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A concerned member of the human race

Friday, November 28, 2014

On Tragedies and Doors

It would have been hard not to have felt the horror of the 2012 Sandy Hook tragedy.  It was the holiday season.  It was supposed to be the best time of year in young people's lives.  It is supposed to be a time marking a birth, not death.  Hope turned to terror and unutterable tragedy.  Teachers and aides interposed themselves, as if they could block bullets with their bodies.  Empty spaces.  A mother lying in her daughter's bed, feeling the last warmth that her child had left in this world fade.

After the incident, school safety came under close scrutiny.  Schools were pressured to develop policies to give the veneer of security.  Few wanted to come to terms with the fact that Adam Lanza blasted his way into the school through a glass window.  The doors had been locked.  No one wanted to recognize that if this incident could have been prevented, the intervention would have had to take place much earlier.  By the time Lanza approached the school with his mother's rifle, it was pretty much guaranteed people would die.  All he needed was a window.

In the wake of the tragedy, our school developed a new door policy.  Teachers could no longer enter or exit from any side door of the building.  The actions of a single madman had led to the loss of freedom for all.  Given that teachers and aides had sacrificed their lives to try to save the children, I found the policy insulting to those who had sacrificed their lives.  Even if told, teachers could not be trusted to shut the door.  Better to force everyone to leave through the front in a school with thousands.  One more stab at teachers, the scapegoats for so many of society's ills.

Then, came the 2013 tragedy of Avonte Oquendo, the autistic child who was not properly watched.  He ran from the building, never to be seen alive in it again.  His mother had explicitly noted in a letter to a teacher that her son needed to be watched at all times.  But this critical piece of information was not widely shared.  It is a tragedy when you have to learn from a mistake of these proportions.  A door was left open by an anonymous individual, the security guards called out to the mute boy, probably not recognizing his condition.  They stopped short of apprehending him.  Avonte continued to run and, somehow, the unthinkable happened.  He made it to the door and bolted.  Another mother faced a tragedy of unutterable proportions.

Given the horror of these incidents, it is understandable that door policies are once again subject to intense scrutiny.   The City Council passed Avonte's Law unanimously.  The bill paves the way for the D.o.E. and NYPD to install alarms in City elementary and special-education schools as a means to boost security.  

In the wake of the new concerns, it appears, there have been squads of undercover persons sent around the City to try to breach the security of schools.  They didn't need a Bushmaster rifle to make it into our building.  Students and staff were observed exiting from various egresses.  In one case, a kindly staff member politely held the door open, allowing an individual to enter the building.  I don't know much about it, but it wasn't me.

Given the tragedies of Sandy Hook and Avonte, I certainly see the need to protect students.  I do feel though that a simple serious statement of door protocol given to all teachers might ultimately go much farther than forbidding all teachers from using side exits in buildings that do not demand alarms.  Teachers need to be trusted.  They need to be part of the solution, not pegged as part of the problem.  After all, if staff is allowed to exit from the side doors, realizing the importance of locking the doors in their wake, there will be more eyes on the perimeters of our building.  If the staff sees something, they can say something. 

On weekday mornings, I drop my kids off at their school.  It is very early.  I watch some of their teachers arrive to prepare for the day.  These are people whom I trust with my children and I would equally well trust with as simple a task as ensuring that a door shuts in their wake.  They are professionals.  I would wish to be treated in the same manner, but apparently I ask for too much.

I grieve for Avonte.  Yet, even if every door in the building has an alarm, it is a false sense of hope.  There will always be windows for the desperate.  Avonte needed to be better watched.  There was a failure in the communication and carry through on this simple idea.  "When the Lord closes a door, somewhere He opens a window" and, so, too, can a student.  Teachers need to be trusted.  Teachers need to be treated as part of the solution, not part of the problem.  This is the basic, underlying flaw of educational "reform" today.

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