More school security? Maybe not.

Pub date January 2, 2013

OPINION I pretty much live in schools. Almost every morning, I get my three-year-old ready for pre-school, my seven-year-old ready for first grade, and myself ready for high school, where I teach English. Almost everyday, I’m in at least three schools. But never before had I thought so thoroughly about school security until Monday, Dec. 17, when I drove my daughters, and then myself, to school for the first time after the shootings in Newtown.

My first stop is my daughter’s public elementary school in San Francisco. Because I often have an 8am class and am pressed for time, I almost never walk her into school. I pull up along a curb, where fifth graders clad in fluorescent vests open the back door of my car to escort my daughter out. From there, she walks alone into a side door and then out onto an outdoor basketball court, where the whole school gathers every morning. Her teacher then takes my daughter to her classroom, which is, incidentally, closest to the front door to the school, which is always open during the day. A potential shooter would have no problem entering, and with enough ammunition and a deadly enough gun, he could kill at will.

I asked for the first time that day: would it be better to close off the campus?

The next stop is my three-year-old daughter’s pre-school. There, I park my car, get her out, and walk to the front entrance, where an administrative assistant buzzes me in upon recognition. Because it’s busy in the mornings, I often hold the door for other parents trying to get in. Of course, it would be very easy for a killer to force his way in behind one of us, or he could simply shoot the glass if he was determined enough.

Again, the questions arise: should the director have a gun in her office? Should we put up metal doors? Should the school hire a security guard monitoring cameras before letting parents and children into the school?

Finally, I arrive at my high school, which is a rather affluent independent school. I park on the street and walk right in. Often the receptionist doesn’t even notice me. We have a completely open campus, with many doors into which someone could enter with no resistance whatsoever. We have security guards, but they are unarmed and more concerned with directing traffic around the school than with a potential intruder. All of our students have off-campus privileges. Should we keep students on campus? Should we bar all the doors? Place an armed security guard at every entry point into the school?

The answer I’ve come to is no.

The question of school security gets at the very nature of what schools are. Schools both are and are not of the world. On the one hand, schools are a place that prepares our youth for the world. They’re also a place where young people can learn to take risks, where they can make mistakes before they go out into the “real” world. On the other hand, however, schools reflect our neighborhoods, our counties, our cities, our states, our country, and our world.

If we bar our schools off from the outside world, the message that we’re sending to our children is that the world is a place to be feared, a place where calculus won’t do you any good — but where a gun will. To “secure” our schools is to admit our collective failure at making the outside world safe. It is to admit that one of the fundamental values of any society, and in particular our American society—trust—has been broken.

I would hope instead that we work now to change the world enough to communicate to our children that the world is, in fact, a place that is not just safe but that they are invited into, a place where they can thrive and find happiness rather than a place to fear and hide from. Our responsibility is not to gate schools off from the world but to take the need for gates down altogether.

Scott Laughlin teaches English at University High School.