School safety has been a major concern for me ever since my oldest child started kindergarten over a decade ago.
At the time, I worked from home, so I drove him to school and picked him up every day. Why? Although Vermont law required me to strap my 5-year-old into a booster seat when driving him around in my car, school buses lacked even the most basic safety precautions, like individual seatbelts for each child. That flimsy, too-long seatbelt for the school bus bench seats that aren’t even used just didn’t cut it for me. While I consented for him to ride the bus during infrequent school field trips, I hated every minute of it.
A few months after my son started first grade, I got laid off from my work-from-home job. My new job required me to work in an office every day, so I had to overcome my fears and let my 6-year-old ride the school bus. Around the same time, an event eclipsed my anxiety about the school bus: the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. Most of the 20 children murdered by the white male gunman that day were 6 or 7 years old, first graders, the same age as my son. The shooter used semiautomatic weapons purchased by his mother to perpetrate this unthinkable crime.
Any illusion we parents had about schools being safe places for our children shattered that day.
Unfortunately, regardless of parents’ feelings about school safety, educational neglect laws require parents to send their children to school – public or private – or to homeschool them. For working parents, there really isn’t a choice. We have to send our kids to public school so that we can work. It’s an unfair and harsh reality without the guarantee of school safety.
A few weeks after the Sandy Hook shooting, Kimberly Harrington, a Vermont author and mom, wrote and published an article that captured my grief and fear about sending my kids to school and my rage against those who failed to guarantee school safety for them: Please Don’t Get Murdered at School Today. Her writing made me feel not so alone in my constant anxiety and helplessness, especially this part:
You could also tell your class that sometimes when I hear a lot of ambulances and fire trucks go by, sirens filling the air with panic, I pay close attention to whether they’re heading in the direction of your school. And if they are, I check Twitter and our town hashtag and the fire department account to see if anyone’s mentioned your school…And sometimes I wonder, what if one or both of you gets murdered at school? How will I ever forgive myself for sending you there? You know, to school.
Later, in an interview two years after the publication of this open letter to her children, Harrington told Vermont Public Radio (VPR), “I wasn’t sending them off to war, but that’s what it was starting to feel like.”
After Sandy Hook, I stopped listening to, watching, or reading the news as a way to manage my anxiety about school safety.
Since I was mandated to send my son and eventually my youngest child to a place where they might get shot to death on any given day, I couldn’t absorb any more traumatizing news about violations of school safety.
This information avoidance became a problem for me professionally, as my job required me to have some knowledge of newsworthy events that could influence policy. Still, I resisted and repeatedly asked my co-workers to fill me in on the minimum I needed to know. It wasn’t ideal. Intentionally creating a bubble of ignorance around myself, allowed me to think that I could somehow shield my kids from the knowledge that white men with guns all too frequently walk into school buildings and shoot little kids like them.
I felt guilty for knowingly sending them to a dangerous place every day, and I wasn’t prepared to have a conversation with them about it. How could I justify my actions?
“I need to go to work, and you need to go to school, even though it might not be safe. The State could also take you away from me if I neglect your education, which policymakers seem more concerned about than school safety. Sorry.” I couldn’t bring myself to say those words.
About a year later, I realized my naiveté when my son came home talking about turning off all the lights at school, hiding in a secret closet, and having to be really quiet and still. I froze and my heart stopped. His innocent recounting of the day’s events destroyed my delusion of protecting my children from knowing about the ever-present threat armed white men pose to school safety. (Note: School shooters are primarily young, white, and male according to data published by Louis Klarevas in his 2016 book Rampage Nation: Securing America from Mass Shootings.)
Four years in age separate my two children. Initially, I felt grateful for their age gap due to financial reasons, since only one kid at a time will attend college (hopefully). After Sandy Hook, I felt grateful for a darker, more ominous reason. Given our school district, their age difference means that they only ever overlapped in the same school building for two years. I always considered those two years poor risk management – what if I lost both of them to one violent gunman in one day? I gutted those two years out plagued by low-level dread.
As my kids have grown, their involvement in active shooter drills at school and awareness of the reasons for these exercises has evolved. Despite my best efforts, I remember the day my youngest child heard about the Parkland school shooting on VPR before I could silence the radio. (Yes, eventually, work required me to start listening to the news again.) My child’s eyes went wide, as I rushed to explain that sometimes bad men with guns show up at schools. Seeing their fear, I stumbled on, saying that’s why we live in Vermont because a public mass shooting event hasn’t happened here. (Though technically the truth, I avoided ending my sentence with that ominous word – “yet.”)
In retrospect, I’m sure I botched that conversation in a lot of ways, but, really, how am I supposed to talk to a 7-year-old child about the daily danger I subject them to by sending them to school?
If you have ideas, please let me know. Honestly, it’s a conversation I shouldn’t have to have with my children. No parent should, and yet…public mass shootings and gun violence feel more and more like a daily reality. I also need to acknowledge my privilege here and talk about how unimaginable it is for parents who bury their children as the result of a school shooting. I can’t stop crying about the story of the artist who met with all 19 families of the Uvalde shooting victims to create custom caskets reflecting the interests of each child, but my empathy is nothing compared to the pain of those parents.
Now that my kids are older, I’m proud of the critical thinking skills they’ve developed. My youngest child came home from a more elaborate school safety scenario crafted for middle schoolers. More annoyed than anything, they told me, “Mom! Mom! It’s so stupid. First of all, we aren’t allowed to say ‘active shooter’ because of the 3rd and 4th graders, so they use the term ‘harmful person.’ Seriously? That’s an understatement. Second, they’re telling us to hide in the classrooms, like in plain sight, on these shelves. That’s the first place a gunman is going to look, not to mention that the bullets will go straight through the walls! Mom, our classroom has doors to the outside. I’m just going to run through the doors and not stop until I get across the street to the police station.”
Simultaneously horrified and proud, I praised my child for their survival skills and encouraged them to bring this plan to the teachers.
The next day, they asked why they weren’t being taught to run out the door. The teacher’s response? “Because we haven’t learned the escape part of the curriculum yet, only the hiding part.” I can’t even criticize the teacher for making this statement because they aren’t getting paid nearly enough to prevent themselves and the kids in their care from getting murdered at their place of work.
After this conversation with my youngest, at least I no longer feel like I’m sending them powerless to school, a place fraught with the potential for danger. They’ve shown that they have the resilience and fortitude needed to problem-solve their way out of a terrifying and possibly deadly situation. But really, we need to ask ourselves, why should they have to? Isn’t it the adults’ job to protect them from this scenario in the first place? Don’t we owe kids (and parents) a safe educational environment as an absolute minimum prerequisite for mandated learning? As a society, we need to do better. Our children’s lives depend on it.
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