Mike's Notes: School Safety and Gun Violence

Posted by Mike Henriques

02/23/2018

Gun violence. I would rather not write about this topic. I would rather write about listening to the singers who performed in the chapel last Sunday, or Corby talking about his art, or The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (performed tonight and tomorrow night). I’d rather write about ski jumping or basketball, women’s hockey or Nordic races. I’d rather update on the construction in the Field House or the latest heroics on Maintenance. I’d rather sing the praises of the artists who dominated the art show up at the Ava Gallery in Lebanon. But my weekly Notes can’t always be whipped cream and bonbons.

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I have watched and listened this last week, read and reflected. I am trying to hear both sides of a safety debate and trying to use my decades with students and adults to find common ground and common sense as my opinion coalesces and steps forward are contemplated. I acknowledge that the settings where I have worked in my career have been safe ones for both students and adults, and this may skew my perspective. There are many who teach or go to schools settings fraught with the potential for violence. I have been spared that. But then again, many who live in the communities that have witnessed the most horrific acts of gun violence also saw themselves living in safe if not bucolic communities. No one can afford complacency.

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About guns. I grew up and learned at an early age how to set decoys, sit in a blind, call in birds, and shoot. I learned how to clean and care for a gun, exercise caution when carrying it (at 12), and when I saw the duck stamp on my license believed I was part of two cultures: hunting and conservation. I still believe that. I have never owned a semi or fully automatic weapon, and nor do I feel the need to go out and purchase one. For me, the pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness can be attainable without feeling an obligation (almost insistence these days) to own such a weapon. Does that mean I am wholly against guns or the 2nd Amendment? Absolutely not.

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This is not an easy or comfortable time for any school. All the protocols and measures won’t wholly protect this campus - or any campus - from a highly armed and emotionally distraught individual. Meaningful change and enhanced safety for schools is only going to come when this country grapples in a responsible way with gun control. Is that happening? Not really. But I believe it can if more students take up this issue and the adults in schools get behind the students.  Access to weapons capable of horrifying damage and the weapons themselves have to be scrutinized. For me, all the 2nd Amendment and NRA arguments in the world won’t change my opinion: the general population doesn’t need access to assault weapons. Sustaining the legal wall around these weapons or suggesting that teachers arm themselves to protect their schools is a dodge and a cheap solution that avoids the real issues. And it’s irresponsible.

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Until we can have that debate in a meaningful way, we have to continue to work on our systems, our on-campus security, our drills, and work with school counselors to identify any students who might fall into that troubling profile. When this current president had his “listening session” on Wednesday, there were strong voices that believed in providing and building up our counseling infrastructure and the communication between law enforcement, social service agencies, and schools. That’s a sensible step. We are fortunate in this community with two full time counselors for 370 students, advisors who have less than eight students in an advisory, and teachers and coaches who have multiple points of contacts for each student. Many schools are less fortunate, but hopefully the current climate evolves funding for support and creates a collective awareness that we can’t just arm our way out of these conditions.

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Until we see a change in the larger landscape, responsibilities for educators and students will also have to include working assiduously to update emergency plans, to further secure buildings, and to run drills on campus. We have a close working relationship with the local police department, adjacent to campus, and we will work to strengthen it. Most of our academic building can be locked down through a master system and a new communication system can tone and flash alerts or broadcast emergency messages. These messages can also be sent to all students (and parents) through the “Alert Now” system as text and voicemail. We have fob access to dormitories. We have some security cameras on campus, but very few of these. Maybe we need more. It’s not just about teaching the quadratic equation or run-on sentences anymore.

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Traveling this past week in Florida, the recent tragic shootings were still very much in evidence. Passing through airports there were the colorful summer clothes, the grandparents with grandchildren, the smiles and laughter, but it was impossible to miss on the news (any channel) and in the papers (all papers) the processing of loss. On Tuesday I toured the Naples zoo with an alum and watched lines of middle school students snake from the giraffes to the alligators to the pythons. Laughing and jostling students and teachers doing what teachers should do: opening doors to the wonder, delight, and nuances of the world. When I drove back onto our campus Thursday evening I thought about those middle school kids and the Naples teachers and I thought about our own students and teachers. Emotions, powerful ones, still ripple through school communities this week, affecting both students and faculty.

For parents and educators this has been a challenging stretch as we contemplate and work for the safety of our children and our learning communities.

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Mike Henriques P'11, P'15

Proctor Academy Head of School

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