and violent deaths, and no student who is afraid to attend school. It may seem like a lofty dream, but I believe it can happen. Elizabeth and I are ready for a change. We are ready to let out a sigh of relief.

I think most of the nation is, too.

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