In college in the early ’90s, I studied for a semester at the University of Nice, one in a group of about 15 students traveling through the University of Maryland, College Park. Most of us barely knew each other – although some of us have remained friends decades later – and I remember one early, ice-breaking attempt at conversation in the airport as we were about to depart. We compared notes on the travel advice our parents had given us. It was standard stuff: Try new foods; travel in pairs; use sunscreen.
Then, there was this from one student’s parents: “If you hear gunshots, get down on the ground,” she said and laughed. “My parents are from Israel,” she explained and lightly poked fun at the cultural differences between the carefree sunscreen worriers of the U.S. and her parents, who were used to war and gunfire.
It’s a moment preserved to me like the photos I took that spring of a group of us gathered for dinner in Vieux Nice, photos now pressed into an album and tucked away. This was before Columbine, before Newtown, before Parkland.
It’s 2018, and about four times a year I remind my two teenagers of what to do if they are in a mall, at a concert or in their own schools and someone starts shooting a gun. Get down on the ground. Hide or play dead. Get to safety as soon as you can. Help anyone you can. Call 911. Type into your phone everything you saw.
Yesterday, as I was working on the final part of Baltimore’s Child‘s four-part series on school safety, the reality of violence hit home again when five fellow journalists were gunned down in their newsroom at the Annapolis Capital Gazette. I still feel gutted.
At our magazine, we go into every assignment asking our sources what parents need to know about the topic, whether that topic be e-cigarettes, buying a car for your teenager or the rising popularity of home births. What do parents need to know?
Here’s one thing I learned from reporting on school safety that you need to know: The professionals engaged in this work consider every single aspect of this issue. That sounds obvious, so obvious that it might offend some of them. But consider how we largely communicate now as a society, through social media and our assorted camps. When a school shooting occurs, two sides often emerge, and we retreat to one encampment and remain. Or perhaps we retreat from the discussion in total, disgusted that a consensus seems so far out of reach.
When photographer David Stuck and I attended a lockdown training held at the former Seton Keough High School this past spring, we stepped into a politics-free zone, where professionals tackled the problem from top to bottom: What are the kinds of drills we need to practice at our schools, they asked. What kind of evacuation information should be included in a student’s individualized education plan or IEP? What do we need to tell parents, and how do both reassure and inform them?
I worked at a school at the time of the Newtown shooting. My office was just past the school secretary’s, and I remember coming to work and studying what I had in there to throw or push into an intruder should he get in our door and past secretary. How could I stop him? What would I do if I were ever in that situation?
To my relief and the relief of others on our small staff, our principal asked a Baltimore County police officer to come review the school’s safety plan and the building itself to see what we could do to make it safer. He offered some good advice, and we felt prepared — and even better.
But I don’t anymore. When another shooting happens, I know the professionals will respond, they will take care of our children, they will do all they can. And that is reassuring. But what about us? Maybe it’s time to break down and pack up our encampments and follow the path that our children’s teachers, school counselors and cops have laid for us in their daily work.
Maybe when the next shooting occurs, we should log out of Facebook, send a note to our child’s teacher, check in with the PTA, connect with the SRO, email our elected officials and talk with our children. That’s a lot more work than reposting something. But as any teacher will tell you, the more you do something, the easier it is.
And that’s how progress is made.