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Wichita’s Wonder School Looks Wonderful… Despite the Founder’s Surname and Assumptions that Competition is the Answer

February 22, 2018 Leave a comment

The headline in a Wichita Times article earlier this month immediately repelled me. It read “Koch Family to Open New Kind of Private School at Wichita University“. But in an effort to be open minded, and, quite frankly expecting my repulsion to be reinforced by an article describing an ill conceived “anti-government school” that would lead to a denigrating post, I read the article. And when I read that one of the partners and co-founders of the new school, called “Wonder” was Zach Lahn, a former fundraiser and state director for Americans for Prosperity, a Koch-backed conservative political advocacy group, I was certain the whole project was going to be badly conceived. But as I read deeper into the article I was stunned to find that the school envisioned by the son and daughter-in-law of one of the Koch brothers and a former fundraiser and state director for Americans for Prosperity actually looked wonderful! The article described the school’s program as follows:

▪ Students will be grouped into multi-age studios, rather than traditional grade levels, and advance only after they achieve certain academic and social milestones – a mastery-based approach touted by Kahn Academy founder Sal Kahn.

The first level, Wonder One, will be a Montessori-model preschool, Lahn said. Wonder Two will be for children roughly in second through fifth grades. Wonder Three and Wonder Four, part of the school’s long-range plan, will be geared toward middle- and high-schoolers.

▪ The school’s floorplan reflects a trend toward flexible seating, rather than traditional desks, with glass walls and wide-open spaces designed to encourage collaboration and creativity.

The school’s outdoor space, which will feature berms, tunnels and various climbing structures, was designed by Katy Bowman, author of “Move Your DNA,” who argues that movement should be a part of people’s everyday lives.

▪ There won’t be any teachers at Wonder, but rather “guides” and “coaches,” Lahn said. The school plans to allow students more say in what, how and at what pace they learn.

“We think that children are not challenged to the fullest extent that they could be right now,” Lahn said. “We want to challenge them to take on new tasks and greater ownership over what they’re doing.”

▪ There won’t be traditional grades or report cards either. Students will spend four to six weeks working on theme-based, hands-on projects, presenting them at the culmination to family and community members, who will offer feedback and ratings.

“There will be conversations happening every day in the studio: ‘Is this your best work?’ And they’re constantly being challenged to produce more iterations and better iterations,” Koch said.

▪ And no homework – at least not in the early years, Koch said. Older students who want to start a business or pursue a specific career goal might work on those projects outside of school.

“We think there’s so much value in spending time with your family, having free time, playing,” Koch said. “We really want to preserve that for the kids.”

In reviewing and reflecting on these elements, I was struck by how much they align with the libertarian– AND progressive— notions of self-direction and individuality… and how contrary those notions are with the current “factory model” of schooling. I was also struck by how the “Wonder” structure was developmentally appropriate as compared to the “factory model” that groups children by age cohorts and measures their progress based on comparisons to children who are the same ages.

While I liked everything about the Wonder design, I DID find it unsettling because it was only possible because of the resources the Koch’s could bring to bear… resources that can underwrite a small start-up but would defy scaling up without a marked increase in funding levels for public schools. And in the final paragraphs, after reading that the Koch family did not want their schools to be perceived as having any kind of political mission, I was distressed to read this statement from Shirley Lefever, dean of the College of Education at WSU, who said she was “…excited to partner with the school, which will serve as a kind of living laboratory for teaching students”:

“I think they have an incredible vision, and we just feel very privileged to be a part of that conversation,” Lefever said… “We’re always looking for ways that we can continue to learn and continue to try to understand how to improve educational outcomes for students.”

Koch said she envisions sharing ideas and encouraging other startup schools.

“We want other people doing this. We want competition,” she said. “We want somebody else to open another one of these, because we feel like that would make us better.

“We’re a small school, but we feel like we could have a big impact.”

A note to Ms. Koch: the notion that competition is the only way to make schools better is reinforcing a political notion that schools are a commodity and not a public good… Schools can get better faster through collaboration… and underfunded schools can get accelerate their improvement even more rapidly if they receive the funding they need. But that cannot be seen as a viable solution in Kansas where the legislature has decided that schools don’t need more money.

