In light of what occurred today in Los Angeles, Andrew Liang takes on a critical topic, school safety.
Andrew is a high school junior in Fulton County. He is a former reporter for the Scholastic News Kids Press and has appeared as an education commentator on the Today Show, CNN, and MSNBC.
By Andrew Liang
Today, a threat of violence closed schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District, the nation’s second largest with more than 640,000 students. The electronic threat, which warned of a possible bomb attack and mass shooting, prompted Superintendent Ramon Cortines to ask law enforcement to search all 900 public schools in the district. He cited this month’s mass shooting in San Bernardino as a factor in his decision to close and search all schools.
Cortines has reason to be concerned, as the issue of student safety becomes more important than ever. Since this semester began, fatal shootings have occurred at high schools and colleges from California to South Dakota to Texas to Georgia. Two months ago, Oregon experienced the deadliest mass shooting in its history when an armed student killed 10 of his classmates at Umpqua Community College. These shootings have intensified and renewed the debate over gun reform, and likewise should also prompt us to begin reevaluating the safety of students in schools.
Ensuring student safety is a vital to creating a comfortable learning environment where students can focus exclusively on learning. But students and parents have generally been unconcerned with this issue, as most view school shootings as isolated incidents. While this may be the case, the closure of Los Angeles schools shows us a threat of violence can have a highly palpable impact on students and schools. In an almost identical case only three weeks ago, the University of Chicago was forced to cancel all of its classes and ask students to stay in their dorms after the discovery of an online post threatening a massacre at the college.
In April, my high school experienced a similar threat. Countdowns to a mass shooting were scribbled on bathroom walls, and rumors circulated among the student body about a possible imminent attack. The school responded very seriously and identified the student who started the rumor a day before the countdown was set to end. That afternoon, our principal also emailed parents to reassure them, stating that extra police officers would be “on hand” the next day “out of an abundance of caution”. Because of the lack of official information apart from that email, we didn’t know how credible the threat was.
The following day—a Friday—I attended school, but around half of the students in my classes did not show. By the end of the day, close to two-thirds of my classmates were gone. Over the weekend, we heard new rumors that the countdown was set to end on Monday, the anniversary of the 1999 Columbine school shooting. Although most students chose to return to school that day, many of us felt very uneasy and highly alert.
For those four to five days, nearly all students were on edge. The countdown was constantly on our minds, and we could not fully concentrate on schoolwork knowing that someone had threatened our safety. Since then, additional permanent security officers have been posted at our school. Beginning last year, the school’s front doors were locked during the day. Students coming in late now have to buzz in to the front office to identify themselves. Administrators frequently warn us not to open side doors for other students, and remind upperclassmen who park on campus to remember to sign in and out at the front office. Our educational environment and comfort zones at school have definitely changed, whether we notice them on a daily basis.
Today, most of our school’s students and parents have forgotten about the April incident and the fear students felt that week. The likelihood of violence may once again seem minute, but it is important not to forget that the threat to student safety always exists, whether we notice or not. We tend to ignore the possibility when it’s not obvious and wait for a threat before taking action.
To effectively address this issue, our community must be proactive rather than reactive. In the long run, our society needs to seriously assess the value of firearms and whether their benefits really outweigh their risks. Nearly all violence in schools—and most attacks with multiple fatalities—involve firearms, many of which are legally obtained. Meaningful gun reform and stronger gun regulations are essential to improving student safety.
However, we must understand that consequential legislation may take decades and that no quick solution exists. In the short-term, schools should be allocated more security officers, and those officers and administrators should make a greater effort to connect with students, in order to encourage kids to be their “eyes and ears” around campus. For example, Tuesday’s threat in Los Angeles mentioned “backpacks” as part of a potential attack; in such situations, mindful and vigilant students are in a much better position to identify threats than the few officers and administrators at each school.
Student safety is too important for us to relegate to the back burner of our priorities. Our inaction only allows mass shootings and the fear of violence to continuously repeat themselves. We must urgently take steps as a community to minimize these threats and make schools as safe and conducive to learning as possible. It is always better for us to be overly prepared than to become part of the statistics. In an era in which senseless, random gun violence regularly rocks schools around the nation, our community’s students deserve no less.