Immediately after Sandy Hook – the Connecticut elementary school where 26 students and school staff were murdered on December 14th, 2012 – the permanent debate about gun control in the United States boiled over again. This time it looks as though an incumbent president may actually challenge one of the most powerful American lobbies, the National Rifle Association (NRA) with at least some sort of restrictive legislation. As a socialist, it’s generally been my unthinking reaction that I’d rather not have only the police armed in this country – with a quick mental run through of the Black Panthers, of every teenage black male who’s gotten shot dead for jumping a turnstile or wearing a hoodie, and so on. Among the latter images, Oscar Grant, the 19 year old shot to death by a BART cop in 2009 is the clearest, because he went to school at the middle school I taught at, and several of the teachers who had been there a while had known him. He worked at the butcher’s counter in the grocery two blocks from my sister’s house. Those are the guns I’ve been more aware and afraid of – police guns.
Now there is another category of guns I fear: the insane notion of armed teachers in a classroom. This was one of the NRA’s immediate reactions to Sandy Hook: Arm teachers and school staff. In some states – Texas and Minnesota, for example – it is already legal for teachers to carry concealed guns. But the vocal majority of teachers think that this idea is what both presidents of the two teachers’ unions – the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association – call “astounding and disturbing”. It is plainly and simply not common sense to have guns around children. If they were kept as safely locked away as they would need to be, no teacher could get to such a stored gun quickly enough – in a scenario like that at Sandy Hook — anyway, and if they were more easily accessible, I ask you to imagine the hundreds – probably thousands – of tragic and unnecessary accidents which would surely occur. Students are impulsive, and do not look ahead to the results of their actions. Students in my own classroom have, over the past fifteen years, used scissors to cut electrical wires (luckily the scissors had insulating rubber grips), damaged audio leads by forcing them in the wrong plugs, had mock sword fights with board pointers. The list could go on. I feel dangerous enough having a hidden knife to cut vegetables for lunch.
So – how do we do our best to ensure safety in our classrooms? American schools have what are called “lock-down drills”, along with shelter-in-place drills for environmental hazards, earthquake drills and fire drills. Interestingly, at our first meeting last year, my own decided that we really ought to be focusing on the lock-down drills, because those are the actual crises that happen most often at any given urban school. Every single teacher I know in Oakland and the Bay Area has been in the classroom at least once when there was an actual lock-down situation, which means that there was a dangerous person on the campus or a dangerous and violent situation involving the police in the community right around the school. I’ve been in two. My sister has been in two or three. On the other hand, there’s never been a fire or an earthquake at any school I’ve taught at. We are well-trained: when the alarm sounds, we close the windows and the curtains, check to pull in any students outside near us, and then close and lock our classroom doors (after Sandy Hook, we’ve been instructed to have our classroom doors locked at all times, in fact), block the small window in the door, and proceed with our lesson very quietly (“as if no one were home”). A real lock-down situation can endure for an hour or a few hours.
What were the causes? Often, a police stand-off in the neighbourhood, where the person was armed. Sometimes, someone fleeing from the police onto our campus – last year, it was a somewhat incoherent person who came on campus, climbed to a rooftop, and brandished a tazer. A student photographed him and sent the alarm to the school office on his cell phone. What does NOT tend to happen in working class urban settings is a school shooting of the Sandy Hook sort. Again and again in the national coverage of such tragedies what does not get mentioned is that the perpetrators were white males, often from middle class or upper middle class backgrounds, and the schools were majority white, and almost always suburban. When Columbine happened, in 1999, kids in my West Oakland school were very scared, but we looked at school shootings in demographic terms, and they were somewhat reassured. Random violence in the neighbourhood was an everyday thing, but schools were where students felt safe. Bringing guns into the classroom – or the school at all; imagine campus security guards armed with guns at the high school level – is not the way to create safety. Funding education, providing sufficient school counsellors, and doing away with the high-stress ‘high-stakes’ endless testing would much more to make schools, and society, safer.