Commentary: Students led us through SC school shooter hoaxes = Let's pay attention. Patrick Kelly, Director of Governmental Affairs for the Palmetto State Teachers Association.
I have taught at Blythewood High School for eighteen years and worked with students processing tragedies so immense they can be conjured by name alone, names like Katrina, Mother Emmanuel, and Parkland. While one prevailing narrative in an age of educational accountability is that teachers should never stray from curriculum guides and pacing, every professional educator knows that a child experiencing trauma struggles to engage with even the most effective instruction. In those moments, children look to adults for reassurance as well as cues on how to react and move forward.
Last Wednesday was the hardest day in my career as Blythewood was a target of the active shooter “hoax” calls that disrupted at least twenty schools across fifteen districts. While the calls turned out to be fake, the trauma of the day was real for students, educators, families, and law enforcement officers. I was off campus at the time, but fear was palpable in communications from colleagues, students, and my daughter, who is a freshman at the school. The response by the Richland County Sheriff's Office was exemplary, but as Sheriff Leon Lott noted, the event still resulted in “students and parents…suffering.”
Sheriff Lott was also quick to praise another group for their response- the students. I agree completely, which is why, in reflecting on where we go from this latest moment of crisis, instead of asking children to look to adults, I believe adults would be well served to look to the children. If we do, our state can learn important lessons that can reduce a seemingly endless cycle of violence and threats.
First, the students acted in partnership with each other. As many probably remember from childhood, schools are often places defined by groups, not all of which play nice together. However, on Wednesday, students put rivalries aside, acted in unison, followed procedures, checked on classmates, and assisted those in need. Our politics have unfortunately reached a point that often reflects the petty cliques of school, with groups seemingly more interested in “owning” the other “side” than constructively building up the community. Students showed there is another way to respond to crisis, a path of working through unity rather than division.
Part of why students were able to act collectively is because they were able to keep things in perspective. Walking back into the school after it was evacuated was eerie as classrooms represented moments frozen in time. As Richland County secured the building, students were instructed to run to the football stadium as the designated safe location, and in doing so, students left nearly everything behind. Teenagers are not easily parted with belongings, but in the moment, they had the perspective to realize safety was more important than a bookbag. As politics has become increasingly divisive, we seem to have lost the ability to keep perspective on what matters. In education, political discourse has been consumed with debates about various “wars” in areas from culture to curriculum. While there are clearly important conversations to be had in those areas, keeping them in perspective should, at minimum, cause us to tone down the heat in our rhetoric. In doing so, we should realize there can be no higher priority in education policy than student safety.
Finally, we must follow the example of students in one other way by acting with urgency. One of my students shared that her most vivid memory is officers exhorting students to run ever faster to the stadium. The adults of this state should feel an equal level of urgency to mitigate and reduce threats faced by children. This need for proactive action is why the Palmetto State Teachers Association joined six other cross-sector groups to form the South Carolina Coalition for Safer Schools. The Coalition published a comprehensive set of recommendations addressing five in-school and five out-of-school policy areas where our state can do more to keep children safe. Coalition partners are under no illusion that a single policy action can prevent all threats of violence. But we do believe that, if our state follows the children in acting with collective urgency and purpose, we can reduce the chance of one of our schools becoming a one word byword for tragedy.
Patrick Kelly is a 12th grade teacher and the Director of Governmental Affairs for the Palmetto State Teachers Association. For more information on the South Carolina Coalition for Safer Schools, please visit tinyurl.com/saferscschools.
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