March 18, 2015
On Thursday evening, March 5th, an individual with a concealed pistol license attended a choir concert at Pioneer High School, and openly carried a gun into the auditorium. Around the same time, just 47 miles northeast in Madison Heights, Michigan, an individual carrying a rifle slung over one shoulder and a semi-automatic pistol in a holster caused educators to lock down Lamphere High School twice during the week. Meanwhile, just 21 miles further northeast, while picking up his child at Cheyenne Elementary School in Macomb Township, a parent forgot his jacket that contained a handgun. A janitor at the school discovered the jacket and gun several hours later. Three dots on the Michigan map align the locations of three recent stories that stimulate our thinking on the challenging topic of guns in schools. The reflections that I share here are triggered by these recent incidents.
First, I want to clarify what this Superintendent’s blog post is not about. It is not about the 2nd amendment, the law – local, state, or federal – nor is it about politics. Those issues will be addressed in other venues. The topic of this writing is, rather, a reflection from an educator’s perspective on a subject that I know very well from personal experience: children and schools, quality teaching and learning, and creating a safe and protected school environment for our students.
Just like many other educators, for 27 years of my public education career, there is one single precedent that has persisted in my work on every day. This priority, that preempts even the critical mission of public schools to ensure quality teaching and learning, is the job of keeping our students safe.
I consider student safety within the context of an extended career in education. I remember vividly, as a brand new teacher entering a high school classroom in the spring of 1984, the gravity of this responsibility dawning on me as I learned to navigate the duties of a classroom teacher.
I learned my way, as most teachers do, over time and through experience. From the ‘regular’ duties of executing a fire drill to the heartbreaking responsibility of attending the funerals of young lives cut too short, ensuring the safety of my students has always been a responsibility that I, and so many other educators like me, have taken very seriously. Over the years, student safety became second nature; we were always observing our school environment closely – generally focused on violence between or among students or preparing for external threats such as fires or tornadoes.
Somewhere along the way, however, things changed – for me as an educator AND FOR ALL OF US – in fulfilling our role as guardians of school safety. I remember a particular day, April 20th, 1999, and recall the shock in hearing of the tragic massacre at Columbine High School. The situation was just too close for me; it was too close for all teachers and staff. Yes, it happened that it was nearby geographically – Columbine High School was located just an hour’s drive north of my 6th grade classroom at North Middle School in Colorado Springs – but more importantly, Columbine was close in kinship to classroom teachers and leaders everywhere. The setting was all-too familiar: a school library, school hallways and classrooms on a regular school day, and the stories were compelling. As we heard that teachers and students were gunned down in the familiar setting of a school day, I was one of so many educators who paused to consider the weight of those events – that on that tragic day our reality had been irrevocably altered. The unthinkable had occurred – at school – and not only would the Columbine community never be the same, we were all somehow changed on that day. It is significant that in writing this blog post, I didn’t need to look up the date of the Columbine tragedy; it is a day that altered my reality as an educator, and it is a date that marks a tragic history that remains vivid in our minds to this day.
Further, none of us has escaped the awfulness of the December 14, 2012 Newtown shootings when 20 first graders and 6 adult staff members were shot at school. The shooting was the deadliest of school violence episodes at K-12 schools in U.S. history, and the images of the beautiful children, teachers, and the principal who lost their lives while valiantly trying to protect elementary children shattered any remaining illusions of where school tragedy happens. Unfortunately, school shootings do happen in schools and communities like ours. Over the previous two decades, educators have come to understand that the unthinkable can happen, and it can happen at school.
As these tragic realities have played out, as educators, we have necessarily become even more resolved in the sacred trust we hold in protecting student safety. We are committed that, above all else, we will fulfill the moral imperative to do everything in our power to keep our students physically and emotionally safe; that is our job #1.
Though we have taken many steps forward to maintain our schools as safe places, clearly, as a society, we have a long way to go in this process. As a veteran educator, I am astounded by the incongruence of allowing the legal open carry of weapons into our schools, particularly when that is the very threat we have worked so diligently to prevent. We have long had a zero tolerance approach for any student or staff who would bring a firearm to school. I know personally that the presence of guns in schools is an alarming prospect for our children and for the adults who have responsibility for them. Seeing guns on strangers is scary and unsettling for our children as it is for the adults charged with keeping students safe.
