Steve Nelson: Schools Need More Love, Not Guns

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After the holidays, students in Marlboro, N.J., returned to armed guards in their schools. The scene is becoming increasingly common at schools across America.

Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., has proposed legislation for funding to deploy National Guard troops to schools. A plan to have armed volunteers guard Phoenix area schools has been announced by Joe Arpaio, the Arizona sheriff who previously disgraced himself by aggressively profiling and violating the civil rights of Latino residents. In Utah, several hundred teachers turned out for a firearms training session so they could “carry” in school.

This is our country. Total madness.

Since the tragic shootings in Sandy Hook, several families have asked me what steps I’m taking to keep our school buildings safe. (I am head of the Calhoun School in Manhattan). Here is how we keep our buildings safe: “Dame esos cinco!” (Give me five!) This cheerful exhortation echoes up and down West 74th Street in Manhattan each weekday morning. Building superintendent Eddie Ayala, aka “Eddie Spaghetti,” greets every Calhoun lower school student with a high five on the sidewalk in front of school. The natural exuberance is contagious. Every now and then, a child or adult unaffiliated with the school will get a quick walk-by high five.

Contrast “Eddie Spaghetti” with armed guards in schools across America. Which children are safer? Violence in schools — violence in society for that matter — will not be solved by more guns. Love is the most effective security.

The impulse to arm schools is irrational. The chances of being shot in a school are significantly less than the chances of dying in a plane crash. As is true in armed homes, the presence of guns in schools poses more risks to children and adults than all the mass school shootings in history. Shall we stop taking children out for recess or on exciting field trips or have them accompanied by armed guards everywhere they go? Are we so delusional and paranoid (or bullied by the National Rifle Association) that we must all be armed? Is that the social climate you want your child to grow up in?

The gun-rights crowd claims that shooters go to schools or other sites of their mayhem because they are gun-free zones. That is just plain crazy. The school shooters in recent history were prepared — eager — to die. Instead of arming our schools, perhaps we should make an effort to learn how these (mostly) sad, young white men reached such a state of desperation.

America’s schools can be alienating places for far too many children. Increasing class sizes, the depersonalizing effects of technology, the persistent stresses of testing, the lack of counseling services and the insidious effects of bullying have all served to marginalize sensitive and awkward girls and boys. They are often silent and invisible. We really don’t know much about Adam Lanza, but every report suggests painful isolation. And who cared? He apparently lived in the cracks of the school, avoiding group pictures, escaping close scrutiny and living without relationships. Did anyone notice this little boy at all? Did anyone greet him with “Dame esos cinco” and a high five every morning? Do you think boys like Lanza don’t hurt deeply every day?

There has been entirely too much speculation about the role of mental illness in the murders in Sandy Hook. The aspersions cast toward children assessed with Asperger’s syndrome are particularly offensive. This neurodevelopmental condition is not associated with sociopathic behavior or violence. The children I’ve known with this diagnosis are sweet and gentle.

If there is a common quality found in Adam Lanza and others who explode in violence, it is alienation and loneliness. How many times have so-called “deranged” gunmen been described as “loners”? I’m certainly not blaming the schools that Lanza attended for bringing on this unthinkable tragedy. Perhaps they did everything they could to invite him into the life of the schools. I just don’t know. But did Lanza, the boys at Columbine or any other deeply alienated shooters experience their schools as warm and loving places? The evidence suggests otherwise.

Whatever these boys experienced at their schools, would it have been improved with armed teachers or security guards? Guns in schools won’t make alienated children feel more loved. Guns in schools won’t make any children feel more loved. Guns in schools suggest to all children, lonely or gregarious, that life is so threatening that we must arm ourselves and be on hair-trigger alert.

Perhaps the most iconic image of this insanity is Charlton Heston as pitch man for the NRA, brandishing a weapon and declaring, “I want to say those fighting words . . . from my cold, dead hands.” I remember another iconic image — of a protester putting a flower in the rifle of a soldier during a march against the Vietnam War. If, heaven forbid, a tragedy ever happens at my school, I’d prefer they find a flower in my cold, dead hands.

We don’t need guns in schools. We need more flowers. We need more Eddie Spaghettis greeting every child with a booming “Dame esos cinco” and a wide grin.

We need to make sure that we are loving and attentive to all children — particularly the lonely, isolated boys or girls who may otherwise grow up with seething anger that no one ever noticed.

Steve Nelson lives in Sharon and New York City, where he is the head of the Calhoun School, a private school. A version of this column was published in The Huffington Post.


Letter: There Are No Easy Answers

Friday, January 11, 2013

To the Editor: The National Rifle Association has stated emphatically that the solution to our tragic problem of violence against children is to place an armed guard in every school. That, of course, is hardly an answer. Where would we draw the perimeter? Would we also cover every church and synagogue, every college classroom building and dormitory? Valley News columnist …