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