Needless to say, our teachers and school leaders have incredible responsibility already; how can we possibly determine the intention of a gun-carrier on campus, to sort out the ‘good’ guys from those with malicious intent? The presence of guns in schools runs contrary to everything we are wired for in education, and is counterproductive to maintaining a rich, productive, and healthy learning environment for our children.
We have worked hard over time in Ann Arbor Public Schools to improve our school safety practices and ensure safe learning environments. We have partnered with our local authorities to develop protocols that are responsive to what has been learned in recent attacks. The ALICE training protocol is an essential part of our emergency plan. Though the possibility is painful to consider, our educators and school leaders have stepped up to the challenge of preparing to protect children in the case of violence erupting at school. Additionally, we have recently begun a phased approach to remodel our schools for more secured front entrances. Read more about ALICE protocols here: http://www.aaps.k12.mi.us/aaps/schools/school_safety
Over these many years in education, during times of uncertainty, I have always known one premise to be reliable and true, one point is true north on our compass as educators and that is to return to the core value of what is beneficial and positive for our students – seeing the situation from the child’s perspective informs our best steps forward.
What happens each day at school in effective classrooms is sacred; students learning and growing under the watchful eye of master teachers is absolutely what we are best at in Ann Arbor. Keeping our students at the center of what we do remains our core value. Our children are proof positive of the importance of that endeavor. We must find our way forward, Ann Arbor, and that way is to keep the well being of our children as the first priority; that direction is not to allow weapons into our schools.
Our community, state, and federal agencies must wrestle with the complicated issues wrapped into this challenging topic of guns in schools; the process will be challenging and it will take time. We hope that, as a result of robust community engagement and reasoned discourse, these issues will be resolved.
For now, however, let us reason together as responsible adults and agree that our children and their schoolhouse must not be the setting for the vetting of an otherwise important civic process. Our children, staff, and visitors deserve a protected school environment free from guns and the disruption of open carry in schools; our children are worthy of a nurturing, warm school environment.
Let us remain true to our mission and maintain school safety as the top priority and focus of our policies, regulations, and daily practices in our Ann Arbor Public Schools. Focusing in on the well being of children will help us to continue moving forward. The commitment from the AAPS Board of Education and from me as your Superintendent is that we will continue to work vigorously to protect our children, our schools, and our Ann Arbor community from the dangerous disruption of guns in our schools. You will hear more from us regarding specific steps in this process over the coming days.
Thank you for your support of the Ann Arbor Public Schools.
Jeanice Kerr Swift
Superintendent of Schools
Ann Arbor Public Schools
Thank you for your leadership on this issue Dr. Swift.
I attended the Choral Cavalcade at Pioneer High School on March 5 and watched my daughter preform with the Slauson Middle School choir. I also witnessed Mr. Wade with his pistol and ammunition strapped to his belt. I was appalled so see this venue used to advocate 2nd amendment rights. I fully support you and the Ann Arbor Board of Education in making AAPS a Weapon Free Zone.
Thanks very much for sharing your insights.
Thank-you, Dr. Swift, for making the safety of our children the top priority by taking steps to making our schools gun-free zones!
As a new resident of the community I wholeheartedly support your vigorous efforts to return to first principles of education, above all we must have and secure a safe environment for all students to learn without fear. I was an elementary student during the Cuban Missile Crisis. That experience of drills and the fear of unknown horrors was seared on my brain. Creating that environment of security and safety is indeed step one. Thank you and your colleagues for focusing on the right principles and actions.
Thank you Dr. Swift and AAPS for your attention to this matter, and most importantly that your number one priority is keeping our children safe. You continually have my full support on this matter and others.
Thank you, Dr. Swift for your strong leadership on this issue. I agree that guns have no place in our schools and the very notion, as you stated, runs contrary to the mission of providing a safe and nurturing learning environment for students and staff.
