To teach … and protect

Published 12:00 am Sunday, December 23, 2012

I’m not exactly sure why, but I feel an overwhelming need to write this article. Not out of desire for recognition, but just out of a simple need to get out my feelings.
The tragedy that occurred Dec. 14 in Newtown, Conn. has spurred emotions in everyone across the nation and even the world. How in God’s world could anyone take the lives of innocent children?
I cannot begin to imagine the disbelief of the victims’ families. And for those who survived the massacre, especially the children, even though they were able to escape the onslaught of gunfire and chaos, their lives will never be the same. What they endured and witnessed is unfathomable. It is quite possible that one saving grace for the emotional recovery of those children who did make it out of Sandy Hook Elementary School was the fact that they were told to close their eyes so they wouldn’t have to see what had just occurred. While their friends and classmates lay on the floor of what was once a joyful place of education and nurturing, they were making their way out, led by teachers and emergency services personnel trying to shield them from the aftermath.
I have been in education for more than 20 years, the last six and a half as a school administrator. It is from this perspective that I write.

The day of the shooting, I was busy preparing for our afternoon basketball games, just as I have done so many times before. A staff member told me what had happened after seeing reports on the internet. I didn’t know any details, only that there had been a school shooting in Connecticut. My principal and I talked about it briefly, and decided there would be a moment of silence before each of the four games that evening to remember the victims. Still, I didn’t fully appreciate the magnitude of what had occurred. I quickly got the name of the town to use in the pregame announcement, and during our observance, a half-full high school gymnasium was completely quiet.
When I got home, I began to see news accounts of the events in Newtown. What I saw was surreal. I watched for a while until my feelings and tears of sorrow wouldn’t allow me to continue. As educational professionals, we practice lockdowns and emergency procedures. We look for ways and methods to improve school security, all the while thinking it could never happen here. But we continue to take the precautions. We work with other administrators, teachers and law enforcement on this very topic every year. However, I don’t think anything could ever fully prepare us for the reality of such tragic proportions. We probably consider it a little more at the high school level than in an elementary school, but now, more than ever before, we may not consider it enough.

Sandy Hook Principal Dawn Hochsprung was a veteran educator and administrator. She took the necessary precautions. She installed a security system whereby visitors would only be allowed inside by school personnel via a surveillance camera and buzzer lock system. The safety and well being of her students and staff was obviously a priority, but it’s unlikely that any security system or safety precautions would have prevented this. She was in her everyday routine when an intruder used a 9mm handgun to shoot out the glass to gain entry.
What she must have been thinking when this all started I can only imagine. She and school psychologist Mary Sherlach went to her students’ aid, rushing the gunman and making the ultimate sacrifice for their students. Teachers were among the five other adults who also attempted to save childrens’ lives.
We choose to be school administrators not for the money, but rather for a love of educating our students. Given the same scenario, I like to believe we all would do the same as Dawn Hachsprung and Mary Sherlach. Maybe according to practiced protocol, maybe not. A major part of our responsibility is to protect our students, and we do it to the best of our abilities. We’re not trained as security guards or law enforcement. We trust and use our instincts. We do what is in the best interest of our students, staff and school.
School is supposed to be a safe haven. Students need to believe this, parents need to believe it, and the entire staff and school community needs to believe it.
For some students, school offers a lifeline outside of otherwise dysfunctional lives. It provides an environment of love and nurturing they don’t experience after the dismissal bell. In this day of common core, essential standards, and student testing, we spend many hours working to improve the learning opportunities for our students. We work with our staff to ensure that the educational goals and objectives are met. But in the broader perspective, what can we do to protect our students, our children, our families, from the worst parts of society?

As educational professionals, we strive not only to help our students learn but also to improve their quality of life, both present and future. Some days, our students spend more time with us than with their own families. We teach them about calculus and physics, American history and algebra. But more than that, we try to teach them to be responsible and caring U.S. citizens. We love, counsel and protect them. As times change, the counseling becomes more challenging, and there are more things that we have to protect them from. The most difficult of these is society itself. This foe that we fight in society is virtually unknown, and we never know what might be lying in wait around the next corner. Although the evil elements may seem at times to be seldom and small, they can strike with a greater force than we can ever fathom. The evil that struck Sandy Hook Elementary School was lethal and swift, and gone in a flash before it could be defeated. If that volume of iniquity can strike out in a picturesque community like Newtown, Conn, just imagine what could happen elsewhere.
We shed tears for the tiny victims of this calamity, their families and their communities. Our hearts bleed for those educators who gave their lives trying to protect the children in their care. I know for certain that in no professional training was Dawn Hochsprung or Mary Sherloch ever taught to charge a gun-wielding lunatic. In not one professional development activity was Vicki Soto, Lauren Rosseau or Anne Marie Murphy ever told that they should shield their students from high-powered bullets fired from close range. They all perished while trying to save the lives of children related to them by no bloodline, but rather in a relationship established as loving and caring professionals. They are testaments about the reasons we chose education and to what lengths we will go for our students.
President Obama questioned, “Can we say that we’re truly doing enough to give all the children of this country the chance they deserve to live out their lives in happiness and with purpose? If we’re honest without ourselves, the answer is no. And we will have to change.” I have to agree with this statement. We have not done enough, and we are not doing enough. Our children do deserve the opportunity to live happily and with purpose, and hopefully that will include making right those things that went so very wrong in the generations that preceded their own. We cannot lock our children away in fortresses with armed guards and iron bars. We have to allow them to grow, develop and dream without having to live a nightmare.

Times have to change, people have to change, and society has to change. We can reap retaliation upon terrorists who hijack our airliners, blow up our skyscrapers and our federal buildings and detonate bombs in our train stations and subways. But how do we retaliate against the maliciousness and immorality that we have bred on our own soil and in our own homes? Wickedness that makes itself disappear just as quickly as it emerged, while not leaving us with one tiny clue as to why?
The children of Sandy Hook Elementary School, victims and survivors, the community of Newtown, and all of those families who suffered on Dec. 14, 2012, deserve vindication. Let us not allow these children and the educators who made the ultimate sacrifice to perish in vain. Never again should we ever have to summon first responders to view such carnage, and never again should a child have to die because of another’s delusional mind. Let us begin … now … to do whatever we can to facilitate the social change necessary to prevent another one of these tragedies.
The next time that God our Father calls home another child, may it only be the day that He calls all of His children together.

Barry West is an assistant principal at South Rowan High School.