By Dr. Rachel Pienta
For the past ten days, like so many Americans, I have been immersed in the aftermath of the Parkland school shooting. I have worked in schools all of my professional life – as a teacher, professor, and parent volunteer. I was in graduate school, teaching future teachers, when the Columbine shooting occurred. There was no teaching guide to discuss this issue with a lecture hall full of Education majors. I tackled the topic in the days that followed in a classroom with over one hundred college students – using Socratic methods and reflective listening techniques. Together, we did what educators know as scaffolding to build upon what students had already learned in my Policy course. We did not solve the school shooting problem that term – if we had, we would have published that outcome! No, what we did together in those weeks was to prepare future teachers to better understand the policy landscape of the profession they were preparing to enter.
Fast forward almost twenty years to the current time and the landscape for teachers has not changed that much. The biggest difference may be in available technology. Today, we can get advance warning of potential school violence on social media. Elementary and middle school campuses tend to be fenced with fewer entry points. High schools still tend to be relatively open campuses with multiple points of entry possible.
In the late 1990s, at least one of the Columbine killers had a website that foreshadowed the planned violence. However, online activity was still a new, relatively uncharted territory both for general users and for public officials who had to learn how to monitor these virtual spaces for signs of criminal activity.
I returned full-time to the public school classroom after graduate school. I participated in my first active shooter drill as a high school teacher in 2006. At the rural school where I worked, my students had shotguns and hunting rifles under their truck seats during school hours. The unofficial policy was that their hunting weapons could not be visible in their truck gun racks on school property. At the time of the first drill, a classroom full of 12th grade students told me they would prefer to grab their guns from their trucks and defend their school from a shooter rather than hide in a dark, locked classroom.
That day, we had an interesting conversation about why that was not what we were going to do in an active shooter situation. However, a number of my students disagreed with this approach. Luckily, though we had a few threats and a couple of lockdown situations during the years I worked at this school, the students’ resolve was never tested in an actual shooting scenario.
In recent years, the threat of school violence has come very close to home. Florida State University, where I earned my graduate degrees and would later teach as an adjunct professor, was the site of a shooting in Strozier Library. Threats at the schools where I volunteer, where I have family and friends attending or working, have occurred numerous times in recent years.
A few days ago, I asked my middle school aged nephew his thoughts on how to make schools safer. His own school has been threatened and he has some experience in selecting classroom hiding spots during active shooter drills. He told me he thought school metal detectors would be a good idea and would make him feel safer. I asked what he thought about banning certain types of guns. He told me that he thought potential shooters would just turn to a different type of weapon. I also asked him what he thought might cause some students to become school shooters. He he thought some kids were likely the victims of bullying and that those kids needed help. He said he did not know all the possible ways to help but he thought counseling was a start.
While I know this eighth grader’s thoughts do not nearly capture the full complexity of the gun violence issue as it relates to school safety, his words made me wonder how other kids might think about this issue. The world knows how Marjory Stoneman Douglas students feel about the issue – jump on Twitter or do a Google search if you have not had a chance to hear or read their first-person testimony.
Regardless of how the policy battle plays out in the Florida Legislature and, ultimately, in Congress, one outcome I am hopeful for is that more research and more writing on shootings will finally be conducted. Organizations like the Center for Disease Control need to be able to fully study different types of gun violence, including but not limited to those events that occurred at Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, the Route 91 Harvest Music Festival in Las Vegas, and the recent school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland. The ban on funding such research has been in place by Congressional order since 1996. While the Dickey Amendment did not expressly forbid such research, the CDC’s budget was cut by exactly the amount that had been allocated to gun-death research. It is time to lift the Dickey Amendment so that researchers can study gun-violence as a public health issue.
Dr Rachel Pienta is an elected Wakulla Soil and Water Supervisor and is the former Wakulla County Democratic Party Chair and State Committeewoman