Stein column: School safety measures alone can’t prevent threat of gun violence
RFSD Guest Opinion
The day after the Florida school shooting, one of our schools received an email from a parent that her daughter would be coming home from school.
“My daughter is shaky, scared, ready to cry and cannot focus whatsoever due to yesterday’s events. I let her know that it was fine for her to leave and come home. All I can do as a parent at the moment is understand her feelings, but cannot offer her absolute assurance that it is all completely fine.”
I misjudged the collective outcry and community response that would follow the school shooting in Florida last week. After all, there have been 16 mass shootings in schools since 15 children were killed at Columbine in 1999. We have lost two students in our extended community to self-inflicted gunshot wounds in the past few months. Several other students and parents have died of gun violence in recent years in our communities.
After each mass school shooting and local death of a child by gun violence, the school district has sent out yet another letter in an effort to console and reassure. But I, too, cannot offer absolute assurance that it is all completely fine.
Seven children die every day from gun violence in our country. Nineteen years after Columbine, six years after Sandy Hook, and after thousands of deaths in school shootings and tens of thousands of children killed by gun violence in the intervening years, I’m running out of assurances. Maybe it’s time for action.
Are we taking more than reasonable measures to prevent gun violence to self and others in our schools? I believe so. The Roaring Fork Schools recently installed security vestibules with bullet-resistant windows in all of our schools. We tightened security protocols and electronic monitoring to prevent unwanted visitors from entering. We conduct “active shooter” drills to teach our students when to hide, when to run, and when to fight when a threatening actor enters the school.
We are training staff and students to watch for warning signs and know when to report concerning behavior. We use an automated service that flags concerning phrases and words used on school computers. We offer trainings in “digital threat assessments” so we can search the Internet and look for violence before it strikes. We have counselors and others in all of our schools who are trained to respond to warning signs of violence.
We regularly survey our students, asking them, “How safe do you feel at school? How often do you feel bullied at school? How safe do the adults in your school make you feel?”
We are working aggressively to increase mental health services for students. Thanks to community partnerships with local mental health providers, we now have a full-time, dedicated mental health professional and a full-time prevention specialist in each of our communities — all resources that were not in place a few years ago, but none of them with guaranteed funding into the future.
One of the purposes of our crew program is that all students will have at least one trusting adult who is monitoring their well-being and helping them to self-monitor and seek help when needed. We offer crew lessons in violence prevention, suicide prevention, and nonviolent conflict resolution.
Local police departments are generously providing a full-time School Resource Officer in each community. These SROs are more than law enforcement officers. They are trusted friends and counselors and early interventionists for many of our students and families.
But why don’t local, state and federal governments do more to stem the root causes of violence? Why don’t they do more to protect our children from the instruments of violence that multiply the tragic effects of violence when it occurs?
Behind almost every violent actor is a tragic story of abuse, neglect and denial of services that could have prevented an act of violence, sometimes years in the future.
States and nations that have lower incidence of gun violence invest more in early childhood education, where all children can develop the social-emotional skills to manage their anger. They fund school-based clinics with integrated mental health services. They provide access to health insurance and comprehensive medical and behavioral health care for all families.
Places with fewer gun deaths to children provide sensible restrictions on access to firearms like background checks and waiting periods. They keep guns out of the hands of more likely violent offenders such as the mentally ill, and keep them out of the hands of children. They don’t flood their society with semi-automatic rifles and ammunition which, in the hands of a perpetrator, turn a violent outburst into armageddon. They don’t let young men legally buy AR-15s before they are legally considered mature enough to buy a beer. They penalize adults who let children play or do harm with guns.
We also have to look at the normalization of gun violence in our media, on the Internet, and in video games. We have to look at evidence and stop perpetrating the false narratives that more guns make us safer, or that the only way to prevent mass shootings is to arm more people with guns.
We have to listen to the students, who are speaking out and leading the way. As Florida school shooting survivor David Hogg said, “This tragic event must never be forgotten. Because, once it is, there will be another one. And another one.”
Florida student survivors are rallying their peers around the country to demand legislation to end gun violence. Florida survivor Cameron Kask said, “My message for the people in office is: You’re either with us or against us. We are losing our lives while the adults are playing around.”
I’m tired of playing around. I’m tired of writing letters of reassurance. I hope that our elected officials will join the Florida shooting survivors in reconsidering their positions and join in sensible solutions to ending gun violence on children, including increased investments in mental health services, more understanding of the stressors and trauma that lead to violence, and reasonable safety restrictions for firearms.
Rob Stein is superintendent of Roaring Fork Schools.