Words Are Not Enough by Thomas J. Gentzel

February 14, 2018 started as just another school day and ended, like too many others, as one more day of carnage and tragedy. The mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida stunned the nation but somehow did not shock it, as a kind of numbness washes over American society that witnesses repeated instances of senseless violence.

Of course, these despicable acts are not limited to schools alone, as evidenced by the shooting in Las Vegas and so many other public venues. Yet, it is in schools where the disgust for this kind of mass murder is greatest and where the impulse to address the issue is most compelling. These are children, after all. Any killing is awful, but the sheer madness of it is magnified when the victims are those who are completely innocent of doing anything improper, including being in the wrong place. A school should always be the right place for students; they should have no fear for their safety in a setting designed exclusively for their benefit and well-being.

To the depraved or imbalanced, these young people are little more than targets – sitting ducks when the goal is to take as many lives in as little time as possible. So, we ask: How can this happen? What can be done to prevent a person determined to inflict such unspeakable damage from having access to a place where their demented vision of success can be achieved?

It is not as though public schools are unaware of the danger or have failed to address it. Safety plans, carefully prepared in cooperation with local law enforcement authorities, are in place in public schools of all sizes around the country. These are accompanied by regular drills, training for school employees and new forms of instant communication. Indeed, as one of the students in Parkland noted, this preparation almost certainly saved many people on that horrible day in February.

We greatly admire and will long remember the teachers and school employees who gave their lives to protect students in their care. They probably did not hesitate to put themselves at risk. As the Bible reminds us, there is no greater love. But, when did we add that to their job description? Do we now expect such heroism?

So much of this experience is excruciating, including listening to some public officials who seem content simply to praise the school personnel and first responders, and send thoughts and prayers to the victims and their families. Bromides as sound bites do not constitute a plan of action.

The answer is not giving every teacher a gun. It is not simply adding more armed guards, metal detectors or other security devices. Those may aid in stopping an intruder; however, they do not serve to identify persons who might become one, or to give them the help they so urgently need. It is disingenuous for elected officials to talk about the need to address mental health issues and then cut funding for counselors and other vital services in the budgets they adopt.

School boards, superintendents, principals and teachers are held accountable not for the words they say or the promises they make, but for the actual results they deliver. We should expect no less of those who pass the laws our schools operate under – or, in this case, fail to enact changes that are so clearly needed. Accountability should extend to every level of government, especially when our children’s lives are at stake.

-by Thomas J. Gentzel, NSBA Executive Director & CEO. This article is published in the April issue of ASBJ magazine. 

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