A message from Mr. Handmaker
Dear Members of the Keystone Community,
This week, Mr. Handmaker shared the letter below with Keystone parents. Since many people who read the Keystone Communiqué come from other constituencies, such as friends of the school or alumni, we decided to repost it here.
When the news broke of another school shooting in Colorado, my feelings ranged from horror to sadness to resignation. Yet again, someone, in this case students, had entered a school with the intent to kill. The incident this time contained a certain poetic pathos in the school’s proximity to Columbine High School where the first mass school shooting occurred twenty years ago.
As with other seminal moments in time triggered by a recent event, the memories of Columbine came rushing back. I was in my third year serving as a school head in St. Louis, a city that was accustomed to violence, but not like this. At that moment, educators across the country understood that the world had entered a whole new era; however, I don’t think we ever imagined that school shootings would become as common as they are today. According to the Washington Post in April, there have been 230 school shootings since 1999, not including those on college and university campuses.
Earlier this week I was actually thinking that we were going to make it through the spring with no shootings. Wouldn’t this be refreshing, I thought, only to catch myself and think that we had set a pretty low bar for ourselves. Is this the point that we had reached, where we could congratulate ourselves on no mass shootings of children? As I scolded myself for settling for something that should be considered normal, I heard the news, and thought, “never mind.”
What does it say about us that we have failed in one of the most fundamental criteria by which to judge a society-that we keep our most vital and vulnerable asset, our children, safe? Perhaps we should take a moment, avoid the inevitable debates around guns or mental health care, and acknowledge that collectively we have dropped the ball.
As parents, we take a leap of faith every morning when we drop our children off that they will be safe physically and emotionally. We place our trust in other individuals to care for our children, and we hope and pray that they will be all right when we reconnect with them in the evening. It has been this way in America for more than a century, but something changed with Columbine. (If you have not read Dave Cullen’s book called “Columbine,” I highly recommend it.) Now, we are subject to a fear that is the most basic but also the most modern-that our children will face a danger our ancestors could never have imagined.
One of the most sobering facts to emerge following last spring’s shootings at Parkland and Santa Fe High School was the concern with which children now viewed attending school. According to a Pew Report last year, “Overall, 57% of teens say they are worried about the possibility of a shooting happening at their school, with one-in-four saying they are very worried.”
In the early 1980’s, I lived in Israel for two and a half years as a student and as a volunteer. During this time, the war in Lebanon raged, and the Israeli government advised people to stay away from the northern border if they wished to remain safe. (The rest of the country was considered relatively trouble-free.) One weekend, before cell phones, my parents in the US panicked trying to reach me as I gallivanted around Jerusalem; unbeknownst to me, a series of bombs were exploding around the Old City and the media in the US had reported on them breathlessly. The fear and sense of helplessness in my parents’ voices when we connected was palpable.
As parents, we all now live with that dread, but we repress it so we can go about our daily business and live our lives as best we can. So, what, if anything, can parents and educators do?
At Keystone, we created a Security Team this year that meets monthly and looks at our policies and procedures. We consult regularly with SAPD, and we perform drills. We adjust our practices as more information emerges on the best way to respond. Perhaps most importantly, we impress on our students to look out and care for one another. More often than not, shootings are carried out by someone who is in pain, and has typically let someone know that they are planning to do something. Educators have heard again and again from police and other experts that the most important and effective form of security is students reaching out to people who seem disaffected and alerting adults when they have concerns.
As parents, we need to echo this advice. We should exhort our children to take care of each other, and extend an arm to those who are suffering. We need to encourage them to speak with an adult when they worry about a fellow student. They should take online threats seriously and report them.
Unfortunately, this has become our new reality. Until things change, we will work, we will plan, and we will practice preparations we hope to never use, and we will make necessary changes so our children can be safe and secure in their places of learning. We owe them at least this much.
William B. Handmaker
Head of School