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The Conservative-Libertarian Federalist’s Analysis is ALMOST Correct… Offers Some Possible Avenues to Undo “Reform”

February 22, 2018 Leave a comment

The Google feed that provides me with articles on public education from the entire political spectrum offered up an op ed piece by Federalist writer Stella Morabito with the click-bait title “13 Ways Public Schools Incubate Mental Instability in Kids“. After reading the article, I came away convinced that libertarian-conservatives and progressives share many of the same perspectives about the ways public schools function in an adverse way for many students… but clearly do not share a common perspective on how to address the defects.

As I read through the list of thirteen ways public schools create a negative environment for most children, I found myself nodding in assent in most cases, particularly in large urban schools where test-driven “reform” has taken root:

  • The size and model of mass schooling IS alienating
  • Public schools are abnormal settings that feel like prisons
  • Public schools are breeding grounds for hierarchical cliques
  • Giant public schools are breeding grounds for aggression
  • Public schools are increasingly politicized
  • Schools are becoming more repressive
  • Public Schooling stunts personality development
  • Kids with special needs are especially judged as different

In most cases I could have written (and maybe HAVE written) similar observations, albeit coming from a completely different perspective. The school-to-prison pipeline, which is not referenced at all in Ms. Morabito’s article, is the result of schools becoming more repressive. The next four “ways schools incubate mental instability” are arguably accurate, but for completely different reasons than Ms. Morabito offers:

  • School bureaucracy tends to reinforce social pecking orderThe social pecking order is reinforced more by the way school attendance zones are established than by “the school bureaucracy”. Moreover, the “school bureaucracy” doesn’t SET “the social pecking order”, it mirrors “the social pecking order” that parents want to see in place. 
  • Reduced content knowledge promotes conformity: Ms. Morabito attributes the “reduced content” to “identity politics, fads, and political activism” instead of the true culprit, which is the slavish adherence to standardized tests as the means for measuring whether schools are “successful”. This has narrowed the curriculum so that the topics Ms. Morabito values— like “history, geography, and classics”– are pushed out. 
  • Public schools disregard students’ family and non-school lives: This is true but NOT for the reasons Ms. Morabito contends. While she sees that “Parents and families are increasingly treated as nuisances to the collectivist agenda of training children to conform to politically correct attitudes and emotions”, I see the problem as schools disregarding the needs of single-parent families and/or families where both parents work. And where Ms. Morabito laments the hours children spend in school, I would focus on the hours many children spend before schooling begins sitting in front of screens.  

 

Then there are two completely groundless assertions:

  • Public schooling is increasingly hostile to Christianity: Ms. Morabito writes: “Growing and intense aggression against any form of Christian prayer in the schools has a further alienating effect. It teaches any child who is emotionally hurting that he can’t even seek solace in a private and silent conversation with God without knowing he’d be ridiculed if his peers knew. The hostility towards religion also leads us on a path to utter lawlessness, since the rule of law evaporates when left to the devices of elites.”  While Ms. Morabito professes to desire that we do a better job of instructing children about the Constitution, she chooses to ignore that part of the Constitution that provides freedom from religion in government… the basis for precluding prayer in school. While many teachers, administrators, and “bureaucrats” may wish to allow prayer in school, those who work for the government are required to follow the laws of the land as interpreted by the courts. 
  • Enforced conformity promotes peer victimization: This somewhat confusing statement makes the point that the anti-bullying initiatives in schools are falling short of the mark, which may be the case in some school districts. But Ms. Morabito’s analysis of anti-bullying is off the mark. She groundlessly asserts that “…A bully is free to target with the taunt “bigot” any child who comes from a traditional Christian home, and the curricula will back them up”, but fails to suggest that additional counseling and direct instruction on the teaching of tolerance might be helpful in addressing the bullying behavior that is arguably a part of human nature that needs to be controlled if we want to live under a rule of law as opposed to a rule of vigilantism. 

As I read about the libertarian thinking on education, I am struck by how often I find myself agreeing with some of their principles, many of which are grounded in common sense and research. But too often their anti-establishmentarian ideas ascribe intent and power to bureaucracies that do not exist. Ms. Morabito’s belief that the “school bureaucracy” sets the pecking order in schools is a case in point. For better or worse, there is no monolithic “school bureaucracy” that exists in our country. Our public education system is radically decentralized and immune to edicts from the Supreme Court. If that were not the case we would have fully integrated and equitably funded public schools and adhering to a “Common Core” curriculum that would would have been in place for decades. Instead our schools operate democratically under the control of local boards elected at the levels established by each state. It’s a cumbersome system that is exceedingly difficult to change… but it better than any alternative… especially an alternative that is based on religion.

