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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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As a teacher, the horror of what happened to those children is universal -- it doesn't matter that it happened in a place where people move their families to access great schools. A kid is a kid, and violence against a single one is extraordinarily painful to imagine. I once had a nightmare where I had to protect my students against a bad guy in school; teaching, really, feels like a lifelong project in protecting children, in making sure that they are okay now and will be okay as they get older.

And as much as, in a tragedy like this, it seems most appropriate to focus only on the families rather than getting “political,” I can't think about Sandy Hook without my brain zooming out -- not to “get political” but to understand the policies and power structures that got us here. Because if we are going to talk about school shootings and violence, we have to think about all schools, including the ones where we have gotten used to regular violence. Millions of children live daily with metal detectors and police officers patrolling their schools, but such measures do not change a thing in the world beyond the school walls. And I know from talking to my kids that even those measures are not enough to make them feel safe.

What happened at Sandy Hook is an intersection of several different structural failures, the clearest being gun access and lack of mental health support. In an effort to make sense of the incomprehensible, the media narrative zooms in on the gunman, who becomes the lens through which we view guns and mental illness. By zooming in rather than out, we disregard the millions of individuals with mental illness or special needs who are not only nonviolent but often victims themselves, in need of support but not of demonization. We look very closely at Sandy Hook and Aurora, but as a country, we don't discuss the summer of playground shootings in New York City's poor neighborhoods. The violence committed by the Sandy Hook killer and the normalized gun violence of structurally marginalized neighborhoods may have different causes, but they exist in the same world and they are making kids the same age feel unsafe.

As a teacher, I try to teach my students to make connections between what they learn and what they know already. My hope, as we learn about the details of the tragedy at Sandy Hook, is that we connect individual factors to their structural causes. It is incredibly difficult to talk about, and zooming out creates as many questions as it answers. But my desperate hope, as a teacher, is that we don't just solve this by adding more metal detectors and locking down schools. If we do, children will bear the burden for the societal violence adults have been unable and unwilling to address.

We must act to protect children inside the school building -- but if that effort stops as soon as the child steps foot in the community, we have failed at providing them with the real sense of security they all deserve.

Molly Knefel is a writer, comedian, and co-host of Radio Dispatch, a political podcast that airs Monday-Thursday. Follow her at @mollyknefel.

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