[This op-ed originally appeared in City & State on March 19, 2018.]
The thousands of New York City students who walked out of their classrooms on March 14 to honor those murdered in the Parkland, Florida mass-shooting didn’t ask for Kevlar vests or gun-toting teachers.
They do want adults to do the hard work to make their schools safe — to stand up to the national gun lobby, but also to arm staff with knowledge, such as how to create safe school environments, and to train them in how to recognize and de-escalate potentially violent situations.
Here are four steps essential to this process:
Admit that arming teachers is not the answer
As a former Brooklyn high school teacher, I know that talk of arming teachers is absurd. It is just a way for NRA supporters to divert attention from policies that can actually prevent gun violence, such as aggressive background checks for gun ownership.
Use the ballot box to demand common-sense gun laws, state by state, if the federal government refuses to act
With pressure from the Parkland survivors, Florida’s GOP Gov. Rick Scott recently signed legislation that, while not going far enough, does more than most thought possible in a gun-friendly state. The new law raises the minimum age to buy rifles from 18 to 21; extends a three-day waiting period for handgun purchases to include long guns; and bans bump stocks, which allow guns to mimic fully automatic fire.
Affected by the gun violence in too many of their communities, New York City students are particularly focused on laws that would help reduce the importation of handguns bought legally in the South and brought up for illegal sale in the five boroughs.
Not long after the shooting, I was in Florida meeting with hundreds of retired United Federation of Teacher members, who were eager to help. Elected officials listen when their careers appear to be on the line. We can mobilize our members, as can other unions and advocacy groups, to keep pushing politicians for more.
Replicate the programs and techniques we know build respect and trust in schools
When New York City students met recently with Mayor de Blasio, only part of the time was spent taking about how to keep weapons out of schools. They also talked about school climate and how to create safe spaces where students and staff respect each other.
We have programs that work, such as the UFT and NYC Department of Education’s Positive Learning Collaborative, where every adult in a school building is trained in how to recognize and de-escalate situations before they trigger suspensions, or worse.
Invest nationally and locally in school mental health services
Not every issue can be solved by a guidance counselor or a caring teacher. Some of our students are in real crisis and need clinical mental-health interventions.
Getting clinical services to students promptly can head off tragedy.
This country’s record on mass shootings — including those in schools — is a national disgrace. This time our children are providing the leadership in demanding change, and our society needs to listen.