Preventing Tragedies in School

Last December, a school shooting threat was made to East Lyme High School. Though the source was unreliable and ultimately an empty threat, the thought was still unsettling. However, in spite of what the fearful consequences of this act really look like, I found myself less than concerned.

“Okay,” I thought. “It was just some random person on Twitter spewing out nonsense to scare a bunch of kids.”

And with that, I didn’t carry on afraid, I went to all of my classes like a normal day, and didn’t even think of wearing red (like the would-be shooter suggested) as a precaution. In fact, the only time I mentioned it was a casual comment to my mom when she asked me how my day went. Was this because of my background knowledge on the incident and the events leading up to the tweet? Was I assured by the police presence in the parking lots and main foyer? Did the joking “I’ll shield you with my body” comments from my boyfriend make me forget the threat through humor? Not quite.

When I was in 7th grade, we were alerted to the tragedy that happened right across the state, a shooting at Sandy Hook elementary school that took the lives of 28 people. I was shocked at the concept of this happening. Though this was not the first or deadliest school shooting I’ve been alive for- Virginia Tech happened when I was seven- Sandy Hook was the first shooting that happened while I was at an age old enough to understand the severity of this type of event. Not only was this a mass shooting, but it happened in a place where me and my peers spend a large portion of time while on low-to no alert for threats.

Word traveled quickly through the walls of my kiva about what had happened, and every conversation was prefaced with, “Did you hear about Sandy Hook?”. The nervous chatter of our own hypothetical shooting quickly cropped up. Passing from class to class was an opportunity to chatter with a new group of students who had undoubtedly already heard the news, but were also all to eager to discuss it anyway. What about us? Where would you hide? How would you escape? Though our teachers tried to address the invalidity of our concerns in class, we were a frenzy of fear-mongering.

As shootings went from topping the news for weeks to getting shuffled to the back pages, so did our worries. The 1999 Columbine High School shooting sparked a new culture around how we as a nation perceived school shootings. They changed police tactics during the first response, opened conversations for gun control, and debated the level of security we need in schools. As news reports file in with a new attack near-weekly, the response has been dimmed. To most, school is a low security place. I’m not searched at the doors or made to walk through a metal detector before entering. None of the East Lyme schools even have an active police presence. This evidence adds to the fact that school shootings no longer spark the same conversation they used to. Because events of school violence are happening at a low casualty rate and high frequency, the nation’s perspective has changed from seeing this as a rare, tragic event to a sad thing that just happenswhether we want it to or not. Though in spite of the rate these attacks are occurring, most of the population of my little coastal town thinks such a concept is absurd. We aren’t a bad town, there is no violence or street gangs, we’re one of the most respected schools academically and athletically in the state. Our mentality has shifted from active precautions to dismissing the danger, saying, “No, not us. That wouldn’t happen here.”

So- do we rely on the assumption that a bad thing like that wouldn’t happen in a good town like East Lyme and continue with our relatively low security, like the electrically bolted front doors? Or, do we follow in the footsteps of other “good towns” faced with tragedy and amp up security significantly- including mandatory clear plastic backpacks, metal detectors at every doorway, and a permanent police presence in the school? The answer is not simple. To do these things, the school would require a massive security budget. As the government education budget is already stretched thin, there’s a low chance the school district would find enough spare funding to cover the cost of these security devices. This is on top of the concerns that waiting in line to be screened through a metal detector and searched for weapons could make students and faculty late to classes, and generally disrupt the school’s schedule. These matters make it difficult for the East Lyme school district to practically implement high-security measures in five different schools.

While we can’t realistically convert ELHS into Fort Knox, we can rely on the students to report behavior they feel is concerning. Trustworthy counselors and teachers will open up the doors of communication between students and staff. With the ability to confide in their mentors, students are more likely to feel comfortable expressing if they feel unsafe- particularly around other students. Even moreso, students might feel more compelled to alert staff if they hear that someone is planning a violent event.

In the wake of our recent complacency for violence in schools, we need to remember that while we have been thankfully unaffected, no school is attack-proof. Stepping out of the “not us” mentality is important for preventing these tragedies from happening. Any security measure can be undermined by someone determined enough, but knowledge of a potential threat can be the difference between proaction and disaster.

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