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From Arizona Shootings, Teachable Moments

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In April 2007, I was at a national school conference in San Francisco. Coming out of the general session I was surprised to see the name of my alma mater scrolling on a news marquee. March Madness was long over and football season had months to go before they were scheduled to even begin practice, but there was "Virginia Tech" in big letters. Why?

Of course, it only took a few moments more for me to find out.

As we all came to learn, things on campus had gone horribly wrong on that April morning. A student had barricaded the doors of an academic building and had commenced a shooting spree that left 33 dead and 17 wounded.

Students and teachers had tried their best to run, jump and hide from the gunman. Doors were barricaded and/or locked but the outcome -- escalating catastrophe -- seemed inevitable once the course of actions was set into motion. Or was it?

When it comes to catastrophic school violence in this country, two incidences have to stand out; Columbine High School and Virginia Tech University. Other acts of campus violence, like the sniper at University of Texas, or the shooting at Kent State are notorious for other reasons -- the former in the annals of crime, the latter in the story of the upheaval of the Vietnam War era. Still, the fact that people died just because they happened to be on a campus during the rampage of a lone gunman is chilling.

The appalling truth is that we have more student-on-student violence occurring on or near school properties than elsewhere. According to the National Center for Education Statistics,

During the 2007-08 school year, 85 percent of public schools recorded that one or more of these incidents of violence, theft, or other crimes, had taken place, amounting to an estimated 2.0 million crimes (figure 6.1 and table 6.1).

We find campus violence so startling because it takes place in environments we like to think are the epitome of safety.

Safe from bullies, safe from intruders. We want schools to be as safe, if not safer, than in our homes. In Columbine, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold carried a rifle, shotgun, pipe bombs, napalm, propane time bombs and knives into the school unnoticed. In Blacksburg Seung-Hui Cho wrapped a large chain through ornate door hardware, barricading the building, and walked through the building opening doors at will, even after the building knew that an attack was under way.

In light of the Tucson attack, everyone is talking of "teachable moments". What can we learn from the tragedy in Tucson of public discourse, of public safety, or of personal rights?

In this light, then, what should we have learned from events of catastrophic school violence?

Here's a "teachable moment" from June of 2004.

A middle school student at Bull Run Middle school in Manassas, Virginia carried a rifle and shotgun into the school bathroom. He had come to school with his mother, a school cafeteria worker, and went out to their car between classes to retrieve his weapons. While he was loading the shotgun a teacher passed by, recognized the sound, and notified the school administration, who notified the local police. The Prince William County Police department had developed an emergency response plan based on the lessons learned from Columbine. They arrived swiftly, acted decisively and apprehended the student without incident.

The reason that the teacher was able to hear the activity was that the school had been designed using CPTED standards (Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design). The public restrooms had no doors; there was a "maze" entrance into the bathrooms obscuring line of sight but not range of sound. The school had installed an extensive surveillance system alerting the school to the camouflage-clad 12-year-old student leaving and reentering the building. They had worked out a communication system within the school and to the local authorities.

In many of our school systems, student safety has become a major capital investment. New generation weapon detection thresholds are placed at every point of entry. Student and teacher biometric scanners are used as both entry control devices as well as attendance and proximity detection devices.

In the new $500 million Detroit school construction bond program, more than $64 million has been set aside for security and security related construction, including a new state-of the-art-school and public safety command center. Information from all of their 175 school facilities will feed into this one center, assembling and coordinating the data from on-site cameras, proximity sensors, entry metal detectors and public safety personnel.

Detroit Public Schools Emergency Financial Manager, Robert Bobb was quoted in this article about the plan:

"When I talk to parents about what should be the district's top priorities, many place safety and security in schools above anything else," Bobb said. "Our new safety and security plan is designed to improve school monitoring with state-of-the-art digital cameras and alarms and a new employee and student badge system that combined will allow us to know exactly who is in our buildings at all times and cut police response times in an emergency."

Last year, in our country alone, violent incidents led to two deaths and two injuries at elementary schools and seven deaths and 22 injuries in our high schools. As a parent, as a school designer and as a citizen, I find these statistics unacceptable.

Often times, in the wake of these tragedies we feel frustrated, powerless and at a loss to understand how school violence can be prevented.

The horrific shootings in Tucson have started a national discussion over the way we debate the issues of the day, and that conversation should continue. But there are also lessons to be learned from the campuses, buildings and design priorities of our nation's schools. Within those walls, "teachable moments" abound.