It’s three weeks into a new school year for the Snyder household, and we are settling into the routines that define us during this season–early morning band practice, Friday night football games, weekend marching competitions, after school clubs…and regular homework. I love the rhythms of school life, partly because, as a child of educators, it’s all I’ve ever known. There’s a familiarity in the routines that comforts me, a structure that I depend on. Yet for this generation of students, there is something darker and more insidious that disrupts the familiar cadences of learning–the threat of school violence.
I was reminded of this awful reality last night, as my phone gently buzzed alerting me to a new message. To be honest, when I saw it was a school message, I dismissed it as yet another reminder to order a 2024 yearbook–seriously, the school must own stock in a yearbook company for the amount of marketing they do! It wasn’t until my 14-year-old shoved his phone in my face that I realized it was something much more significant. Apparently, there had been an online threat of violence toward the middle school, where my 14-year-old attends. While the school was working with law enforcement and did not believe students were in imminent danger, precautions were being taken to ensure everyone’s safety. Needless to say, my son was anxious.
We spent the next 20-30 minutes discussing the situation, as we have in previous instances where threats of violence have been made. He mentally walked through each of his classrooms and listed ways that he could protect himself in each room were the school to be breached–a calming mechanism that makes him feel like he has some agency over a truly terrifying possibility. We talked about the fact that there would be an increased police presence at the school today, and that most mass shootings happen without warning. Finally, we told him that if he felt unsafe or too anxious to learn, to call us and we would bring him home.
If you’re not horrified yet, you should be. Because this isn’t the first time we’ve had this conversation. And I know from talking to other parents that similar conversations happen across the country with increasing regularity. In the past, I told my sons that there was nothing to fear. These situations were an anomaly, not the norm, but that is no longer true. We can’t promise kids they’ll be safe in school. And kids know that.
Today’s teachers are routinely trained in how to respond to an active shooter, and they, in turn, train their students in class. At the elementary level, barricading classrooms has been turned into a perverse game. Ask any kindergartner, and they’ll likely tell you what to do if a “bad guy” comes into their room. When my 16-year-old was that age, he was told by his teacher to throw books.
As adults, we try to bury our heads in the sand when it comes to school violence, but our kids don’t have that luxury. They’re on the front lines, and our yelling at one another about gun legislation versus mental health resources versus making schools a “hard target” only exacerbates the problem because nothing gets done. Nothing changes. So our kids plan for what they consider to be an eventuality. When a gunman shows up, how can I save myself?
This is so far from the kingdom God wants to build here on Earth, and it appalls me that we, as Jesus followers, have let it get this far. How can we, as parents/grandparents/mentors/community leaders allow society to turn a fundamental human right (getting an education) into a source of trauma? And what do we do to change it?
Scripture tells us that we are to be a people of peace. “Embrace peace!”, the Psalmist writes. “Happy are those who make peace,” Jesus tells his followers, “Do your best to live at peace with all people,” Paul writes to the Romans. But to do so, we must put aside enmity and discord and look for the common humanity that exists between us all. Somewhere along the way we’ve forgotten (or maybe never understood) the fact that we are all God’s children, and therefore, dearly loved. None of us is perfect, but none of us is wholly bad either. And yet, we often characterize those we disagree with as being somehow diabolical, forgetting their humanity and the fact that they, too, are made in the image of God. Our children are never going to be safe if we keep viewing each other in diametrical terms, because dichotomy does not breed peace, only more division. At some point, we must put down our weapon of politics to find real solutions to real problems. How do we create a society in which all of our children can grow in safety? This should be a meaningful conversation in our communities at the local, state, and federal levels, and the question cannot be answered with political talking points. It will take compromise…and love…to get there.
Earlier this week, I read the following quote in a sermon given by Martin Luther King, Jr. It’s stayed with me, and I think his insight is as relevant today as it was nearly 50 years ago.
I’m compelled by the idea that love is a “creative force”…something powerful and alive…like a cleansing fire burning through a wood to rid the landscape of decay, or stormy waves crashing into and eroding a rocky cliff to make something new. Love is not passive; rather, it is an active agent working good in the world. And it is the path to peace. When we harness the power of love and use it to help others, we bring God’s kingdom closer. Love allows us to see the humanity in others. Love allows us to humbly admit that we have made a mess of things. Love allows us to empathize with those who have lost loved ones to tragedy, to the extent where we will not rest until we ensure that no one else suffers in the same way. Love allows us to hear the opinions of others and to understand the motivations behind them. Love allows us to do hard things, to have hard conversations, to keep journeying on a hard path. Love allows us to understand that some people need extra help, and that we, as a people, have an obligation to help them.
My 14-year-old spent his bus ride to school this morning composing a letter to one of our U.S. Senators. He knows that his opinion will not be popular with our elected official, yet he believes that his voice should be heard. And I agree. Our kids should be given agency over their own safety. They should be given a voice in the dialogue about how to make school a safe place where all can learn, because they’re the ones living with the threat of school violence. And as those who support children, we need to be a safe place for them to communicate their feelings. We need to let them know that they can come to us to share their concerns, and we need to be willing to put aside our own feelings/fears/opinions/perspectives to really listen to what they have to say, even if they just want to talk through ways that they can feel safe in a classroom.
Blessings and PEACE,