This isn’t the column I had anticipated writing for December. We have so many wonderful things happening in Morton CUSD 709 and in our community upon which to focus. But, as so often happens in life, unexpected events create turmoil, sadness, and ultimately, hopefully, some reflection on the condition of the human spirit and how we can learn and grow from our experiences.
The heartbreak still stings from the tragedy in Newtown, Conn., at Sandy Hook Elementary School. The statistics are staggering and I won’t repeat those. The word “sad” does not come close to capturing the devastating loss of life. For some reason this particular crisis seemed to claw at our spirit and soul even more deeply —was it the age of the children? The heroic acts of school personnel? That President Obama cried during his initial press conference in speaking about the unspeakable? The fact that this occurred during the Christmas season, and the essence of Christmas is about a newborn baby and children? Probably all of the above, and more.
We will get through the outcry and politics of gun control, accessibility to high caliber automatic weapons, concerns about possible mental illness, increasing security at our schools and asking repeatedly how these shootings can happen again and again and again. For school personnel such as myself and all of my coworkers in District 709, and educators everywhere, these incidents always cause us to stop and reflect on our own situations. We feel responsible for the safety of our children and employees and, we are. Over the course of last week, our school leaders here in the Morton schools met and took stock of some of our basic security protocols at our buildings. In the coming weeks, you will see some changes, specifically at the front entrances at Lettie Brown Elementary, Lincoln Elementary and Morton High School. We will continue to assess and review our crisis plans, we will practice the appropriate drills, and we will remain vigilant, proactive and prepared in dealing with the possible and yet infinite number of scenarios that could occur in the public school setting.
With that said, Sandy Hook showed us that even the newest security system is not invulnerable to evil, determination and a person that is heavily armed. We cannot sacrifice the warm, caring and supportive environment of our schools. There is a subtle danger of taking the security initiative too far, and we become prisoners. While we absolutely must maintain certain basic and accepted safety measures in all of our buildings, and we will continue to do so, it is my opinion that what is far more effective than metal detectors and wands is acute alertness to danger, reporting suspicious or disturbing behaviors, intolerance for bullying and intimidation, and offering support and help to those who need it. A warning or helpful tip to the appropriate authorities can avert and prevent violence. When a security system prevents violence, it’s much closer to already happening.
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I have had personal and close experience with a school shooting. I was principal of DeKalb High School on Feb. 14, 2008, when five students were murdered in a classroom on the NIU campus. That classroom was less than one mile from my home. The shooting took place in late afternoon, around 3:15 p.m. We had dismissed from school, and the shooter was dead, so there was no need to go on lockdown. The days following were heavy with grief—in a town with a university, the community, school district and university that are inextricably linked.
The lightning quick infusion of the international press, helicopters flying overhead for several days and seemingly unending publicity is overwhelming. However, the days that followed were filled with an outpouring of compassion from, literally, around the world. This helped the healing process greatly, as did the unity and togetherness that rose out of this tragedy. The words “Forward, Together Forward” are part of the NIU school song, and this became the theme of the journey to recovery that so many people embraced.
Newtown, Connecticut needs us now in that same way. If you can email or send a card to someone there, a city councilperson, a teacher, an administrator, whomever—do so. They will need our messages of support and compassion in the months that follow. The bigger picture is that our children in our nation need us also, in the biggest sense of the word “need”. They need adults to value their lives, their hopes and their dreams. Nothing will keep all our children safer than a nation which says they are valued and creates a culture which supports this idea. There is no security system that can do that for us.