Commentary: Prevent Shootings One Act Of Kindness At A Time

For the Valley News
Monday, April 23, 2018

Iattended high school and college in the 1980s, at the height of the Cold War, when Americans and many others across the globe feared a nuclear holocaust. These concerns troubled many in my generation and made us wonder if we would ever see our third decade, but the threat was confined to what we perceived to be an impenetrable military-industrial complex layered in dense, diplomatic rhetoric. It was terrifying, but it was also impersonal and undifferentiated. Bombs, if deployed, would destroy indiscriminately.

That is not the case today. Menacing posts reach schools through social media. Students and teachers are targeted when an active shooter descends. And, perhaps most obviously, these dangers aren’t something that’s directed by an enemy of the state or that arrives air-borne for political reasons. These threats are often homegrown and personal, or the connection to the school may be unknown, as the students at Hanover High School recently experienced via an Instagram post.

We are fortunate that quick action identified a suspect in that situation. But those of us who work in schools live with the fact that it could easily happen again. As hundreds of thousands of young people around the world take to the streets to protest gun violence, it’s a critically important moment to offer some possible solutions for students and teachers living with this particular and particularly terrible problem. It is time to channel the near-constant anxiety caused by the buzzing on our devices into actions that can make a difference, something that might lead to some sense of control as communities across the country grapple with the aftermath of more than 300 school shootings in America since 2013, an average of about one per week.

As educators try to process the events in Parkland, Fla., as they had to in the wake of Columbine, Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook and far too many others, I’d offer the following as steps in this direction, knowing full well that each school can and should tailor its own response.

One strategy is to encourage the activism unfolding among the thousands of students who participated in the March for Our Lives, providing support for this generation now asking for expanded background checks, greater limits on assault weapons and higher age requirements for the purchase of certain firearms. On March 14, many of the middle-school students at my school wrote letters to Congressional representatives or participated in silent introspection as students across the country walked out of their classes in honor of the students at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. This practice allowed them to galvanize their thoughts and express how they feel about school safety, guns and the policies impacting their generation so profoundly.

We don’t know if these letters will make a difference in the state or federal laws that may be adopted, but they do make an immediate impact on our community’s mental health and wellness. Civic discourse and action inspire students to believe they, too, can make a difference, and that is a far healthier stance than doing nothing.

My essential aim as an educator is to equip our students with skills that allow them to have a voice that’s shaped by academic and intellectual striving and a robust mastery of skills. Along the way, we must also prepare the next generation to face and handle the darkness in the world, to cultivate resilience in light of the despair, anxiety and fear that dominates today’s headlines. We have to find daily opportunities to take action, make our communities better and respond to one another with care.

I once heard a story about a concert pianist who was asked where the best audiences in the world were. His answer: Hiroshima. In the wake of destruction, there can grow a profound ability to listen, to witness, to revere what is beautiful in the world, to cultivate greater awareness and to become civically minded to keep the darkness at bay. We may never fully understand these eruptions of violence, but we must prepare ourselves emotionally, practically and intellectually not just for how to manage them, but to prevent them, one act of mindfulness, one letter and one deed of kindness or solidarity at a time.

Brad Choyt is head of school at Crossroads Academy, a private elementary and middle school in Lyme.