Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Reasonable Measures

February 6, 2013

When my son was little, he was what we called a ‘runner’. The world was a fascinating place to him, and if something shiny or colorful or interesting caught his eye, his only thought was to chase after it. He didn’t worry about safety or being lost; young children are in-the-moment, the-world-revolves-around-me kind of beings. He always assumed if he took off somewhere, I was right behind him, chasing the butterflies, too.

And so it happened one day while we were at church that he ran. We attended church at a local high school campus while we waited for our actual church to be built. Nicholas was at the age where he was straddling the adjacent rooms of the infants and the toddlers, depending on his ability on any given Sunday to participate in the more structured pre-school environment of the toddlers. During the service I ducked out of the sermon briefly to nurse my newborn, who was also being cared for in the infant room. Just before I settled in with the baby, I looked around to check in on Nicholas, and he was not there. The nursery sitters said he must be in with the toddlers today. I poked my head in through the adjoining door—no Nicholas there, either. The pre-school teacher paused in her lesson and let me know that Nicholas was in with the babies today.

Except, he wasn’t. We looked in the bathrooms; we looked under tables. We looked down the hallways and in nearby open rooms. It became increasingly apparent that no one knew where my boy was, and I moved quickly into panic mode. I was frantic, and the mood of anxiety was only increased by the wailing cries of hunger from Danielle, who had still not gotten to nurse. I ran outside to the school campus, shouting Nicholas’ name. Neither the nursery sitter nor the pre-school teacher could help; they still had charges in their care. I saw a familiar face who had slipped out of the sermon to check on HIS little one, and he began to canvas the campus with me. The school sits on a fairly busy street, and I had horrific visions of Nicholas wandering out into ongoing traffic, oblivious to everything but a fluffy cloud he might be following. After a seemingly interminable twenty minute search, my friend found Nicholas sobbing, crying out for his mama. I collapsed to the sidewalk, wracked with sobs of relief, and hugged him tight.

It turns out, Nicholas had gone on a ‘nature walk’ with the toddlers that day. Something had caught his eye, and he wandered away from the orderly line of pre-schoolers. He was enthralled enough that he didn’t realize they had left him behind, and when the kids got back to the make-shift classroom, the teacher assumed that he had settled himself back into the nursery. He had been gone at least ten minutes by himself before I showed up looking for him.

Many of my friends were angry on my behalf, and I can understand. There were certainly measures that should have been in place to prevent such a thing from happening. Vigilance with small children is crucial, critical. And yet, I knew he was a runner. I knew how quickly he could slip away. The teachers were despondent and deeply apologetic, and by the very next week, a number of safety procedures were in place: sign-in/sign out sheets, name tags for each child, a halt to fluidity between rooms, and sturdy childproof gates at all possible entrances. These were all good measures, and long overdue.

In the past several weeks, this incident has come back to me. We are reactionary, as human beings. We discover a problem, and we want to fix it. We want to prevent it from recurring. Several weeks ago, when the tragic massacre occurred at Sandy Hook Elementary, immediately we wanted to figure out how to protect all of our children from such a nightmare. I remember the same panic after the Columbine shooting. Suddenly, school safety plans were insufficient; clearly we all had to ‘up our game.’ Who knew when someone would go off the deep end? What could we do to predict and avert such an incident? After Columbine, schools across the nation set up security cameras, enacted new emergency policies, and fenced in campuses. New security officer positions were created, and more staff members were stationed about campus before and after school, vigilant against unwanted intruders who might mean harm to our children. At my own school, each staff member is issued a neon reflective vest and a piercing whistle to alert other adults to danger, should it rear its ugly head.

These, too, are good measures. There is nothing wrong with heightened awareness, and increased presence. However, Sandy Hook has encouraged people to propose even more stringent security measures. After all, Sandy Hook was a gated school, with surveillance cameras in place. They should have been protected from the gunman who broached the gates and attacked students and teachers alike. So what more is there to do? The public debate centers around gun laws and gun control. Stricter laws. Bans on assault weapons. Armed guards. Armed teachers. Home school everybody and let the parents wield weapons at their doors. Reactionary, reactionary, reactionary….with not a lot of care or forethought given to real efficacy or potential dangerous side-effects of these measures.

I am in favor of reasonable measures to protect ourselves and our children at school sites. We lock our doors at home at night while we sleep; we buckle into our seatbelts when we’re driving. When Nicholas went ‘running’ I was in favor of measures that would help prevent a recurrence. But there are reasonable measures, and then there are ones bordering on paranoia. Locking Nicholas into a covered crib would have ensured he wouldn’t run again from the church. Pinning him into a stationery seat for the duration of the service would have done the same. If we’d kept all the kids in the pre-school on kid-leashes during the whole church service, that too would possibly have minimized the potential recurrence. But is that really the way we want to live our lives? Do we want to lock up our children to keep them safe from the off-chance that danger might befall them? Do we want our schools to become lands of martial law, a hundred deputies on every campus just waiting for someone to make a false move? I imagine arming personnel on campus could easily cause at least as many tragedies as it would be likely to avert.

I am a teacher. I went into teaching because I believe in the inherent good in people, and the value of focusing on the positive possibilities our future generations represent. It is not in my nature to look with suspicion on everyone who crosses my path. I am not so naïve as to believe that every individual has pure motives and good intentions, but the day I begin to think that the dangerous and the malicious have become the norm, it is time for me to retire. Arming the teachers? A reactionary measure, incited by paranoia--borne out of good intentions, but paranoia nonetheless. Are we to teach our students each day, crouching down behind a protective barrier, weapons drawn and at the ready? I refuse to believe this is how we should exist. This is not the world I want my students to learn to love. How can they grow and stretch intellectually when they are cowering in fear every time the door opens? Fear fosters fear.

We must be prepared, according to the voices clamoring for safety—for guarantees. But there are no guarantees, are there? We can’t possibly predict and avert every tragedy. I can’t begin to wrap my brain around the kind of mindset of one who would perpetrate such crimes. We have experts who do their best, but even they don’t know with certainty. If they could, we wouldn’t have some of the heinous crimes we’ve seen on school campuses across the nation. But expert I am not in this field. I am not a sniper. I am not a hostage negotiator. I am not trained to counteract a terrorist. Those jobs should be left to those who have the skills and aptitude and training. I do not want that training, nor do I want my profession to adopt that training alongside training in lesson design and classroom management and differentiated instruction. They are different worlds, and as best as we can, we should strive to keep them so.

Sandy Hook. Virginia Tech. Columbine. Three schools and communities that suffered unspeakable carnage and loss. But there are hundreds of thousands of schools across our land that continue to operate normally, where teachers and administrators do their best to support students and show them the way to a better future without threat of imminent danger from a hostile or unstable person. Hundreds of thousands. We must not let paranoia let us forget that THAT is the norm. Reasonable measures? Of course. But let us not fall to the mindset of victimhood, terrified not of IF, but of WHEN. That’s no way to live. That’s no future to show our children.

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