SCHOOL ZONE  

By Superintendent Philip Pempin

 

Check the internet for articles about school safety and you will find an abundance of columns like the one below.  Parents are frightened to send their children to school, and they want to know what schools are doing to keep students safe.

 

School shootings and armed teachers: Sending my kindergartner to school in 2018

By Ed Forbes for the New Jersey Record and the USA Today Network

My daughter heads to kindergarten this week. She’s worried about nap time and lunches, while I’m worried about school shootings and armed teachers.

Last Sunday morning was terrible in my house. Our daughter, Caroline, cried. She screamed. She wailed. She argued. She stomped.  She protested. She pouted.  She was a mess. On the surface, she was angry because her lovey — a once-pink polar-fleece pig that’s been a constant companion since her infancy; so well-worn that it has a hole in one of its ears — was in the laundry.

Eventually, lunch and a nap brought calm and relief. And a revelation. Caroline told us she wasn’t only frustrated about her stuffed animal.

She was anxious, she said, about the coming school year.

Caroline starts kindergarten on Tuesday, beginning her education in a red-brick schoolhouse in a well-regarded suburban district. Her fears, she told her mother and me, are typical:

— She’s worried about riding the bus.

— She’s worried about meeting new friends.

— She’s worried about lunch.

— She’s worried about escalating her abilities to read and write.

— She’s worried about whether she’ll get a nap.

As I said, typical fears. As I write, my wife, Emily, reports a successful visit to Caroline’s new school. She’s met her teacher, she’s seen her classroom and she’s seen the playground and the lunchroom.

 

“It was a successful visit,” Emily told me.  “Good,” I said. “I’m glad.”

 

Perils behind us; perils ahead.  But here’s the real reality — I’m full of nerves about this important transition for our daughter. I know she’ll succeed in learning; I know she’ll mature; I know the perils of toddlerhood will soon be behind us. None of the anticipated, typical growing pains are worrisome. What troubles me surely troubles all parents who send their kids off to school. I’m talking about the unknown unknowns.

 

We’ve talked about those in our newsroom this week as we’ve shared plans for back-to-school coverage. Bus safety, of course, has been a daily conversation for our staff since the May crash that left a student and teacher dead in Morris County, New Jersey.  We’ve talked about the ongoing politics around standardized testing and about the safety of drinking water in suburban schools. We have plans to continue our coverage of bullying, of substance abuse and of sustained pressure around the suburban ideal of academic and co-curricular success.

 

The elephant in the room:  We’ve also talked about Parkland, Newtown and Columbine. We’re reporting constantly on school-security efforts, from armed officers to a Trump administration proposal that could arm teachers in America’s classrooms.  We’ve wondered about printed plastic guns, too. We had an ill-fated attempt at printing one ourselves.  Meanwhile, have you heard about Kevlar-lined backpacks? They’re readily available on Amazon and elsewhere — they retail for more than $100, but with that value you get a guidebook, complete with diagrams and tips on how to use the pack to avoid ballistic impacts.  I’m disturbed as much as I am anxious. So, too are my peers. A colleague here at the paper is sending his daughter to kindergarten next week, too. Her school will have two armed officers. Ours won’t, but friends have advised we feel confident because our community’s police station is less than a mile from the playground where Caroline will play.  What a relief.

 

Adding to my discomfort was a recent NPR report detailing a U.S. Department of Education finding that, during the 2015-2016 school year, “nearly 240 schools reported at least 1 incident involving a school-related shooting.” NPR, working with Child Trends, a nonpartisan nonprofit research organization, found that only 11 of those incidents could be confirmed — either from the schools or through media reports.   Surely 11 is a better number than 240 when quantifying gun violence in America’s schools, but the reality that data around these incidents is troubling — for journalists and parents alike.

 

Back to school:  Across my social feeds, children of friends across the country have held up signs as they’ve embarked on their first days of schools in America in 2018. How many have Kevlar backpacks? How many will attend schools with armed guards on patrol? How many will take part in active shooter drills?  I feel sorry — wretchedly sorry — for Caroline and her peers posing in all those Instagram and Facebook photos. The days of fretfulness around a stuffed animal will surely seem golden soon. They’ll give way to worries about reading and writing, addition and subtraction and lunch and the playground soon enough.  But when will those worries give way to a nightmare beyond belief? What then?

 

I wish I could be a parent in an America where those questions weren’t part of our conversation. But I can’t. And neither can so many dear friends in our communities and across the country.  Hug your kids. They deserve better than we’ve given them.

 

We heard this message in the school safety meetings that were held in March and April.  The overwhelming message we heard was that the community wants to help improve safety.  In Ohio we have the opportunity to offer the community a tax levy that will generate money to be used solely for the improvement of school safety.  We are offering this to the community in November, with funds to be used for additional resource officers, mental health professionals and equipment upgrades.

 

Ed Forbes is Senior Director for News and Engagement for the USA TODAY NETWORK New Jersey. This column originally appeared in the North Jersey Record. You can reach Forbes at forbes@northjersey.com

 

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