The nation is searching – again – for meaning and answers after a 12-year-old student gunned down a teacher Monday in Sparks, Nev., before killing himself, and a 14-year-old student was charged Wednesday with murder in the brutal death of his high school teacher in Danvers, Mass.
The heroic actions of 45-year-old math teacher Michael Landsberry in Nevada, who attempted to negotiate with the gunboy and allowed other students to seek cover, recall Vicki Soto, the first-grade teacher who was felled by the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooter while also trying to protect her students.
The death of Colleen Ritzer, a gregarious 24-year-old high school teacher in the town of Danvers, Mass., is even more troubling. Sources are reporting the student gashed Ritzer with a box cutter in the school’s bathroom and then wheeled her in a recycling bin out to the woods behind the school.
These two tragic events could be nothing more than a coincidence or – yet another – example of school and youth violence that urges the reform call. We think nebulously linking the two is not exactly the right approach, but what these senseless deaths should stir in us is that the growing school safety discussion needs to involve protecting teachers as well.
An educational survey from the School Improvement Network earlier this year found almost a third of respondents felt that their school wasn’t safe from gun violence, while another national survey found that 80 percent of the teachers surveyed reported being victimized at school at least once in the then-current or prior year.
One of the more popular charges for heightening school safety is if all schools assumed the proper physical posture – single-entry points, controlled-entry access, etc. – it would be harder for an armed student or assailant to slip through. But we doubt all schools could adopt such a posture and we’re skeptical that they would work even if they did. To point out just one significant problem: The age of school buildings varies so much as to make uniform security options difficult to imitate. Once upon a time, schools were welcoming places that invited visitors to enter. In today’s stranger society, a fortress or detention center seems more the model.
Working its way off the fringe is the idea of school sentinels, which has gained some steam of late. A new South Dakota law gives appointed teachers, administrators, security guards and even volunteers from the community the power to carry guns inside of schools to protect the student population. But we don’t think adding more weapons to a school is the answer either to curtailing occasional acts of violence. Perhaps the most cogent argument: One or more armed teachers/employees amidst the chaos of a school shooter crisis is an almost certain recipe for disaster, as law enforcement arriving at such a scene are trained to neutralize any shooter not wearing a uniform.
When it comes to this week’s tragedies that occurred on a school yard and in a bathroom, there might have been no form of access control or patrol that could have prevented them. The same could likely be said for other similar acts of school violence as well.
Even so, teachers need to know they have support – from parents, administrators, students and the community. Teaching is a messy, complicated business even outside the realm of school safety. But teachers work best when they have trust – trust from the students they can lead, trust from the parents who are leaving their children in their care for eight hours a day and trust that the school and community have their collective interests at heart. If teachers are cautiously looking over their shoulder or wondering if every child is pulling a snack or a pistol from their bookbags, it can compromise a teacher’s effectiveness, which can have far-reaching ramifications. Students might find their teachers aloof, less willing to engage both intellectually and emotionally, defensive or inflexible.
Those teachers who survive such a tragedy need extended support from the district and local mental health professionals for some time. Those not directly affected need to know the schools are taking the right measures to make their schools hospitable, but safe from the very real threats that continue to exist both inside and out.