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What to Do About School Shootings

Dear Deborah,

Like you and most people throughout the country, I am overwhelmed with sorrow over the shootings that occurred in Newtown, Conn., last Friday. Given the enormity of what has occurred I can't think of anything more important to write about now.

After a tragedy of this magnitude the questions we are all now pondering are: Why did this happen, and what can be done to prevent something like this from occurring again?

Our deep fear of course is that they can't be stopped, not with more police or tougher security measures, or even more restrictive gun control.

How do you stop a deranged killer determined to harm innocent people? This shooting wasn't rational. As far as we know, it wasn't carried out with a political motive. It is the very randomness of the act that confounds and disturbs us most of all.

As a parent and an educator, I still find myself struggling to try to understand why this happened to small children. My heart goes out to the parents, and I feel an overwhelming anguish and despair over the vulnerability of our schools. Parents entrust their children to our schools with an explicit expectation that they will be safe. Of course, anyone who has worked in schools knows that safety is illusory.

No matter how many metal detectors we install, or how many guards we put in place, schools can never be absolutely safe. Schools cannot become fortresses, and a free, democratic society cannot rely on armed police for safety.

I realized after the massacre at Columbine, and was reminded yet again after the shootings in Jonesboro, Ark.; West Paducah, Ky.; Chardon, Ohio; and all the other places where gunmen have entered schools and taken lives in recent years that schools are inherently vulnerable. There are simply too many ways for an individual who is determined to perpetrate mayhem to gain access to a school. The shooter in Newtown shot his way into the school. We cannot blame a lax security system for this one. I think it is time for us to acknowledge that we won't find safety through security alone.

As I have thought about the causes of these mass shootings over the last few years and again over the last few days, I am reminded that schools have not been the only targets. We had a similar, though not as deadly, attack at a mall in Portland, Ore., as recently as Dec. 11. The mass shooting at the movie theater in Aurora, Colo., was just last summer, as was the shooting at the Sikh Temple in Wisconsin; and the shootings at Virginia Tech that took even more lives than this one occurred just five years ago. The list goes on and on.

These attacks by deranged gunmen have two obvious things in common: The gunmen chose venues where lots of vulnerable people were gathered, and they had easy access to guns.

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg is right in calling for immediate action to restrict access to guns. This is not a time for rhetoric or hand-wringing. We need to call upon President Obama and Congress to take effective action now.

However, we also have to recognize that even with more restrictive gun control laws, determined killers will find a way to get the weapons they need to perpetrate violence.

We must go deeper beyond adopting new laws or new security measures. We must start to ask why the social contract that is supposed to hold our society together has fallen apart and what has caused this country to become one of the most dangerous nations on earth. While other nations must contend with violence, no other Western society is experiencing random violence with the frequency that we are.

Safety in a free, democratic society can never be premised on the presence of armed security agents or laws prohibiting the unlawful use of guns alone. While laws and police officers are obviously important, laws require the consent of those who are governed by them to be truly meaningful, and the police cannot be everywhere at all times.

As we become more atomized and fragmented as a society, as alienation grows, as the social bonds that give our lives meaning—family, community, religion, etc.—weaken and wane, we find ourselves at greater risk.

Each of the assailants in these mass shootings was described as a loner. This is an important piece of information because human beings are inherently social beings.

Schools are the institutions we rely upon to teach children how to become members of society, and while some of what is learned may be problematic, they nonetheless play a vital role in socializing each generation. In a society as diverse and complex as ours such a role is critical.

This is why when our schools are attacked and when the safety of children can no longer be taken for granted, it is so devastating to the social trust that is essential for operating schools and holding our society together.

That is why the only way to truly prevent acts of violence of this kind will come from finding ways to strengthen the bonds that should hold us together. Bonds premised on empathy, tolerance for difference, and respect for human dignity. To do this we must undertake deliberate efforts to increase our connections to each other, to embrace the alienated, and care for the weak, including the mentally ill.

Our schools must lead the way in carrying out this work, just as they did over a century ago when we struggled to integrate millions of new immigrants who came largely from Europe with different cultures and speaking different languages. We turned to our schools when our society (led by the U.S. Supreme Court) finally came to the realization that legalized "Apartheid" was morally reprehensible and had to cease. We must turn to our schools once again as we seek to find a way to restore and revitalize the bonds that protect and connect us.

We can find safety in community, in solidarity, and in affirming our mutual dependence. Schools will continue to play an important role in the effort to keep us together, but they cannot do it alone.

Pedro

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