Between the end of 1991 and summer 2013, there were 55 school shootings in America with at least one fatality and more than one intended victim. No other country experienced a similar of school shootings within this period.
In January, speaking at the White House, President Obama shed tears over the mass shooting in Newtown, and admitted: "Every time I think about those kids it gets me mad…. And by the way, it happens on the streets of Chicago every day.”He was clearly shaken by the tragic events of December 14, 2012 at Sandy Hook Elementary School where 20 students ages five to 10 and six female educators were murdered. The response from media commentators varied; some speculated about whether the President’s tears were real or fake, others speculated whether our leaders should cry at all in public and other focused on the trivial gun-control actions announced.
News about violence saturates our lives in contemporary society and my fear is that we have become desensitized to these violence episodes and robbed of the much-needed period for reflective mourning as one tragedy supersedes another. Having visited Auschwitz, one would think nothing could be more disturbing to the human consciousness, but I am equally traumatised by the Newtown shooting. Tears are not always proportionate or the best solution, but they illustrate the state of emotion and temporary feelings of helplessness that follow such events.
I have had the privilege of teaching in US elementary and high school levels and now in college and university settings. I have observed and visited the classrooms of colleagues who taught very young children and have had the opportunity to observe preschool and kindergarten classes. These moments were crucial ones in my professional maturing as an educator, parent and human being. A classroom full of first graders is a sacred place due to the unconditional trust required of both teacher and student. The atmosphere has no corollary; it is impossible to find a student-teacher bond like this later in the school years, let alone college.
For many primary students the teacher takes on the role of parent, mostly the mother (the vast majority of whom are females). These beautiful and curious tiny people are engaged by teachers and it takes complete devotion to be a primary school teacher, and most have huge hearts, love their students and dedicate themselves to their care and nurture although they are not their parents. These children are funny, a bit lost and very trusting. When you look at their faces you can understand Aristotle’s fascination with tabula rasa. Some of the most enjoyable moments are during recess where they learn social life skills and have a moment for their favorite snack.
Obama’s emotional reactions to the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School are understandable; it was an inhumane act, perpetrated by a human. The President also awarded the 2012 Presidential Citizens Medal (the second-highest honor the President can bestow upon a US citizen) to the six female educators who lost their lives.
After the shootings at Virginia Tech, Columbine, and now Sandy Hook, schools are no longer sanctuaries of peace. We need a more searching response if our response is to go beyond adding more security personnel and building higher walls around the schools of the 21st century.
A few years ago, I taught a college course at a high school in the Washington, DC metropolitan area. There were a higher number of security and police personnel in halls than traditional school personnel. Just recently, Fairfax County High School proposed body-cameras for principles. Schools are becoming internal and external fortresses, instead of sanctuaries for curiosity, knowledge, and free speech for young and inquisitive minds. And, in 2015, the Republican-led Texas legislature voted to allow guns within buildings on public college campuses throughout the state, but most campuses have decided they would not allow guns to be carried. This has resulted in a worrying development at the University of Texas at Austin, where students and faculty members will soon be allowed to carry handguns on campus including classrooms. The university’s President Gregory L. Fenves already approved the new campus policy. “I do not believe handguns belong on a university campus, so this decision has been the greatest challenge of my presidency to date,” According to the University of Texas at Austin, the law says you have to be 21 before applying for a concealed carry license. Fewer than 1% of their students will be eligible.
According to Samarth Gupta’s article in the Harvard Political Review: “Why are school shootings so much more common in America? More puzzlingly, why are they happening so frequently even when overall gun violence in the United States has plummeted by nearly 50% from 1993 to 2011? Common arguments point to a lack of gun control, mental health issues, and the media’s glorification of shooters. The underlying reason appears to be a combination of these factors and others that form a unique American culture and one that perpetuates mass school violence.”
It is time to approach education in a holistic and collective manner where institutions of education are not the only entities responsible for teaching future generations. Love, acceptance, and caring for our neighbours, whoever they may be, needs to be taught as well. What is available in the faith-based community that can help to heal brokenness? Physicians and the health care community need to join in this and to realise that simply prescribing pills for complex human problems is not the answer. Traditional and social media can share in the burden of education, but most importantly, communities need to be enabled to strengthen their own neighborhoods recognise good behaviour and not ignore the bad.
If the Nobel Prize Laureate in Literature Henryk Sienkiewicz were still around, he would most likely ask: Quo o vadis Americae? Once the tears have dried, where are we going when it comes to school violence?
Leszek J. Sibilski is a Professor of Sociology and has served as a consultant for The World Bank Group and the United Nations. He is a former member of the Polish National Olympic Cycling Team and continues to serve as an active member of the International Pierre de Coubertin Committee.