I understand there is a state law requiring concealed weapon carriers to carry them openly in a school, if they bring them into a school. However, isn’t that overriden by the “gun free” policy in place at our schools? University of Michigan Hospitals is a weapon free zone, and I believe signs state that at the entrance to each facility.
Thank you for your leadership on this important issue. Children should not be confronted by deadly weapons of any kind in a school environment.
I applaud the courage and the thoughtfulness of this letter and am truly grateful for your leadership on this issue.
I have no problem with closing the loophole in the law that allows folks to legally carry weapons to schools. Its not a good idea and should be fixed. But the truth is, none of the gun related school tragedies in Michigan in the last 20 plus years were caused by people legally carrying a weapon. In all cases they were illegally carrying the weapon and in most cases it was hidden when brought to school. So this isn’t really a solution in any way to the problem. A real solution, in part, would be metal detectors at all entrances. That would have some real teeth. But its expensive and inconvenient so I’m guessing your not interested. So while I have no objection to your plan I see it for what it truly is…posturing in lieu of real safety reforms.
Thank you a logical and compassionate approach to this tough issue that will preserve a safe learning environment free of fear for our kids.
Thank you Dr. Swift. It seems common sense is not always so common anymore. But in this instance I believe the correct decision is being made for the safety and well being of our students and staff! Kudos to you, the board, and staff.
What would you like the parents to do to prevent more adults carrying guns from coming into our children’s schools? (Boy, I never thought I would ever write a sentence like that.) I support your position 100 percent and am greatful you are our superintendent.
As a parent of children in the Ann Arbor Public Schools system I support your efforts. A heartfelt thank you for addressing this issue!
As a parent and a veteran, I would argue that you are making the students less safe by not allowing the law-abiding a fighting chance at self-defense and protecting our children against a criminal, who by definition, will not obey your wishes or the law when they enter a school with a gun intent on committing mass-murder/suicide as has happened so many times at so many other schools across the country. You named a couple of perfect examples in your opinion above, do you see the error in your logic? We should focus on the reality of the day, not how we wish things would be. Concealed carry permit holders are the least of your problems; the statistics are public and available for you to research. I believe all gun-free zones for concealed carry should be repealed. Surprise me and include a dissenting opinion on your position.
Thank you for your leadership. Please continue to work to ban all guns on school property..
Thank you for posting your perspective. Teachers and kids should not have to look fearfully at someone carrying a gun and wonder what that person’s intentions are. If schools are weapons-free zones then perhaps you’ll be able to respond quicker to any situation where a gun is involved… you’ll know from the start to treat the carrier like a bad guy, not a good-guy-with-a-gun. Also, as could have been the case with the prosecutor who forgot he had a gun in his jacket, and then left the jacket at school, a weapons-free policy might prevent situations where a gun is accidentally brought on school grounds but then accidentally fired.
I have to ask; as a father and a veteran, how you feel that making a zone of ‘law-abiding’ compliance with gun control will make that student who has been bullied, that student that has been abused, that student that wants that 15-minutes of fame go to the doors of Pioneer or any other AAPS building and stop….did the students at Columbine think about the legal violations of their actions? Or did they know that they would have time to inflict their evil intentions on the law-abiding students of the district before police could arrive?
In the minutes that it would take the police to arrive, identify the threat, evacuate the students and then contain the shooter, someone with a open-carry permit on staff could potentially save several lives that would have been lost. Or a parent on school grounds picking up their child or attending a meeting or even watching a choir presentation.
You seem to expect the criminal in this matter to stop at the doors of our schools and shake their head in dismay that the building is a ‘gun-free’ zone. I would rather not put my children’s life in the hands of that illogic.
Citing incidents that are the exception, not the rule, is misleading. Time and time again, statistics show the fact that law-abiding citizens carrying weapons legally have cut crime, especially those who think they can use guns to have the ‘upper hand’.
Would a student who has decided to bring a weapon to school to inflict harm upon their classmates do so if they knew that there was or potentially could be someone there to stop them from succeeding? I doubt so.
Let’s be honest and realize that this is not for the real world today; banning guns when guns are being used by criminals to harm others.
100% with you. Thank you.
I agree with you. Thank you for this and for the school board’s work on this issue as well.