By Katherine Doerr Morosky
Last spring, in the wake of the school massacre in my community, Newtown, I worked with 10 other teachers from around the country in a VIVA Writing Collaborative about school safety. We took our report to Washington D.C. just days after a Congressional “no” vote on background checks [for gun purchases]. Presenting it senior officials at the U.S. Department of Education and National Education Association, our collaborative’s first three recommendations were “put character in the curriculum,” “practice and teach effective conflict resolution,” and “treat school as a community.” The issue of weapons and arming teachers was left to the end of the report.
It didn’t surprise me that guns weren’t mentioned during the school safety panel at the Education Nation Summit, held in New York City on October 7 and 8. The panelists, who included the actress Goldie Hawn and Dr. Meria Joel Carstarphen, superintendent of Texas’ Austin Independent School District (AISD), focused instead on social-emotional learning and restorative justice. The Hawn Foundation, whose stated mission is to “help young minds by nurturing resilience, hope, and optimism,” sponsors a social-emotional learning program called MindUp. Although Dr. Carstarphen’s main emphasis was on restorative justice, she should have mentioned guns. A week after she was in New York, a 16-year-old student, Adrian Alvarez, took a gun out of his hoodie, and shot himself to death, in the courtyard of AISD’s Lanier High School.
Of course, I agree that a strong community, where healthy hearts and minds are nurtured, is critical to growing children who are socially conscious and empathetic. It’s part of the reason that my husband and I decided to raise our children in Newtown, where the motto for years has been “It’s Nicer in Newtown.” The public schools are a large part of community life; my daughters’ school’s PTA hosts almost 50 different events and programs over the course of the school year. A sign of the importance of helping children develop healthy character can be found in any of the school foyers, which have long displayed a large poster of a tree: the bottom says “Newtown’s Core Character Attributes” and the top says “Cultivating Character.” What kind of tragic irony is it that my community, doing everything the experts say promotes school safety, had the most lethal elementary school shooting in America in the last 50 years?
What made Sandy Hook the unbearable tragedy it was, with 20 first-graders and six educators dead in fewer than four minutes, is guns. I recently brainstormed a list of school crises with teachers and administrators from urban and suburban districts in Newtown’s area. Most of our concerns were like night and day. Suburban educators worry about standards, academic integrity, parental over-involvement. Urban educators cited violence, domestic abuse, gangs. Disparate lists, with one exception: we are all afraid of being shot at school.
Guns are a school problem not only because we are vulnerable targets to deranged individuals. All American children exposed to gun violence suffer the long-term effects of too many innocent people being killed by guns. The toll that gun violence takes on children is chillingly real for us in Newtown, but in fact one in three Americans knows someone who has been shot. According to the Brady Campaign, a household gun is 22 times more likely to be used for an accidental or intentional murder or suicide than to protect the home from crime. Gun violence is the second leading cause of death for children ages 0-19, and rural children are just as likely to be killed by unintentional shooting and gun suicide as urban children are from gun homicide.
The district where I teach, in a New York City suburb, is almost entirely white and has a median household income of $177,000. Yet in the month before the Sandy Hook shooting, our middle school’s music teacher was shot and killed by her husband. On the heels of that tragedy, the father of one of my high school students was disfigured and badly injured by a rifle during a domestic dispute. After that, my student was out of school as many days as she was present, suffering from nearly debilitating depression while holding the family together and taking care of younger siblings.
At the conclusion of Education Nation’s Teacher Town Hall, Brian Williams specially recognized the teachers of Sandy Hook School for their courage in the face of terror. In the 10 months since that terrible day, more than 28,000 more Americans have been killed by guns. That’s over three times the number killed in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2003. Newtown teaches character and kindness, but that wasn’t enough for our community. Until we liberate our country of the scourge of gun violence, more and more innocent lives will be lost.