By Bill Pike
In August of 1975, I started my first teaching job at Martinsville Junior High School in Martinsville, Virginia. Nothing in my education classes, student teaching, or orientation to the school system communicated, “Look out for students who might have a gun.”
Almost fifty years later, school systems across Virginia and America are dealing with students bringing guns to school. Countless tragedies have occurred involving students and guns. No matter what we have learned from these tragedies, we still haven’t learned enough.
Shockingly, that learning continued for schools and their communities when on January 6, 2023, a first grader at Richneck Elementary School in Newport News, Virginia brought a gun to school and shot his teacher. How does this continue to happen? Are we as parents, school personnel, and citizens incapable of learning from our past tragedies?
Guns aren’t new in schools. In the late 80s and early 90s, I served as an assistant principal at a large high school in Henrico County, Virginia. Usually a tip from a caring student alerted administrators that a student had a gun on school grounds. Luckily in those discoveries, we never had a shooting.
School systems have responded to this firearm crisis with assorted tactics. Conduct codes have been revised. New local, state, and federal laws have been implemented to curb firearms on school grounds. Comprehensive safety plans are in place. Budgets support the hiring of school resource officers. Often, budgets include metal detectors for scanning students and visitors.
Despite these interventions, a student can still arrive at school in possession of a gun. Why?
Simple answer: America loves guns.
A June 2021 survey of 10,606 American adults conducted by Pew Research Center found four-in-ten adults live in a household with a gun, including 30% who personally own one. That’s a lot of firearms. This doesn’t account for how many firearms are in a person’s ownership without documentation.
Compare those firearm ownership numbers to this data reported by the Annie E. Casey Foundation in August 2022: nearly 24 million children live in single-parent families in the United States, or about one in every three kids across America.
I wonder if there is a correlation in gun ownership and the erosion of American families and the parenting skills within those families? No matter a single parent, a blended family, or a traditional family, parenting is tough, demanding work. How many of the school shooting tragedies and possession of a firearm on school grounds are linked to that erosion and the challenges of parenting?
Students, parents, teachers, school system administrators and community leaders have a right to be concerned about school safety, but that safety goes beyond a student bringing a gun.
Somewhere in a school today, it’s likely that at least one student will violently disrupt the learning environment. Disruptive confrontations can include student to student, student to teacher, student to school administrator interactions. A fight involving multiple students can result in injuries to students and the school and security personnel who intervene.
No matter if a student is in possession of a firearm on school grounds or involved in violent disruptive behavior, both impact morale for non-disruptive students, parents, teachers and administrators. Additionally, that low morale factor seeps into the school’s community when these disruptions are reported in the news and social media.
Do these disruptive outbursts push parents to withdraw their children from unstable schools and switch to homeschooling programs or private schools?
The same question must be asked when a teacher resigns; was that resignation grounded in fear of violent students and personal safety concerns?
Meeting the educational needs of our children is challenging work. At this very moment, I think the tension, stress and pressure on teachers in our schools to deliver quality instruction while managing the classroom environment has become unbearable. Despite their valiant efforts, respect and support for teachers are absent.
How do we address these challenges?
Acknowledging the erosion of our families is an important step.
Yes, in my career in public education, I worked with many supportive single parents. Sadly, that isn’t always the case.
Vicious generational cycles linked to poverty, inadequate housing, low employment, poor physical and mental health, insufficient nutrition and lack of safety are at the heart of this family and community instability.
In acknowledging these shortcomings, we must ask this question: are our current education templates and essential community services at local, state, and federal levels effective in meeting the needs of students and their families? If these templates are ineffective, we must have the courage to do our homework and initiate overdue changes.
Most critical is realizing that our divides, differences, incivilities and inadequate listening skills will only continue to hurt children.
Pat Conroy, the late American novelist and former educator, wrote: “I want you to know how swift time is. There is nothing as swift. A heartbeat, an eye blink, this is the way life is. It is the only great surprise in life.”
Mr. Conroy is correct; time isn’t on our side.
We are overdue to acknowledge our public education challenges, but schools cannot be the sole repairer for all that ails our country.
Diligent collaboration from every segment of our communities will be needed to improve our schools. If we continue to align ourselves in denial, distrust, and division, we will likely destroy the schools that helped to build America.
That isn’t acceptable.
Bill Pike is a retired educator and lives in Henrico County, Virginia.
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