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Meet Me At The Barricades

March 3, 2015

I read a report from the Columbus Dispatch that the Southwest Licking School District PTA decided to raise $30,000 to install barricades in the doors of its elementary school as a precaution against armed intruders and was filled with dismay.

I was dismayed mainly because I thought it was sad that a group of parents felt that it was imperative that they raise $30,000 for a safety item, but even more dismayed to read that the safety item they believed they “needed” was “…Barracuda intruder-defense systems (for) every student door in the district.”. This report was discouraging for several reasons:

  • The “Barracuda intruder defense system” would not be failsafe in any school: Having looked at the video of this product, I see several flaws in its use. First and foremost, it assumes that the shooting incident will take place when an adult is present in every room in the school, which is often not the case. In elementary schools some group of students are often at recess, or lunch, or en route from one class to another in a (presumably) insecure hallway, playground, or large gathering area. Secondly, it assumes that the adult in the room will know how to use the tool, which requires the training of ALL school personnel including substitutes.  Thirdly, in response to these “gaps” some parents, Board members, and administrators might suggest even more heavy handed monitoring and “locking down” adding to the atmosphere of fear and protection outlined below.
  • “Barracuda intruder-defense systems” reinforce fear and protection in an era when children need support and encouragement: Based on my understanding, the youngsters who become “school shooters” are disaffected students who felt marginalized in school and had a desire to get revenge and make a name for themselves. It strikes me that a “Barracuda intruder-defense system” would not be an obstacle in the minds of these shooters any more than the armed guard was at Columbine or the secure entry system was at Sandy Hook.
  • Taxes, not “bake sales”, should pay for safety concerns: If a “safety item” is needed for a school it should be budgeted by the school board and paid for by the taxpayers. Would the PTO be expected to raise funds to purchase and install better door locks– the most common means of upgrading security? Would they be expected to raise funds for surveillance cameras? Pay for the cost of a “good guy with a gun”? There is a reason that these kinds of decisions are rendered by School Boards. It assures that they are made after weighing their value against other alternatives, after considering the psychological implications, after weighing the time needed for staff training, and— as was true in this case— after ensuring that the decision was in compliance with local ordinances and resources.
  • Parents fears surpass their desire for equity or enrichment: I harkened back to my early days as an Acting Principal at an elementary school in suburban Philadelphia where funds were raised for special field trips to orchestra performances in the city or trips to amusement parks… recalled my early career as a Superintendent in rural Maine where the parents raised money to make it possible for all the children to going skiing if they wished or to participate in field days at the end of the year… and as Superintendent in NH and NY where PTOs raised huge sums to upgrade and modernize their playgrounds so that children at recess and so that communities would have places for children to congregate and play on weekends…
  • “Safety equipment” makes school facilities more like penitentiaries and less like campuses: The more schools attempt to be 100% safe the more they resemble prisons. It is not hard to imagine parents who are fearful that intruders might invade playgrounds advocating that the schools install a fence with razor wire around the perimeter. If parents want to be absolutely certain that corridors and common areas are safe they might advocate the school expand the number of armed guards in the hallways. To make sure that only students are present in the school they might advocate that all students wear uniforms with their names and student numbers emblazoned on the outside. These may sound like extreme solutions, but they are the logical consequence of the desire to provide a 100% secure environment for children.

I am dismayed about these developments, but I have a vivid memory of  the “Columbine Spring” that was the source of this demand for school security, the event that “changed everything”. In 1999 I was serving as Superintendent in Dutchess County NY and convening coffees to provide parents and community members with an overview of the budget that would be voted on in mid May.  But in 1999 the conversations at those gatherings never got to the budget: they were all about the events in Colorado in a community that looked a lot like the communities I was leading in NYS. After those shootings and the ones that followed parents and school boards focussed less and less on funding for playgrounds and more and more on new door locks, video surveillance, and redesigning schools so that administrative offices were closer to the entryway. When budgets became tighter and tighter, security issues trumped playgrounds and other capital projects, a trend that only got worse after the shootings at Sandy Hook.

I am dismayed by this trend because it erodes the child’s belief that the outside world is safe and welcoming and reinforces parent fears that their children will be harmed or abducted and, in doing so, brings discussion down to a lower level on Maslow’s hierarchy when school policy is being discussed. If we want imaginative and creative children who love attending school every day, we need to accept the very low risk that a shooter might invade a school or a stranger might abduct a child while encoring our children to experience the freedom and liberty that makes our country different from those parts of the world where every movement is controlled and monitored.

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