The earliest known United States shooting to happen on school property was the Pontiac’s Rebellion school massacre on July 26, 1764, where four Lenape American Indians entered the schoolhouse near present-day Greencastle, Pennsylvania, shot and killed schoolmaster Enoch Brown, and killed nine or ten children (reports vary). Only three children survived.
— Wikipedia’s “List of school shootings in the United States”
The Wikipedia quote above comes from a disturbing and darkly compelling chronology of school shootings in America, beginning with the Lenape Indian raid in July 1764 and ending, thus far, with Jared Padgett in June 2014:
At around 8:30 am, shots were fired at Reynolds High School [in Troutdale, Oregon]. 14-year-old freshman Emilio Hoffman was killed, a physical education teacher was injured, and the gunman, 15-year-old Jared Padgett, exchanged gunfire with police officers and then committed suicide in a restroom stall.
For another take on school security, see Michelle Puccinelli’s post on disclusion and broadening the bullying conversation. This essay is part of our new feature: TBR Teach, a discussion about school policy among three Boise teachers. Follow their posts here.
The well-maintained Wiki helped me frame my thinking in response to a video I viewed with 3,300 other Boise School District staff a couple of weeks ago at the District’s all-staff opening meeting. In the video, kids from across the district answered the question “What do you like about your school?” and a number of them said something like, “I like my school because my teacher makes me feels safe.” The kids were sincere and sweet, but it made me wonder about a broader interpretation of the idea of safety.
Working to make kids feel safe in school is a big deal, and a big job. Taking safety in the literal, Wikipedia list-inspired sense, schools regularly practice fire drills, shelter-in-place drills and since Columbine, active shooter drills. Over the years, the drill has changed from a passive stay-out-of-sight model to an active fight-back model, meaning, if the door is breached, we should work together to throw books, chairs, or anything heavy and at-hand. We’re still to try and hide quietly. Lock the door. Turn off the lights. Sit down along the wall next to the door. Remain absolutely silent, but if pressed, attack together.
But there is more to maintaining school security than safety drills. For teachers and staff across the district, the daily work of building relationships with students is a critical and rewarding part of the profession. From where I stand, the threats to students’ current and future lives are systemic and pervasive, not random, sudden and headline grabbing.
It’s no secret that Idaho has some problems when it comes to childhood well-being. For starters, hunger presents serious impediments to learning and retention. Feeding America, a national hunger relief organization, showed in their 2013 report that one in four children in Idaho is at risk of going hungry. Hungry students are concentrated in some schools, and scattered throughout buildings around the state. Hungry students are my daily reality so whenever I can I share food, give food and loan money for food.
Idaho also has high youth incarceration and suicide rates. The Suicide Prevention Action Network of Idaho’s 2103 Fact Sheets reports that Idaho’s suicide rate is 39 percent over the national average. Between 2009 and 2013, 83 Idaho school children (age 18 and under) died by suicide; of those 83, 15 were age 14 and under. Latest SPAN Idaho fact sheet. Working with teenagers who are seriously depressed, anxious or stressed is another challenge in classrooms across the state, especially when access to quality mental health care is badly limited or unaffordable.
Youth incarceration has increased dramatically as well. A February 2013 report published by The Annie E. Casey Foundation, “Reducing Youth Incarceration in the Unites States,” shows that although the number of incarcerated youth is at a 35-year low after peaking in 1995, Idaho’s percentage has increased 80 percent. Spending time in the juvenile justice system is a common experience for students at my school and others, as are the burdens of court and detention fines. Besides the stigma and expense of juvenile detention, Idaho is among 17 states that place no limit on the length of probation. Lengthy probations are difficult for adults to manage, let alone teens. In my experience, two and three year probations are not unusual for kids as young as 15.
Idaho’s low-wage, dead-end economy is also taking its toll. The Alliance for a Just Society’s 2013 living wage study, “The Job Gap,” analyzes the gulf between what it takes to raise a family of four in Idaho with what many Idahoans are earning. 2014 Job Gap Study. Regardless of the debate over the wisdom and possible downside trade-offs of raising the minimum wage, workers earning $7.25 an hour cannot cover basic expenses, let alone plan ahead or save for emergencies. Kids living in households that are severely under-resourced look for work as soon as they can, often working thirty hours a week or more, often at night, and then struggle to keep up with their class work or even to stay awake.
I’ve talked to two students already this year who are working at night, one in fast food from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m., and the other in construction from 4 p.m. to 10. The kid working construction was so tired on a recent night that he dropped a bag of dry cement on his foot and fractured it. When I asked him about staying off it until it heals, he said, “It’s all good. Besides, if I stay off it, I’ll get fired.”
Schoolhouse fears and realities are a complicated picture. I am as grateful as anyone that there has never been a fatal school shooting in Idaho, and it was gratifying to watch a video in which so many kids affirmed their trust in teachers as dependable, caring adults. But our state’s political policies and economic ideology impact school kids too and classroom relationships alone cannot transcend this harmful trend. In a broader view of school security, our kids need more than safety drills.
The views and opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of Boise State University, the Center for Idaho History and Politics, or the School of Public Service.