 

What T.H.E. Journal Analysis Says… and DOESN’T Say

February 21, 2018 Leave a comment

I was intrigued by the headline of an article in THE Journal that read “Cost to Connect Rural America: $19 Billion or Less“. Dian Shaffhauser’s article draws on the findings of a study completed by public sector consultancy CTC Technology & Energy found that

If appropriate funding were found and those construction efforts were coordinated among state and regional authorities, the proposal asserted, a savings of up to 50 percent would be possible.

The report stated that the deployment costs could be reduced by using an open application process that would allow both commercial and non-commercial providers to bid. It also suggested that broadband infrastructure be opened to “interconnection,” allowing existing infrastructure “to be used rather than building out additional, duplicative infrastructure.”

My hunch: this kind of coordinated effort could best be accomplished by the federal government, especially if broadband were viewed as a utility… that is if the FCC reversed itself and restored the rules of the game that existed two years ago. My further hunch: that isn’t going to happen any time soon… and as a result those who live in “rural backwaters”— like me— will remain unable to connect to broadband for the foreseeable future… and the digital divide will persist and widen…

 

A Predictable Response to Carnage in Florida: More Good Guys with Guns; No More Money for Mental Health

February 21, 2018 Leave a comment

The Florida House, faced with a gallery full of students grieving over the loss of their classmates and looking for some kind of sign that the elected officials in the state were prepared to do something substantive about the control of guns, failed to ban the AR-15 used to slaughter the children in Parkland HS and the party-goers in the Orlando nightclub a few months ago. As Diane Ravitch reported in her blog, they used a procedural vote to sidestep a debate on the issue sending a message to the students that the debate on guns was less important than adherence to some arcane legislative process. The Florida Senate, meanwhile, endorsed a proposal to put law enforcement officers in every school in the state. It was unclear whether the mandate included the funds needed for these positions, which would be new in roughly half of the schools in the state…. I think I know the answer, but either way the children lose out. If the state can offer more $$$ for armed guards why can’t they offer more $$$ for counseling services or to underwrite the costs of public schools? And if they DODN’T provide the money, what will the local school districts have to cut to make room for “good guys with guns”?

Meanwhile Betsy DeVos appeared on a conservative talk radio show to support the notion of arming more teachers and the East Brunswick School Board decided to provide more armed guards in their school and Gov. Philip D. Murphy announced that the New Jersey State Police would start regular, but unannounced, officer visits to the 107 schools in districts where it has jurisdiction.

The NRA continues to prevail in the hearts and minds of legislators at all levels… and the children continue to adapt to the police state mentality. It needs to stop.

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An Op Ed on the NRA, Guns, and Legislation Needed in NH for our Local Newspaper

February 21, 2018 Leave a comment

Our local newspaper has had many letters and op ed pieces on guns in school… and I’ve written many (maybe TOO many) posts on this topic of late… but the carnage in public schools that results from guns and our State Governor’s and Legislature’s recent actions on gun control have driven me to writing multiple posts, letters to legislators, and this op ed piece:

Last Wednesday a 19-year old dropout came to the Florida school he once attended and opened fire on his former classmates. The AP report of the mass murder noted that the shooter was equipped with a gas mask and smoke grenades, set off a fire alarm to draw students out of classrooms shortly before the day ended at one of Florida’s largest schools, and opened fire on them with a high-powered rifle. Students who knew the shooter described how his volatile and strange behavior caused him to lose friends and become more and more isolated. As the news cycle went on, we learned that this troubled high school dropout legally acquired a military-style rifle designed to take out large numbers of enemy troops on a battle field, the very weapon used in several recent mass murders. And finally and predictably, we read of saddened legislators offering thoughts and prayers and heard our President encouraging us to “tackle the difficult issue of mental health”. By the end of the week, after everyone weighed in on what should happen next, the New York Times reported that: “Republicans called for prayers, but argued that no single fix to the nation’s gun laws would deter a shooting like the one on Wednesday.” I beg to differ… and encourage legislators to look closely at history to see that the passage of laws on gun control DID make a difference not so long ago.

