I was living in Greeley, Colorado when the Columbine shootings occurred—studying education. All our classes for the next few days focused on this event. What happened? How do we prevent it? Who was to blame? We talked about how teachers were right behind police officers in the likelihood of being killed on the job.
But all twenty-five aspiring teachers completed the semester, and, presumably, completed our student teaching the following fall.
Flash forward to the summer of 2003 where I’m working in Lincoln, Nebraska as a summer school teacher. The assistant principal rushes in, tells me it’s a “Code Red,” that police are on the way, and locks the door behind her. I turned out the lights, huddled with the kids in the corner and waited for over an hour and a half. My mind spun a million scenarios in my mind. Images of Columbine kept surfacing—the two boys clad in black, the large guns in their hands, the children running from the school.
We listened to heavy footsteps, talking, jiggling of the door. I looked around the dimly lit room at the kids’ faces in the shadows. They were between 14-18 year old. Their complicated lives ahead of them: weddings, and babies, and grandchildren—all things that might be whisked away from them. I thought through every person I knew, and I felt peace because I knew they knew I loved them.
Luckily for us that day, it was a false bomb threat. The footsteps we heard were the police. The jiggle at the door, an officer making sure we were safely behind a locked door.
Here in Albuquerque, my school takes bullying very seriously. We know what to do and how to react in a shelter-in-place or a complete lockdown. Besides being in a tin-shed portable that couldn’t hold back one bullet, let alone a barrage of bullets, I feel safe. The school, like most, is proactive in its outlook, in its response. And I think that you’d find that throughout the US, most schools are proactive; most have drills that parents don’t know about; most teachers have been trained on what to do in the event that something like Columbine or Newtown occurs. We just don’t talk about these plans and procedures because it somehow makes it seem as though we’re working in a “bad” or “scary” place. How many of you, besides police officers, have work life-insurance policies that cover you in the event of your murder?
We’ve done everything that we—as teachers, administrators, bureaucrats at the top—can do to prevent the possibility of mass devastation. Our drills and procedures downplay the size and scope of the possible collateral damage, in a sense. But that won’t stop people who suffer mental illness from obtaining guns.
I’m reminded of a new angle about rape prevention I recently saw on FB. The campaign talks about how the problem with the way universities deals with rape is that they usually send a letter including strategies for students to use to avoid being raped. The suggestions say things like, “Don’t walk alone at night,” “Take a self-defense class,” or “Know your surroundings.” They focus on the possible victim, instead of confronting the possible rapist. The campaign suggests signs on campus saying, “DON’T RAPE PEOPLE!”
I’m not sure what signs we could make in our plight against mass killings in school. Maybe “LOCK YOUR GUNS IN A SAFE!” “DON’T IGNORE MENTAL ILLNESS!”
Would this help? I don’t know. But so far, society has focused its energy on the possible victims, instead of the cause. Most schools have done the preventative work, the work of minimizing the possible catastrophe.
But has the health care industry done their part? Have parents, friends, and relatives of mentally ill people done their part? Have gun owners done their part?
Have you done your part?