“We lose eight children and teenagers to gun violence every day. If a mysterious virus suddenly started killing eight of our children every day, America would mobilize teams of doctors and public health officials. We would move heaven and earth until we found a way to protect our children. But not with gun violence.” ~ Elizabeth Warren
This week they head back to school, our beloved children, the country’s future, as the politicians say from their stumps and soapboxes. Like turtles, they’ll be bearing backpacks, lighter than they will be after the big books are distributed. Some backpacks are already heavier than usual; supposedly bulletproof, they are purchased by anxious parents fearful of gun violence.
Once consulted, Google offers many sources for bullet-proof backpacks. Every cloud has a silver lining, right? So someone (or many ones) profit from the demands made by gun violence. What could be more American? Supply and demand. Free markets, no regulations, Second Amendment. Ask Ayn Rand and her many toadies on the Republican side, those who dance with death in the arms of the NRA. Wait, you say? These are kids, these are schoolkids. These are OUR kids.
I pulled up one Google offering by the Home Security Superstore. For $119.00, they offer: “Streetwise™ bulletproof backpack offers NIJ Level IIIA soft plate protection against most handguns and is lightweight with a kid-friendly style.” That “style” a pattern of repeated smiley- face emoji’s, an image both familiar to kids and reassuringly cheerful. Who would shoot at an army of emoji’s on a little kid’s back? The problem is that, historically, most school shooters have not used handguns for the slaughter of innocents. They seem to prefer automatic weapons, and this model does not offer protection from those guaranteed- (according to the gun fanatics) by- the- Second- Amendment military weapons. Moving along the list of pictured offerings, I find that for $186.99 you can order one that claims to stop rifle bullets: “Spartan Armor Systems™ durable tactical backpack with steel core armor plate that is NIJ level 3+ rated to stop rifle bullets.” So one step closer to safety (assuming the student is wearing her backpack and the shooter shoots a rifle from behind). A little more googling turned up a test of bulletproof backpacks by NEWS4SA. The text of the reportage deserves to be quoted; reading it, I feel I am immersed in something written by Samuel Beckett or Edward Albee.
“We took a bullet resistant insert from one of those backpacks to a gun range just outside of Austin. We shot it with a .380 caliber, 9 mm and .45 caliber handgun. The bullets didn’t make it through but the force of the impact could still be lethal. So we went another route with a PakProtect backpack insert, which fits into almost any backpack. Zrazhevskiy, founder of Ready To Go Survival that sells these backpacks, said parents from coast to coast are buying these for their kids …’Our baseline is around 100 units a month but when back to school time hits we do see about a 250% increase in sales,’ Zrazhevskiy said. ‘We put the PakProtect to the same test. It did well. We were even able to pull out the 45 caliber slug. So we went a step further and lit it up with a dozen 9mm rounds. As you can see this is been shot to heck and nothing,’ said owner of SpecOps Communications Adam Handelsman.”
The News4SA text continues reassuringly, “The likelihood of your child being a victim in a mass shooting is extremely remote and if a shooter were to be using an assault rifle, these bulletproof inserts wouldn’t do much to stop it. But that won’t stop parents from looking for more peace of mind for when their kids go back to school.” Hell no! All good parents want to purchase some peace of mind. Those parents looking for peace of mind as their children return to school make eager consumers, and entrepreneurial manufacturers are eager to meet their demands. I can’t help but wonder how many of these suppliers are in league with the NRA and/or have their lobbyists busy in Washington DC and state capitals.
I don’t have words to express the horror, the absurdity of this current situation. Little children in primary grades are being taught rhyming ditties about how to stay safe, to reinforce routine during active shooter drills and to reassure them that this is just like nursery rhyme time, I suppose. Older kids are being encouraged to take heroic measures against an active shooter. Some “experts” encourage arming classroom teachers. Are we assuming that students will know no fear, have no nightmares because we present active shooter practice as a rhyming activity or a challenge to one’s courage? Read the words of this chant and imagine your child or grandchild entering kindergarten where this ditty will be an early lesson in rote memorization.