During the 1970s, there were only two mass shootings at public schools. During that decade common sense prevailed in terms of weapons in school and the acquisition of guns, common sense that was written into laws in the late 1960s. During that era there was bi-partisan political support and NRA support for gun control, which led to the passage of the federal gun control act (GCA) of 1968. At the hearing on that bill, NRA Executive Vice-President Franklin Orth supported the bill’s ban on mail-order sales, stating, “We do not think that any sane American, who calls himself an American, can object to placing into this bill the instrument which killed the president of the United States.” In the late 1960s several states also passed laws limiting the use of firearms, including California’s passage of the Mulford Act which forbid the carrying of loaded weapons in public.  In response to the passage of this law, then California Governor Ronald Reagan stated that he saw “no reason why on the street today a citizen should be carrying loaded weapons” and asserted that guns were a “ridiculous way to solve problems that have to be solved among people of good will.”

Why have politicians changed their thinking since then? Three factors contributed: the NRA became more aggressive in lobbying for gun owner rights; as the NRA gained political power through their lobbying they gained control of the narrative on gun control; and, as a nation we have tacitly accepted the NRA’s assertion that citizens need guns to protect themselves from each other and “the government”.

The NRA mission has changed dramatically since the 1960s and early 1970s when it focused on sportsman, hunters, and target shooting. After the organization’s leaders supported the federal GCA in 1968, a group of NRA members banded together to elect individuals who would seek to repeal the bill and expand gun owner’s rights. By 1977 that group had taken control of the NRA and determined to make the organization into a formidable lobbying force. That activist group’s political views dominate the legislative agenda of the NRA today, drowning out the views of more moderate members in the organization and framing the national debate on guns.

In the recent past, the NRA “slippery slope” argument—that ANY restrictions on guns will inexorably lead to the confiscation of ALL guns—has seldom been challenged and often trumpeted by politicians. The NRA’s mantra that “guns don’t kill people” and its variants like “mental health is the issue” have dominated the public discourse on gun ownership. And finally, the public accepts NRA’s contention that the issues that lead to mass murders are so complex they defy any kind of legislative remedy. Thus, we hear the GOP declaring that “…no single fix to the nation’s gun laws would deter a shooting like the one on Wednesday” while we don’t hear anyone asking the most obvious gun control question of all: “Why does ANY citizen in our country need to own a gun designed to kill large numbers of human beings?” As a result of the way the NRA frames the debate, we have not engaged in any meaningful debate on how we might limit the purchase of guns or confiscate guns from individuals who might pose a danger to themselves or others. We’ve determined that those on the no-fly list, those who are mentally unbalanced and threaten to kill people, and those who are under temporary restraining orders should maintain their Second Amendment Rights at all costs. Unfortunately, those costs include the loss life of students and teachers in schools, of those attending night clubs in Florida, of those attending street festivals in Nevada, of those attending movies in Colorado, of those attending church on Sunday in Texas, and those who are killed in domestic disputes and suicides where guns are involved.

Despite these mass killings over the past decade, we have been unwilling to limit the rights of anyone to acquire any kind of gun and carry it anywhere because we have accepted the NRA’s most devastating assertion of all: that citizens need to have guns to protect themselves from each other and “the government”. In the 1960s, the gun control act (GCA) of 1968 was passed in response to the Kennedy assassination. California’s Mulford Act, introduced in 1967, was passed in response to the Black Panther Party’s decision to conduct armed patrols of Oakland neighborhoods because of their objection to treatment by the local police force. By contrast, in today’s world neither the shooting of innocent civilians by individuals with high-powered weapons nor the presence of armed militias in Charlottesville “to provide order at the protest” compelled any legislative action except to call for more citizens to carry concealed weapons and to encourage more “armed volunteers” to patrol school grounds and public spaces. In effect, we have adopted the view that vigilante justice needs to replace the rule of law.

