On Education: Sandy Hook is a lesson told too often

There are families in Newtown, Conn. who are enduring the holidays without their children. There are empty spots on couches, unwrapped presents and those who weep at the sight of them.

The Dec. 14 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School — which took the lives of 20 first-grade students and six staff members — means that this season is forever marred by loss for the New England community.

The trauma has reverberated across the country. We gathered in parks and churches to memorialize the victims. We asked whether we would act with the same selfless courage demonstrated by staff members at Sandy Hook Elementary. We've questioned school safety, mental health services, gun control and personal responsibility.

Glendale Unified Supt. Dick Sheehan said that district officials were reviewing emergency protocol, including lockdown procedures that would be enacted in the case of a campus shooting.

I lived through a minor school crisis. On March 31, 1997, my classmates and I arrived at Rosemont Middle School only to be ushered out onto the athletic fields where we would spend much of the day waiting for law enforcement officials to diffuse a small explosive planted on a classroom door.

Three weeks later, a similar object was found on the playground at Dunsmore Elementary School. No one was injured — the devices were later determined to be largely harmless — and three eighth-grade boys were arrested for the hoax.

But the collective anxiety was real. I remember our lanky principal, Jerry Watson, striding around like a wind-up toy. Parents, beside themselves, rushed to retrieve their children. It was a very small taste of something more serious, a reminder that not even lovely, school-oriented communities are immune.

It's a lesson that our nation has reviewed too many times.

The Newtown shooting defied so many of the existing safeguards and assumptions we have about school-place violence. Sandy Hook Elementary School had just implemented rigorous safety protocols in which no one was allowed to enter the building without first being identified. Nancy Lanza was apparently an educated and engaged mom. The weapons used were legally obtained and 20-year-old Adam Lanza trained to handle them since childhood.

The National Rifle Assn. has suggested that armed guards should be placed in every school. But an armed guard did not stop the shooting at Columbine High School in 1999. And there are questions of cost, liability and philosophy — do we want our children educated in spaces more closely resembling prisons than playgrounds?

It remains to be seen whether the Newtown school tragedy represents a tipping point on gun control, although it is abundantly clear that the policies we have in place now are insufficient. The tone of the conversation seems more serious than in the wake of other mass shootings.

Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-California) said she will propose next year a federal ban on assault weapons. Even some gun-owning members of Congress are calling for stricter laws.

Guns don't belong in American schools any more than they belong on the streets of Glendale, Chicago or New York City. We pay for their presence with a murder rate more than 10 times higher than other developed nations. Eliminating them requires political courage sustainable long after the heaps of flowers, condolence letters and stuffed animals that have amassed in Newtown are cleared away.

Sandy Hook Elementary School has already been added to a list of American schools synonymous with deadly shootings. Let's make it the final entry.

No family should be without their children during the holidays.

MEGAN O'NEIL is a former education reporter for Times Community News and current graduate student at USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. She may be reached at megan.oneil.06@gmail.com.

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