Lockdown Lockdown, say no more.
Shut the lights off, lock the door.
Go behind the desk and hide,
wait until it’s safe inside,
Lockdown lockdown it’s all done.
Now it’s time to have some fun.
I can barely breathe over my incredulity at the image of tiny girls and boys learning this chant from a patient teacher who is most likely as appalled as are you and I. And what about the effect of encouraging older students to take risks to stop a shooter? The press lionizes a young person who runs into danger, as did Kendrick Castillo, an 18-year-old student who was the sole victim killed during the shooting at STEM School Highlands Ranch in Colorado. Castillo died trying to stop one of the armed suspects from firing, allowing his classmates to escape. “He was one of several students whose heroic actions prevented further carnage,” reported the press. I don’t deny that the kids’ actions were brave, but the reporting prompted many suggestions about how we should train students to run at shooters, should expect students to do their part in protecting themselves and others. That’s far too heavy a burden of expectation to lay on kids when the adults in our society have the power to stop this epidemic of gun violence.
I won’t get into how much money has been diverted by school districts from educational materials, programs, new teachers to security measures that run the gamut from bulletproof doors and windows to fully staffed security rooms with cameras monitoring every school in a district. That’s fodder for another writing.
I have two granddaughters in middle school in two buildings in Brooklyn. I have a grown-up granddaughter who will be teaching in a New York City first grade. I am sure they will tell me about their “learning” experiences with school safety protocols. I will ask them how they feel about such measures; I suspect they will answer more or less matter-of-factly that they don’t like it but, with a shrug, “that’s the way it is today.”
And that “way-it-is” shrug of our national shoulders is the source of my rage. I am as guilty as anyone of feeling that we have come to a place of national …not indifference exactly but of ennui, of overload, of atrocity fatigue. Every week there seems to be a mass shooting somewhere. Perhaps summer vacation offered respite from worries about school shootings. Perhaps we just don’t know what we can do about the intransigence of the Republican senate majority who remain cowed or bought by the forces and followers of the NRA. I don’t have any practical suggestions beyond the obvious: work to get out the vote for change in 2020. Support democrats like Amy McGrath running against Mitch McConnell, who is the person currently most responsible for keeping gun control legislation off the floor.
I spent 30 happy years as an educator in a public high school in the community where I lived and raised my three children. We entered through unguarded doors. I never felt unsafe inside the walls of my school. Of course we knew the world outside was dangerous, some places more than others. When a tree limb fell on a student on a windy day, we were appalled and shocked – the lawn in front of a school was supposed to be a safe spot for gathering. I don’t think I could have imagined, short of the nuclear alert drills of my childhood, students practicing safety strategies against the threat of an active shooter in their midst. School was sanctuary. It still is for many kids whose neighborhoods are full of easily available guns that make street shootings all too common. (Note that most school shootings have NOT happened in inner city neighborhood schools.) To me the idea that, as Americans, we tolerate or defend the sanctity of gun ownership, of any and every kind of lethal gun; that we do so knowing that we are the country with the largest by far number of gun deaths and the greatest number of guns at large; that we, either through ignorance or stubbornness, refuse to see the 2nd Amendment for what it really defends –an armed “militia” not every person who wants to arm himself like a warrior in battle; that we cannot even get minor gun reform measures to a vote on the Senate floor because one man, one man who calls himself the “grim reaper” with a grin, as though being a facilitator of a death industry is some kind of distinction about which one should boast; that people may continue to vote him into office, some because of his stand on gun rights… that idea of us as Americans so willing or so helpless or so weary makes me ineffably sad. That’s why I am writing this piece on Labor Day, the day I remember so well as the last day of summer and the day before teachers return to school to prepare to welcome their students for a new year. That today’s teachers have to include active shooter drills and, at the same time, assure their students that they shouldn’t feel afraid in their classrooms makes me want to stand weeping at the doors of the school I loved. I want to at least acknowledge, not ignore, this shame of living in a country that can’t find a way to do something meaningful about the gun emergency, the gun crisis, the human rights catastrophe that is gun violence in the United States of America.