And now that we have accepted the NRA’s positions on gun ownership, we find ourselves in a world where anyone can acquire a gun of any kind and anyone can bring that gun into a school, into a public meeting, or into any area where large numbers are gathered. We find ourselves in a world where school districts are expected to respond to the widespread availability of guns by increasing their spending on surveillance equipment, on sophisticated door locks, and on the hiring of SROs to assist in monitoring schools. We find ourselves in a world where schools are expected to spend $1.1 billion on physical security in 2018. And… we find ourselves in a world where school shootings are on the increase: 297 school students were killed in 137 school shootings between 1980 and 2013 and 438 students killed in 273 school shooting incidents in the three year period following the Sandy Hook incident at the end of 2012. And we find ourselves in a world that cannot believe there was a decade when only two school shootings occurred and laws forbid the possession of loaded weapons.

So what can be done, apart from offering “thoughts and prayers”? David Berliner, Regents’ Professor of Education Emeritus at Arizona State University, offered an idea in Diane Ravtich’s blog: a strike by teachers on April 20 if states fail to enact sane legislation on weapons in schools. Why teachers? Because, as Ms. Ravitch notes, “…teachers are now first responders, trained to protect their students if a shooter gets in the building. Some have given their lives for their students. Enough is enough.”

In New Hampshire we could start restoring sanity to our gun legislation by passing a law that allows local school boards to enact policies that restrict weapons in schools. As reported in several Valley News articles, our State’s AG Office has ruled that only the legislature, not school districts, can enact firearms bans, except for students and staff. If the legislature is unwilling to enforce the federal laws regarding weapons free schools, they should at least give locally elected school boards the authority to ban weapons. If local control is the hallmark of New Hampshire government, giving local boards this authority makes perfect sense. Secondly, the New Hampshire legislature could repeal the bill Governor Chris Sununu signed into law a year ago that did away with the requirement that gun owners have a permit to carry a concealed handgun and gave local police chiefs the ability to deny such a permit. Finally, the legislature might look to the bills passed in Connecticut following the Sandy Hook shootings there. As a result of their legislation the number of gun deaths dropped in that state, an outcome I hope most legislators would seek.

I am tired of living in a world where my grandchildren have to live in fear when they go to school because we want to make certain anyone can buy any kind of weapon and carry it with them at any time and any place. I’m tired of living in a world where schools are expected to spend millions of dollars on surveillance equipment and armed guards so that any citizen can buy a gun designed to kill humans. I’m tired of living in a world where profiling troubled teenagers and adults on social media is seen as a better solution to shootings than developing any kind of background checks on gun purchasers. And most of all, I’m tired of living a world where the legislators encourage citizens to arm themselves for their own protection. Instead of supporting the “every-person-for-themselves” worldview of the NRA, I hope that in the future our legislators will promote a collaborative worldview: a world where local school boards, selectboards, police forces, and social service agencies are encouraged to team up to help troubled youth and adults connect with their community… a world where hope replaces fear.

 

 

 

 

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A Letter to my State Legislators on Gun Control in New Hampshire

February 20, 2018 Leave a comment

Herewith is a letter I wrote to our local legislators in New Hampshire, all of whom, I believe, would be on board with any legislation that called for greater gun control in our state. I urge you to write a similar letter unless you are fortunate enough to live in a state like NY or CT where there is some modicum of sanity in their efforts to control who owns guns and where and how they can be used. Here’s my letter:

I submitted a lengthy op ed piece to the Valley News that may or may not get published… but I wanted to share a couple of paragraphs with you since they include some ideas on what the NH legislature might do. Here they are:

In New Hampshire we could start restoring sanity to our gun legislation by passing a law that allows local school boards to enact policies that restrict weapons in schools. As reported in several Valley News articles, our State’s AG Office has ruled that only the legislature, not school districts, can enact firearms bans, except for students and staff. If the legislature is unwilling to enforce the federal laws regarding weapons free schools, they should at least give locally elected school boards the authority to ban weapons. If local control is the hallmark of New Hampshire government, giving local boards this authority makes perfect sense. Secondly, the New Hampshire legislature could repeal the bill Governor Chris Sununu signed into law a year ago that did away with the requirement that gun owners have a permit to carry a concealed handgun and gave local police chiefs the ability to deny such a permit. Finally, the legislature might look to the bills passed in Connecticut following the Sandy Hook shootings there. As a result of their legislation the number of gun deaths dropped in that state, an outcome I hope most legislators would seek.

