Just a few weeks after I began writing for American School & University, two students at Columbine High School in Colorado unleashed a shooting attack that killed 12 of their classmates and a teacher.
Amid the shock and the sadness, there were still reminders that such acts of extreme violence were rare and that classrooms were safe spaces for tens of millions of U.S. schoolchildren. My son was a little more than a year away from beginning kindergarten, and post-Columbine worries about safety never entered my thoughts as I prepared for him to head off to school.
More than 23 years later, after the attack at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, the reaction seems different. The specific circumstances of the shootings—19 children and two teachers massacred—are heartbreaking, but after Columbine, Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook, Parkland, and countless other school attacks not horrific enough to be remembered by name, can anyone say they were shocked?
At the same time, the belief that most schools are safe—my school is safe—has steadily eroded each time another headline tells us of the latest bloody episode. As the enormity of the Uvalde attack began to emerge, the internal chat network at our company, most of whom were nowhere near Texas, was filled with comments from people scared about allowing their children to go to school the next day.
The feeling is widespread, says U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona.
“I would be failing you as secretary of education if I didn’t tell you I was ashamed that we as a country are becoming desensitized to the murder of children,” Cardona told a U.S. House committee two days after the attack. “I’d be failing you as secretary of education if I didn’t use this platform to say that students and teachers and school leaders are scared.”
This magazine has written a lot about how important high-quality facilities can have a positive effect on learning. The opposite is also true: Inadequate facilities and unhealthful conditions create obstacles to learning. We’ve seen the disruption Covid-19 has inflicted on the nation’s education system.
Unless people can set aside their political gamesmanship and try to seek workable solutions to school violence, the fears that students and teachers have about their day-to-day safety will continue to undermine education.