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Retired Oxford HS Teacher: Coulda, woulda, shoulda is the wrong way to address school shootings

From the column: "Something has to change. Are we always going to be reactive to the latest school shooting? Or at some point do we become proactive and try and figure out how to break the cycle of gun violence in our schools?"

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Randall Enos / Cagle Cartoons

I was a middle-school teacher working in what is currently the Oxford High School building, the site of our nation’s most recent school shooting. I was there when Columbine occurred. I don’t think there is a teacher that was working then who does not think of schools in terms of before and after Columbine.

Prior to Columbine, we only had tornado and fire drills. After Columbine, copycat threats came, and I remember for the first time having to evacuate the school. Over the next few years, we trained students in evacuation and lockdown drills. The teachers were given “codes” that would be announced over the public-address system so we could tell if it was a drill or a real situation.

I watched the chaos at Sandy Hook while checking the news during a prep period. I was horrified at the violence happening in an elementary school. Somehow it didn’t seem possible that a mass shooting could occur at a school where kids were so little.

The response of most districts was to “harden” the entrances to all our schools. The school doors were only opened at the beginning of the day. As soon as the students were in, all doors were locked. Over the next few years, we spent millions of dollars to redesign school offices so that parents and visitors were kept on the other side of bullet-proof glass until they showed photo ID and were buzzed inside.

After Parkland, the training of students and staff was stepped up with active-shooter drills. Fortunately, students and staff of Oxford High School were well trained in how to respond to an active shooter. Otherwise, as Oakland County, Michigan, Sheriff Michael Bouchard said, “there would have been even more deaths” on Nov. 30.

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Over the years, after each school shooting, there was a huge outcry for new gun legislation. People said we should be focusing on the victims and it was not the time to discuss new legislation. There was time for that after the mourning. Unfortunately, as time passes, the passion to make changes dissipates. Eventually, after each event, nothing was done.

Something has to change.

Are we always going to be reactive to the latest school shooting? Or at some point do we become proactive and try and figure out how to break the cycle of gun violence in our schools? Do we want our children entering school as if it was a fortress, with bullet-proof doors and windows, metal detectors at the entrances, and students and visitors searched as they come inside? What about after-school events? Concerts, plays, and athletic events? Do these become closed to the public? Do we have to start increasing security to get into every sporting event, concert, and honors assembly?

Our responses as a society have been to keep “hardening” our school campuses. It hasn’t worked. It is time we take a serious look at ourselves as a society and start deciding what type of environment we want for raising our children.

As a retired teacher, my heart breaks for the students and teachers still in our schools. I have been asked several times what my thoughts are about what happened two weeks ago in Oxford.

I am frustrated that mass shootings in schools have become so common that instead of prompting wall-to-wall coverage on cable news, they are just another news story.

I am frustrated that people move so quickly into partisan talking points. “We need more gun laws!” “No, we have plenty of gun laws that we don’t enforce!” “Why didn’t the school stop this before it happened?”

I am frustrated that people point fingers and immediately look for someone to blame, someone who didn’t do their job, someone who allowed this to happen. I don’t know of anyone in education, law enforcement, or the general public who would willingly allow such a horrific event to occur.

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It is time everything gets put on the table. We need all hands on deck working together to figure out what is needed to break this cycle of violence.

Sheriff Bouchard, at one of the first press conferences following the tragedy, indicated we don’t need new gun laws, that we have plenty of gun laws on the books that are not enforced. So why aren’t they being enforced? Are the laws written so poorly that it is difficult for prosecutors to get convictions? Are there loopholes that need to be closed? Are we not funding our police departments and prosecutors’ offices with the resources necessary to follow up on these cases?

Owning a gun is a right that comes with responsibility. Gun laws need to reflect this responsibility. Old laws that are ineffective need to be repealed. Enforceable laws need to be written that reflect common-sense rules for responsible gun ownership.

This week I heard my state legislator say that laws requiring guns to be locked up within homes could not be enforced. He missed the point. No one would expect police to check where people store their weapons. The law would allow prosecutors a way to hold people accountable if their guns are used in a crime after not being properly stored, giving a shooter easy access, or after not being reported stolen.

School disciplinary policies need to be reviewed. School officials are currently in a no-win situation. For every decision they make on discipline, half the parents agree and half the parents fight them. Some parents feel their children should not have to obey school policies they don’t agree with or they don’t want their child to have a discipline referral placed on their records.

Oftentimes things happen that are not specifically listed in a student code of conduct handbook. When this happens, schools have no legal right to discipline a child or remove them from school. The result is no discipline for the student and the behavior is added to the handbook beginning with the next school year.

Schools need the resources to work with students individually. Large class sizes and caseloads that are too large for counselors, school psychologists, and social workers to effectively handle do not allow staff to build the individual relationships necessary to quickly identify when a student is in trouble.

Hindsight is 20/20. Coulda, shoulda, and woulda are easy to say with all the information after the fact. It is time to stop limiting our focus to the specifics of each individual attack and start being proactive in how we work with students and address school violence.

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Karen Kudla is a retired science teacher in Orion, Michigan, a suburb of Detroit that neighbors Oxford, Michigan, the site of the Nov. 30 school shooting that left four students dead and seven people injured, including a teacher. The News Tribune is republishing this commentary with the writer’s permission.

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Karen Kudla

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