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'Some Of Us Might Not Make It Out Alive': A Letter To My Students About School Shootings

(Element5 Digital/ Unsplash)
(Element5 Digital/ Unsplash)

Editor's note: Stephen Lane is beginning his 18th year teaching freshman social studies at a Boston area high school. As students across the U.S. return from summer vacation, he is reflecting on his own frustration at "our nation's apparent inability to collectively address the epidemic of gun violence." The opinions expressed below are his own personal views, and do not reflect the views or policies of his school district. 

Dear students,

Welcome to freshman year. High school may seem big and scary to you now; I hope you will feel at home here before long. May it be a year of many challenges and much success.

Shortly, we will attend an assembly with the school police officer to go over the ALICE protocol. A few days after that, the school will conduct its annual ALICE drill. ALICE stands for Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter, Evacuate. We call it the ALICE drill because that sounds nicer than the try-not-to-get-shot drill.

We will debrief afterward; some of you will make jokes, some of you may be upset. Some of you will have questions about the plan: What if there is a second shooter outside? What if the shooter dresses up like a policeman? The stairways are already jammed during passing periods – won’t we be sitting ducks if we try to get out? Why don’t the windows open wide enough for us to jump? Is the glass bulletproof?

These are all good questions, but unfortunately, we don’t have any good answers. ALICE is the best we’ve got. There’s no failsafe plan. If a shooter were to target our school, some of us might not make it out alive.

After the assembly, our administrators will tell you two things. First, they will say, our best hope is pre-emption and prevention: one of you will see or hear something; if you do, say something — we can stop a possible shooting before it happens.

The second thing they will tell you is that schools are still extraordinarily safe.

The first statement seems like a wish more than a plan. The second statement no longer feels true.

There’s no failsafe plan — if a shooter were to target our school, some of us might not make it out alive.

Don’t blame your school administrators. Don’t take it out on law enforcement. They all work tirelessly to keep us safe. But the way they talk suggests a degree of control over our fate that we just don’t have. Schools aren’t as safe as they once were.

According to the Naval Postgraduate School’s Center for Homeland Defense and Security, in your lifetimes, the number of school shootings each year has just about doubled. Since you began middle school, the average is over 60.

As far as we know, nothing makes some schools safer than others. Shootings happen at schools just like ours, to students just like you. Which schools will face tragedy this year? Which will survive? It’s a lottery, and the odds are getting worse. You’ve seen “The Hunger Games"; American schools go through at least one reaping each week we are in session.

And when we say that somebody will see something, we don’t know precisely what we are looking for. We know a lot less about the causes of gun violence than we should. In 1996, then-U.S. Rep. Jay Dickey (R-Ark.) attached an amendment to an omnibus spending bill which prevented the Centers for Disease Control from funding research into gun violence.

The Dickey Amendment was passed by both houses of Congress, and signed into law by then-President Bill Clinton. Those in positions of authority have failed you. When they fear losing their positions, they often follow instead of lead.

In this March 15, 2013, file photo, participants rush out of the cafeteria after hearing gun shots during a lockdown exercise at Milford High School in Milford, Mass. (Michael Dwyer/AP)
In this March 15, 2013, file photo, participants rush out of the cafeteria after hearing gun shots during a lockdown exercise at Milford High School in Milford, Mass. (Michael Dwyer/AP)

What can you do? You can’t yet vote, but you do have a voice. You can ask why baseless speculation — video games! — supplants evidence-based research. You can ask why bulletproof backpacks instead of a serious response to an epidemic that kills tens of thousands of Americans each year.

But to be brutally honest, don’t expect much to change over your four years in high school. Expect another roughly 40,000 deaths each year; anticipate six or more school shootings for each month we’re in session.

What can we do together? We can work to build a kinder community within these walls. We can be good to one another, help each other, be sensitive to others, be aware. We can ask you to be more responsible for the safety of others than you should have to be.

How I wish this were enough.

For 60-something schools this year, it won’t be. So, understand that when we tell you schools are safe, it’s an expression of hope, not a statement of fact.

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Stephen Lane Cognoscenti contributor
Stephen Lane is a social studies teacher at a Boston area high school. He is the author of "No Sanctuary: Teachers and the Movement that Brought Gay Rights to the Masses."

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