On April 20, 1999 at Columbine High School, two student shooters killed 12 students and a teacher before committing suicide. Immediately afterwards, schools across America increased security.
I visited student teachers at both rural and big city schools in Kansas and the lockup was palpable. Entrance to school was restricted to the front door. All other exits were locked from outside entry. Some schools moved the secretary’s office so she could observe the entrance. Identity badges were enforced for staff and visitors (although in small schools all of the staff knew each other). Locked doors and identity checks made the school atmosphere closer to that of a prison.
But a few schools in Kansas have many separate buildings where students must pass outside to other classes. Their teachers were vigilant and visibly present during class period changes, but their was no attempt to lock the school. And the atmosphere was much better. More smiles. More laughter.
Over 12 years after Columbine, most Kansas schools have returned to some level of normalcy. Few have the feel of a prison.
Schools have been, are, and will remain the safest place for a school-age child to be.
But after the Connecticut school shootings, alarmists are calling for a return to prison-like buildings and a siege mentality.
The charge that schools are selected because they are undefended "soft targets" is blatantly wrong. Very few school shooters walk away alive; surviving is not their intent. They have attacked larger schools with security officers—the Columbine guard actually exchanged gunfire during that assault.
Those who would arm teachers and administrators underestimate the rigorous training needed by police and military who must sometimes use lethal force. Not only are these professionals continually trained, but they are equipped with body armor and are clearly labeled when on scene. Arming civilians increases the risk of tragedy; police are unlikely to mistakenly shoot a schoolchild—but an armed adult is another matter.
Nor is killing a part of the professional personality needed by a teacher. We know that a portion of our police and military who have used lethal force—no matter how strong they are—have difficulty living with it. Police and military decide to enter a profession that involves the potential for lethal force.
Teachers choose to enter a profession that nurtures. There are 3,725,000 U.S. teachers working in the safest environment in society. To turn schools into armed garrisons is simply wrong. Anyone with such a siege mentality has been watching too many "Die Hard" movies and "Gunsmoke" re-runs.
As much as we grieve for the little souls lost that day in Connecticut, it is a sad fact that on average over 17 people die every day from gun violence in America. If we put them together in one place, America would see a Newtown-scale disaster each and every day. But spread across the country in smaller events, we don’t notice the daily death toll. Compared to modern developed countries in Europe and Asia, the U.S. is by far the most dangerous.
The NRA is correct when they say "guns don’t kill people." It is people, not always deranged, who have easy access to substantial firepower, who kill people in large numbers. In an aberrant non-U.S. mass shooting, right-wing extremist Anders Behring Breivik killed 77 young adults in Norway on July 22, 2011—and he was found to be sane.
And in a tragedy eerily parallel to the Connecticut shooting, on December 14, 2012 a Chinese man stabbed 22 students at a school in Gaungshan, Henan. But not one child died.
On October 2, 2006, ten Amish girls at the West Nickel Mines School in Pennsylvania were shot and 5 died. What school could be more vulnerable than an Amish school? Such killing had never happened before at an Amish school—nor has it happened since. The Amish built another school and they continue on without guns and refuse to live in fear.