The horrific news from Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn. is yet another reminder that no school is immune to the carnage caused by guns. During the 28 years that I taught at the same high school in the Los Angeles Unified School District, I experienced only one remotely related episode, but it left an indelible imprint.
In the middle of the spring semester in 1991, a student checked into my English class from another school. He sat in the back of the room for about a week or so without uttering a word. Then one day, the assistant principal placed in the boxes of all teachers a notice that the boy had been arrested. He had pulled a .25 caliber gun out of his pocket while riding on the school bus at the end of the day. The gun accidentally discharged and struck a girl in the right hip. The bus driver immediately stopped the bus and took the gun away from the boy before calling the paramedics, the Los Angeles Police Department and the LAUSD police.
The news went viral, which resulted in a follow-up memo from the assistant principal instructing all teachers to read the following to their homeroom students. "Any student in possession of a gun or knife or other weapon, or who strikes a teacher, or sells drugs, will be arrested, suspended, and expelled from the school district." The memo went on: "If the school has reason to suspect, by report or otherwise, that a student has a weapon, school officials may search the student, the locker, backpacks, or any other belongings."
I don't know what eventually happened to my former student. Only with hindsight did I realize how fortunate I was. The boy in all likelihood had the gun when he was in my class. Who knows why he brought the weapon to school and what he intended to do with it. All I know is that he never brandished the gun. If he had, however, I don't know what I would have done. There were no smartphones in those days, and my classroom was a bungalow without a telephone located on the periphery of the campus. In the absence of training specifically tailored to this situation, all students and teachers were extremely vulnerable.
What the event dramatically drove home was that the halcyon days of teaching I had enjoyed for so many years were over. I retired the following year. I'm glad that I taught during the golden era at my high school without having to wonder if any of my students were packing heat. I wouldn't have been able to do my job if that possibility were on my mind.