Guest Column: Make schools safe rather than scary

Rand Richards Cooper

The mass killing at Sandy Hook Elementary School has occasioned systemic reviews of school security procedures, and that’s appropriate. Parents are clamoring for reassurances that their kids are safe. That’s understandable.

But I winced to read the comments of Connecticut state Rep. Christie Carpino, sponsor of a bill requiring school districts to implement “panic systems” in every school. Citing the “many schools where kids and their teachers are sitting in fear,” Carpino advocated panic systems as the best way “to be pro-active and make schools safe for our children.” She added, “If they’re not safe, they’re not learning.”

As the father of a first-grader, I agree that my child’s safety is paramount. What parent wouldn’t? But before we act, we need to identify what we’re trying to accomplish. And that means asking, how unsafe is my child? What is the chance of her being the victim of a school shooting? There are more than 132,000 schools in this country, with 55 million students. The chance of my child or yours being killed by a shooter is literally less than 1 in a million.

In the wake of a horrific human tragedy, thinking probabilistically seems cold-hearted. But while our emotions don’t work statistically, our policymaking must. If I thought there was any substantial chance of my daughter being harmed at school, I would yank her in a second. For me, the biggest concern is that measures taken in the wake of Newtown will create an atmosphere of anxiety in our schools, way out of proportion to any actual danger.

It’s not that I oppose sensible security measures; and if we decide that a hidden emergency button a principal or teacher could push in the highly unlikely case that an armed intruder got into the school is one such measure, so be it. What I do oppose is having an emergency state of mind inside our schools. Security measures that create a fortress effect can corrode the openness, adventure, playfulness and trust that conduce to learning, while sparking an undercurrent of panic in our classrooms and in our children. To me it’s not about keeping my daughter safe in school — she is safe — but about keeping her feeling safe. She needs to feel secure; in fact, she needs to be not even thinking about her security.

That’s why I worry when I hear all the talk about buzzer entry systems, panic buttons, bulletproof glass, armed guards, armed teachers, bolstered surveillance cameras, practice lockdown procedures and on and on.

After Newtown, a friend told me about asking his 9-year-old son what he’d do if a shooter appeared at school. The son said he’d hide in his locker. The dad pointed out that the lockers don’t lock. The son said he would try to find some other place to hide. The dad went on about a shooter’s stance, lines of fire, how you should position yourself and so on.

He was just trying to be responsible, I know. But any conversation or procedure that invites a child to envision specific violent scenarios in her school is not one I want my child involved in. Such scenarios become rooted in a child’s imagination, ramping up the sense of a looming harm. In my view that is badly counterproductive. We think we’re enhancing a child’s security, when actually what we are doing is magnifying her insecurity. I would hope that any increased security procedures be deployed innocuously, infrequently and without specifying to students the kind of harm that has occasioned them. And whatever policy or system we do implement, let’s not use the word “panic!”

We all know the uneasiness that accompanies airport boarding procedures. The stripping, the frisking, the X-rays: the natural response to so much invasive security is one of suppressed dread. We put up with it because we’re only going to be in that plane for a few hours, during which nothing important is going on anyway. It’s just a plane ride, you tell yourself; it’s not my life.

I know this is an awkward metaphor, but from an educational perspective, if we turn our schools into jetliners via these new procedures, we will have really shot ourselves in the foot.

Rand Richards Cooper of Hartford, Conn., co-chairs the education committee of the West End Civic Association. He wrote this for The Hartford Courant.