I am tired of living in a world where my grandchildren have to live in fear when they go to school because we want to make certain anyone can buy any kind of weapon and carry it with them at any time and any place. I’m tired of living in a world where schools are expected to spend millions of dollars on surveillance equipment and armed guards so that any citizen can buy a gun designed to kill humans. I’m tired of living in a world where profiling troubled teenagers and adults on social media is seen as a better solution to shootings than developing any kind of background checks on gun purchasers. And most of all, I’m tired of living a world where the legislators encourage citizens to arm themselves for their own protection. Instead of supporting the “every-person-for-themselves” worldview of the NRA, I hope that in the future our legislators will promote a collaborative worldview: a world where local school boards, selectboards, police forces, and social service agencies are encouraged to team up to help troubled youth and adults connect with their community… a world where hope replaces fear.

I trust you are as appalled as I am that the gun restriction policies in place in our local schools are now “illegal” and also appealed to think that our local police cannot stop anyone from getting or renewing a concealed carry permit. If you introduce bills that remedy either of those issues I would be glad to testify on your behalf in support of its passage. Please take some action to restore sanity to gun ownership in our state. 

More Good Guys With Guns? More Surveillance? More Lockdown Drills? NO! None of the Above!

February 20, 2018 Leave a comment

Education Week featured an article by Bryan Warnick, professor of education at The Ohio State University, Benjamin A. Johnson, assistant professor at Utah Valley University, and Sam Rocha is an assistant professor of education at the University of British Columbia, that offered a rebuttal against those politicians and gun advocates who reflexively call for more security whenever a school shooting occurs. Using evidence to support their arguments against more good guys with guns, more surveillance cameras, and more drills, they also offered a powerful argument why such  “target-hardening” approaches to school shootings make matters worse:

Filling schools with metal detectors, surveillance cameras, police officers, and gun-wielding teachers tells students that schools are scary, dangerous, and violent places—places where violence is expected to occur.

The “target hardening” approach also has the potential to change how teachers, students, and administrators see one another. How teachers understand the children and youth they teach has important educational consequences. Are students budding citizens or future workers? Are they plants to nourish or clay to mold?

Instead of inculcating fear into students, the three writers propose that we look at how our schools function and how effectively we engage students in academics and the life of the school. Instead of examining checklists on door locks and performing drills led by experts on school security, the authors suggest examining the ways schools isolate some students:

To what extent does the school—through things like athletics, homecoming royalties, or dances and so forth—encourage what some political scientists have called the “status tournament of adolescence” that lurks behind the stories of many school shootings?

As one reads about such shootings, one often senses a feeling of social anxiety and betrayal on the part of perpetrator. Americans hold high expectations for schools as places of friendship and romance, yet too often students find alienation, humiliation, and isolation. The frustration at these thwarted expectations at least sometimes seems to turn toward the school itself.

And the authors also believe schools should examine how they impose discipline and order and how that might affect the thinking of impressionable adolescents:

To what extent does the force and coercion employed by many schools contribute to a “might makes right” mentality and associated violence?

It is true that bullying is often a part of some of the stories of school shooters. Students who are bullied or who are bullies themselves will quite naturally think of schools as places appropriate for violence. There is also sometimes a rage, however, against the day-to-day imposition of school discipline and punishment. Since schools are experienced as places of force and control, for some students, they also come to be seen as appropriate places for violence.

To their credit, the writers do not offer glib solutions that will work for each and every school. Rather, they ask that schools engage in deep reflection… and ask that the public join with them in their introspection:

Our suggestion is simply that, instead of trying to find solutions to school shootings in the dubious arms of security technologies, or even solely through more promising public policy, society should ask deeper questions about the nature of education and schooling in American society.

It is time to think about school shootings not as a problem of security, but also as a problem of education.

After reading article after article calling for quick and easy and highly visible “solutions”, it was refreshing to read an analysis that called for schools to take a deep breath and engage in thoughtful reflection. I would encourage every school to look at the students they serve and see what steps they might take to ensure that every child attending is making the most of every minute they are attending… identifying the obstacles that the child faces… and advocate for a means of having those obstacles removed. In doing so, I doubt that any school will conclude that more surveillance cameras, more good guys with guns, and more lockdown drills are necessary.