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Do You Feel Safe Here? A Teacher Reacts to Sandy Hook

If we're going to talk about school violence, we must talk about all schools, including the ones where violence has become the norm.
 
 
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Photo Credit: Val Lawless | Shutterstock.com

 

Every year, the elementary students at the after-school program where I teach administer a survey to each other, designed to measure the children's feelings on various aspects of the program. The survey is written by adults, but it's the job of the student council to explain it to each class -- it feels more kid-centered that way, and also more adorable. One of the questions the kids ask each other every year is about safety. “I feel safe here,” a fourth-grader will read aloud to a class of third-graders. “Do you really agree, kind of agree, disagree,” and so on. “Do you guys understand what that means?”

It's a complicated question. What we discover, every year, is that there's a lot that goes into feeling safe. And there are a lot of factors in the life of a child that can make them feel unsafe. When I've talked about safety with my students, they talk about bullying. They talk about fights. They talk about feeling left out. And they talk about the neighborhood. As much as the tiny world inside an elementary school is one of the most monumental things in a child's life, those children are big enough to know that the stuff that goes on in the outside world is scarier.

What happened at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut on Friday morning is so horrifying that it's impossible to really imagine, although the scenario is familiar enough that it evoked a powerful, visceral reaction from the entire country. The conversation we've been having since has consistently begun with one phrase: “As a parent…” Both Barack Obama and White House press spokesperson Jay Carney initially chose to emphasize their personal reaction as fathers, over politics. And we, as a country, will continue to bear witness to the nightmare that the parents of the children of Newtown have faced.

I do not have kids, but I have worked with elementary students since I was a high schooler. I can't know what parents felt upon hearing about Sandy Hook, and I can only speak to my own perspective, but for me, and for millions of others who devote their lives to working with children, our sentences have begun slightly differently: “As a teacher….” ("Teacher” could also be replaced with school librarian, cafeteria worker, volunteer, and countless other staff that make up the school community.) I may not know what it's like to have my own children to love and care for, but I do know what it's like to have several hundred children to know and care about.

As a teacher, I view schools as sacred community spaces. Schools serve this vital function for everyone -- not only parents and children, but the entire neighborhood. Few places exist, in our increasingly privatized lives, where members of the community regularly come together to meet one another, where families and neighbors and coworkers can connect in a non-commercial space. Of course, these spaces have become increasingly commercial, increasingly privatized, and increasingly hyper-securitized. Politically, discussions about schools usually focus on the “failing” ones, as if the students and teachers who populate them are inherently failures, dispassionate about education and predisposed to violence.

As a teacher, I believe that it is not “failing schools” we should be discussing, but failing infrastructures, failed allocation of resources, and successful systems of marginalization that leave certain communities structurally excluded from becoming idyllic places like Sandy Hook Elementary. Many media reports have emphasized what a wonderful reputation Newtown has for education, which makes it all the more difficult to comprehend this violence happening in such a place.

 
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