Militarization Of Schools Not The Answer To Shootings
“Can we agree Kevlar backpacks shouldn’t be needed for children walking to school?” These are among the opening lines of a Matthew Olzmann poem so resonant it went viral when published by the American Academy of Poets two years ago.
It was the first time Connecticut-born poet Gabrielle Calvocoressi could remember that “a poem became an event,” devastating people “on such an intimate level they have to tell someone.” How little we have done, it seemed to say, to ensure the safety of our children from gun violence.
The recent shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida is yet another reminder of our collective failure to move from discourse to decisiveness; a devastating salt in deep wounds from Sandy Hook to Columbine, Benton, Roseburg, Red Lake and beyond.
The crisis we now face is an opportunity to (finally) get things right and also to avoid going awry in predictable ways.
We hear the calls for more metal detectors, surveillance, armed adults in our schools. Doubling down on the militarization of public education is not the answer. Although a potentially soothing short-term salve (for some), it averts attention from the root causes of violence and sinks scarce resources into surface level symptoms while doing little to enhance public health and safety in a deeper sense. It also stands in stark contrast to the example set by Marjory Stoneman Douglas.
Douglas, who lived to be 108, was many things — an environmentalist, feminist, appreciator of the arts, journalist and author, friend to refugees and patron of botanic gardens and public libraries. She fought for suffrage and against convict leasing, battled big sugar on pollution and helped establish the south’s first ACLU chapter. She championed underdogs in general and the Everglades in particular.
It is hard to imagine two things in starker relief than the messages of Douglas’ life and this recent shooting by another disturbed white male with mass-murder enabling access to a semi-automatic rifle and multiple magazines.
That this happened at Douglas’ namesake high school serves up a cultural clash of epic proportions. Mass shootings — the manifestation of militarism, toxic masculinity, white supremacy and untreated, deep-seated anger run amok — are quite literally the opposites of ecofeminism, reciprocal care and justice.
What might Douglas’ memory direct us toward? Peace gardens, perhaps. Opportunities to engage in environmental stewardship and to reap its soul-sustaining rewards. Time spent in nature rather than on lockdown. Holistic health care, including mental health resources in schools, not as a response to violence but as a precondition for well-being. And more. Douglas once stated that child welfare, “ought really to cover all sorts of topics, such as better water and sanitation and good roads, and clean streets and public parks and playgrounds.” She’d want for us to fix society and include our schools in that project, rather than have schools alone bear such a burden, militaristically, of our broken social contract.
While we slept, simulated active shooter scenarios became the norm in our schools; companies peddled bulletproof backpack panels and white boards; a single city’s school system, Las Vegas, installed more than 12,000 surveillance cameras; districts invested hundreds of thousands of dollars on police-linked security measures even as they cut teachers; politicians advanced bills to allow concealed carry by adults in school; and officers came to outnumber counselors in districts across the country. We are waking up to the fact that none of this ensures our children’s safety, and much of it has rendered them more vulnerable and more scared.
Certainly Douglas would not want what the last few shattering lines of Olzmann’s poem predict: “And that click you hear? That’s just our voices, the deadbolt of discourse sliding into place.” The life she lived suggests she would be deeply dissatisfied, as many of us are, by prayers and politics alone.
Douglas would agree that we need more than discourse, but also that what we need is not more deadbolts or policing in public education. What we need is a system, in and beyond our schools, that supports us to develop political consciousness, to refuse political inaction and to stand in solidarity with one another and the environment.
That is the kind of system that would make Douglas proud. It’s the kind of system that students — including those righteous Douglas students who are refusing to have their voices locked down — deserve.
Lauren Anderson is an associate professor and chair of the Education Department at Connecticut College in New London.