Lessons learned in Sandy Hook tragedy | Guest column

Bill Evans

By Bill Evans

Superintendent of Lopez Island School District

My heart is broken as I reflect upon the tragic events of Dec. 14, at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newton, Conn. That such innocent lives could so quickly and brutally be ripped from the tight fabric of that community and that school, is unimaginable to me.

Early in my career I taught kindergarten and other primary grades and was an elementary principal for many years. I feel a heightened sense of grief  as I remember the close and loving relationship I shared with the young children and their teachers and staff in the schools in which I served. To imagine such an event happening in any of the schools in which I worked, literally drops me to my knees in horror.

It is tempting, and indeed was likely every administrator’s first reaction, to want to build an impenetrable wall around our schools to seal our children and staff from any and all real or imagined threats to their safety and well being. Any of us would do anything to protect our students and staff.

Certainly we will all be looking carefully at our school security procedures and renewing our commitment to lock down drills and the like.

We will take a much needed look at enhancing our security systems, from communications to door locks, and everything in between, and for those of us planning new construction, architectural drawings, to best secure the safety of our students and staff.

However, if there is anything we can learn from the horror of that December day at Sandy Hook Elementary, it is that even the best security systems will not guarantee protection from danger.

Building thicker walls and higher fences, or arming the gatekeepers to the teeth, will not address the real issues and the real dangers that pervade our society and threaten the innocent.

It is in the embrace of strangers that we will find our greatest protection and deterrent to danger.  Strangers are the disenfranchised among us – those who are intentionally or unintentionally disenfranchised from the embrace of others, be it community, school, family, social services, politics, or the family of man.

The stranger may look and be very much like us, and actually be daily among us, but anyone estranged by real or imagined differences imposed by self or others, may be a stranger to us. In address of Sandy Hook Elementary and other tragedies, I challenge us to find ways to embrace the strangers within our communities, our schools, our world. Let us reach out to the bully, the mentally ill, the disenfranchised immigrant alien, the poor, the victims, the abusers, the strangers within ourselves.

A look at recent tragic examples of horror involving shootings at schools and elsewhere, by and large reveals the transgressors to be strangers in their communities, estranged by illness, anger, frustration, bullying, loneliness, or other manifestations of exclusion.

At what point did our schools or other communities fail to embrace these strangers within? At what point did each of us fail to wrap our figurative or literal arms around the strangers among us? At what point did we fail to reach out to the disenfranchised with an offer of help, solace, welcome, or invitation? What more can/could we do to build communities of hope, care, and compassion, to take in the strangers among us?

Let us be as pro-active in our efforts to build caring communities as we are re-active in building walls and arming the gatekeepers.

As an educator, dedicated to creating a better world through the meaningful education of young people, I believe it starts at school. I urge our schools to become even better at developing caring and compassionate environments and educational programs for all students and create the skills  in each of our students to recognize and embrace the strangers within. Let us renew our commitment to do what we do best – teach … for life, for compassion, for tolerance, for equity and justice. Let us spend as much time teaching social skills and community-building, as we do other basic skills.

Let us worry less about assessing basic academic performance levels and focus as much upon assessing caring, kindness, and community-building skills, to better inform our instruction. Let us include tolerance and inclusivity in our required common core curriculums, as we teach to the whole child. Let us strive to create a generation that will model for the rest of us, a true democracy of care and community.

It is the embrace of strangers, and the consequent conversion to membership of caring community, that will be our salvation from desperate acts of horror. Such embrace will be infinitely more powerful and protective than the strongest gates, highest walls, or most heavily armed fortresses we can ever create.

So, while we are reviewing our security measures and procedures, let us also review our curriculums and programs that promote care and compassion. Won’t you join me?