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Should We Arm School Custodians?

A story from early in my first year of teaching, in the 1970s:

A few minutes before the end of last hour, a 7th grader asked if he could use the bathroom. I already knew enough about this kid to know he would leave and not return--so I told him that he could wait, and use the restroom on his way to the bus. After the bell rang, as I was tidying up the room, I noticed an odor reminiscent of the Greyhound station men's room wafting out of the second practice cubicle.

Next to the boy's instrument case was his trumpet mute, filled with urine; there were traces of liquid on the walls. I called the custodian to help with cleanup. Snapping on his rubber gloves, he asked: Who did this? When I told him, he remarked that the boy's whole family had a history of behavior problems. "Mark my words," he said. "Someday, that boy is going to do something really terrible." Turned out, the custodian was right-- a few years later, when he was in high school, the boy burned down his family's home.

I thought about this incident, when I read about the district in Ohio which is planning to arm its custodians, as a first line of defense against random, hideous violence in schools.

I have nothing but respect for the folks who tend our school facilities. And not just because having a good relationship with the janitor makes life infinitely easier for teachers, although that's absolutely true. I valued the custodians I worked with--for 30 years--because their job was enormous and Sisyphean, and because they were committed to our kids and community, and took pride in the facilities our community built and funded.

If we are asserting that it's essential to give guns and two days' training to citizens who are not trained as police--and I think that's a terrible idea--then the custodian would be as good a person as any to be armed. Custodians--like teachers, secretaries, principals, bus drivers, guidance counselors and classroom aides--are an important part of the cadre of adults to whom we entrust our children, every day. Adults who work as school employees do generally think first to protect endangered children. I have seen it happen repeatedly, in my own career--teachers who waded into fistfights, aides who urgently rounded up children on the playground as a tornado approached, a principal who was hit by a student driving erratically in the parking lot.

Ryan Heber, the 15-year teaching veteran who (with buckshot pellets in his own scalp) talked down the shooter at Taft Union High School in California was able to do so because he knew the boy, not because he had his own gun. The boy was in his class--and Heber made a point of getting to know his students. The most effective line of defense turned out to be a relationship, not a Glock in a desk drawer. Or a locked broom closet.

There is no absolute safety in the world. And, as Martin Luther King reminded us, we can't drive out darkness with darkness. All we can do is band together, and take care of each other. You can't buy genuine human connection. You can't neglect relationships in favor of metal detectors. It takes continuous work, dedication, paying attention.

There was a lot of angry talk when Diane Ravitch reminded folks that the heroic teachers in Newtown were unionized. She was accused of politicizing the tragedy, of inappropriately trying to make a point about the profession of teaching while grief was raw and shock ran deep.

But--one month after the tragedy, after a whole lot of righteous blah-blah about the sanctity of the Second Amendment and how students are being led to violence by video games, the NRA is back to releasing video apps with little coffin-shaped targets. And the discussion has turned from "Why did this happen?" to "Who should be held responsible for taking out school shooters?" We've skipped right over the fact that we want to our schools to be run and staffed with people who are good at their work, who love the kids, who behave courageously when things go south.

The janitor who cleaned up the mess in my practice room lived in the community. His kids went to school there, and he knew a lot about the district and our families. Most of the custodial staff lived in town. They were taxpayers and often graduates of the school. They arrived early on snowy mornings to shovel and salt the entryway, they wiped away evidence of children's carelessness and illness--and they kept an eye on kids who bore watching.

Custodians in my school were unionized, back then, and made good wages. They were the first employee group to be privatized, a few years ago, even though they offered concessions and accepted layoffs. Some stayed and worked for less money; others were replaced by strangers. Parents who felt confident letting their children stay after school for Brownies, soccer or drama club when Mr. S. was sweeping up were leery about the new guy. Would he wait with their third grader at the door when slippery roads made them late for pickup, like Mr. S. did? What was that personal commitment worth?

Unlike some enterprises, school security is an investment in people, relationships, trust and respect. It's not for sale.

Dwight D. Eisenhower, 1957
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