I remember a training at work, when active shooter training first became a requirement, where the presenter discussed past examples of how educators reacted to active shooter situations. In particular, he incredulously pointed out one case where teachers continued to teach as the situation developed. At one point in my life that was an ideal of education associated with the Second World War: the Nazis are coming, we can't keep them from killing us, we will teach children until the moment they take us away. Maybe that was naive, but it was a sentiment I received from a conservative Catholic education as well as some of the far left types I'd encounter later. I wouldn't recommend complete passivity in an active shooter situation either. But that ideal is worth looking at. Many of us, maybe the predominant view in society, saw it fit to treat schools as a sacred place. A place where any violence was profane because the institution serves a higher calling.
The Mid-South is remarkably quiet on the subject of mass shootings. Lee Harris released a statement challenging those who would stall new gun laws. However even this fairly standard Democratic policy position stands out in a landscape with few major statements from significant figures. There is the occasional general commentary, but mostly we keep to our talking points and those tend to feature gun violence in the communities we live in, the causes attributed to everything from the legacies of slavery and continued racial oppression to - as a billboard on Airways used to claim - how low we let our children wear their pants.
There have certainly been shootings in, as well as near, Shelby County schools. For example at Mitchell in 2008, in the woods behind Craigmont in 2009, and in Hamilton in 2011. In the past few months there have been shootings within a short of walk of Belle Forrest Community Schools and in the vicinity of Crosstown where the city's most recent mass shooting took place. But we don't have the same conversations they have in other places. The idea of something like Parkland or Santa Fe happening in our own public schools is something that still seems remote enough to draw worry from parents and speeches from principals, but not the participation of our officials in a national conversation about gun violence, mental health, or any other related subject.
Is Shelby County really so different? After all, Jonesboro is a short drive away and in 1998 two boys used a fire alarm to prepare a trap for their classmates - tactics similiar to those of the Santa Fe shooter. Law enforcement would tell you Shelby County is different. With the exception of Virginia Tech, school shooters in these mass killings have been white males in suburban or rural settings. And we must remember it does happen here, just not on the scale of Littleton, Parkland, or too many others. Is it the scope of mass shootings that makes those places exceptional, or would that shooting at Hamilton in 2011 occupy a news cycle if it happened somewhere else? That is a question about race. That is a question about culture and expectations. We should not avoid this question. We should argue about gun laws. We should argue about parenting and bullying. Mental health is harder and we need to unpack that term. We risk lumping a wide range of innocent people in with murderers when we casually apply that term to these events. But here is also a question about what we expect from our schools.
The Lt. Governor of Texas said something about the design of school buildings. He argued for an architectural design more conducive to protections. This, along with calls for metal detectors in all schools broadcast elsewhere this past week, speaks to an idea of how we should protect our children and create a safe environment. It is fair to assume that as parents and citizens we want children to be safe and for schools to be the safest of all institutions. So why are all of these safety measures not in place already? Do we still hold to that old ideal that school is a sacred place? That guns would be as out of place in a classroom as a delivery room or a pulpit?
But wait, we do have these safety measures! Mostly in inner city schools, where violence is more common but mass shootings are unheard of or unreported. Yet suburbs and rural areas have not embraced this shift to a policed K-12 education. Is it because they still believe, on a level, that keeping that space sacred produces better education, greater trust, healthier relationships with authority, and a better society despite the risks? Governments have had little trouble moving past that old ideal in the cities. Was that progressive? A Nixonian law and order reaction from the 70s? Or was it just easier to assume that the safety of (or maybe from...) black and Latino children was more important than what it might cost their education, psychological growth, relationships, and communities.