What can we do about school safety and meeting student needs?
Like many of you, I am an educator, a parent, and a grandparent. And like you, I watched in horror as the tragedy unfolded at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., in December. Other than shedding tears and issuing a statement of condolences and support, I felt helpless. I could only imagine how those parents who lost their children felt, and the families of the six adults as well. They were 3,000 miles away, but those educators are our colleagues.
And then it happened here in California, at Kern County’s Taft High School on Jan. 10. This time it was a student with a shotgun, allegedly aiming for a classmate who had been a bully. Thankfully, there were no fatalities, but the incident left no one untouched. The intervention by science teacher Ryan Heber and campus supervisor Kim Lee Fields allowed students in the classroom to escape. I want to commend those two because their quick thinking and bravery prevented harm to more kids. The teachers, the administrators and the district reportedly did everything right — yet a student was injured, school was disrupted and the community was shocked and traumatized by the event.
And as I write this, a somber anniversary is being observed in Stockton, where 24 years ago, five children were killed and 29 others wounded by a gunman at Cleveland Elementary School. Some of our members and staff remember that all too well. There have been at least 10 on-campus shootings in California since then.
In the aftermath of nearly every incident, a national conversation emerged about what to do to keep our schools and our communities safe from gun-toting assailants. The National Rifle Association proposed that teachers be armed to ensure a safe climate. Well, what teachers should be armed with are resources and tools to help students. CTA’s State Council of Education voted to oppose the arming of non-law-enforcement education professionals and volunteers at schools just a few weeks ago.
Even the majority of NRA members favor background checks and sensible gun safety measures. We are discussing it, too. State Council delegates voted to support Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s Assault Weapons Regulatory Act of 2013, which regulates the availability of military assault-type firearms and high-capacity ammunition magazines.
Schools are a microcosm of society, and too often community violence flows onto our school campuses. We, as educators, may not know everything about preventing these tragic incidents. But we know we have to do more. The State Council School Safety and Management Committee examined our policies a few weeks ago. And I know there may be some bills offered in this Legislature.
Our policies and actions strongly advocate ensuring safe and secure learning environments for our students. Our approach includes sensible gun safety recommendations focusing on measures that really are preventive, increased access to mental health services, upgrading school facilities, expanding prevention programs and training for students and educators, and meaningful action to help decrease violence. Educators want and need continued training to help them spot potential mental health needs, bullying and high-risk behaviors.
Yet the public debate centers on guns instead of asking the question: Are we meeting the needs of our students in times of calm and crisis, whatever that crisis may be? Back during my days as a school counselor, I was rarely surprised when a chat with a troubled student de-escalated a tense situation. It was not uncommon to hear later something to this effect: “Yo, Mr. V. That saved me from another suspension ’cause I was ready to mess him up.”
And here we are, years later and last in the country in counselors per student. The bright hope I see is this can change as Prop. 30 money is infused back into schools. I welcome debates not about guns, but about what it takes to make sure our students’ physical and emotional needs are met so they can be successful academically and in life.