No way to educate our kids

No way to educate our kids

Proposals to militarize public schools are not the answer

A little over three decades ago, one of America’s great political philosophers, Dr. Seuss, authored a masterful takedown of the Cold War and the madness that it inspired in political leaders – both East and West. Seuss called his effort The Butter Battle Book, and in it, the one-of-a-kind children’s author explored and skewered the premise that human society can arm its way to a lasting peace by acquiring and deploying ever-more-deadly and powerful killing machines.

Oh, that someone would supply our current state and local elected officials with copies of Seuss’ book in the coming days as they explore and wrestle with the issue of school safety in the aftermath of the deadly massacre at Stoneman High School in Parkland, Florida.

Unfortunately, as you’ve probably noted in various media reports in recent days, one of the chief responses thus far to the safety issue in North Carolina appears to be what we might call the “militarization” approach.

This is from a story last Friday in the Asheville Citizen-Times:

As school children in Henderson County spill out onto playgrounds, line up in hallways and meet for activities, they could soon be mingling with armed guards dressed in plain clothes.

Sheriff Charles McDonald hopes to make sure that’s true in all 23 public schools in Henderson [County] by next school year in what could be a first in North Carolina….

McDonald’s plan – which the sheriff acknowledges is still being put together – would rely on a mix of school resource officers who are deputies and “armed forces” made up of people with military or law enforcement backgrounds who are not deputies but paid hourly by the department.”

The Henderson County story comes just days after state legislators in Raleigh considered the idea of adding more law enforcement personnel (aka “school resource officers”) to the state’s schools and devising systems to restrict access to schools to a tiny number of safe entry points.

Meanwhile, in the state’s second largest school system, Charlotte-Mecklenburg, the Charlotte police chief advanced the idea of turning more schools into virtual fortresses. As Ann Doss Helms of the Charlotte Observer reported:

All Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools should restrict entry to one point and ‘wand’ all who enter, whether students or adults, Police Chief Kerr Putney told concerned parents Thursday.

Putney, who has been meeting with Superintendent Clayton Wilcox about school safety in the wake of a Feb. 14 mass shooting, acknowledged the change will be costly and inconvenient. But he called it essential to keeping guns out of schools.

‘You’re going to have to give up some level of freedom to get this right,’ the Charlotte-Mecklenburg police chief said at a town hall meeting at Steele Creek AME Zion Church on Thursday night.”

These proposals come on top of the option advanced by some conservative officials of actually arming teachers themselves in the hope of deterring further violence.

The wrong way to go

There are a lot of things that can be said about the idea of transforming our public schools into impregnable structures that resemble military bases and employing professional law enforcement officials to engage in an arms race with those who would invade them, but the first and most obvious is that, as Dr. Seuss would have observed, this is simply no way to educate our children.

While many of those who propose such schemes clearly mean well and, no doubt, operate from a position of understandable concern (and even fear), the hard truth is that once we head down this road, it’s very hard to see where things will end.

Just how far will we go and how much will we spend? Will Americans adopt the practices favored by the super-rich in some of the world’s more dangerous locales, in which children are transported to and from school each day in virtual armored cars? Will schools start to sport barbed wire exteriors, barred windows and blast doors? Will there be “have” and “have not” schools when it comes to police/military protection?

And how far will we take the surveillance and security approach? Will this be a permanent state of affairs?

And what kind of a message will we convey to our children about life in a free society if we do this? What kind of lessons will they learn about living life as an adult if so many moments of their childhood are overseen by a person in uniform armed with a dangerous weapon and every entry and exit into their school resembles an airport checkpoint?

The wager here is that such a change would have an extremely negative long-term impact on the health and wellbeing of our already jittery and suspicious nation.

What’s more, the idea of massively fortifying schools can only offer so much protection. The hard truth of the matter, of course, is that school tragedies represent just one small subset of America’s tragic mass shooting binge. What’s more, kids spend only a small minority of their growing up hours in school. And kids aren’t the only targets for mass shooters.

What’s next? Machine gun-toting guards at theaters? Concerts? Ballgames? Playgrounds? Swimming pools? Where does it end?

An important fork in the road

It should be noted that militarization approaches are not the only ones that have arisen in recent weeks in response to Parkland. Other voices have, of course, raised the prospect of employing more school counselors and psychologists, improving mental health services, strengthening rules by which judges can issue protective orders and providing more and better ways for people to report suspicious activity. All of these deserve to be acted on right away.

Ultimately, however, the overriding imperative in addressing the nation’s mass killing crisis – both in schools and elsewhere – is to halt the private ownership of mass killing devices. Just as we prohibit the sale and possession of other military grade weapons – be they machine guns, bazookas, grenade launchers, flame throwers or bombs of varying kinds – it remains madness to allow the purchase and possession of military-style assault weapons to private individuals. This is especially true when the weapons are sold without a rigorous background check and/or made available to teenagers.

The bottom line: It’s more than understandable that people are extremely nervous right now in America’s current gun-saturated environment. What’s more, it’s certainly possible to envision scenarios in which adding additional law enforcement officers to selected public venues (including schools) – especially in troubled neighborhoods – can be a reasonable near-term tactic.

In the long run, however, it’s critical that we not head down a road in which we (and especially our children) can only feel secure if we’re forever backed by (and perpetually hiding behind) the biggest and baddest weapons. As Dr. Seuss explained succinctly in The Butter Battle Book, that is no way for a society (or an individual) to live and certainly no environment in which to raise the next generation.

[Note: The original version of this column incorrectly identified the Charlotte police chief as the sheriff of Mecklenburg County. It has been updated to correct the error.]