In 2010, I graduated from Deerfield High School, a mid-sized school in the northern suburbs of Chicago. I still remember how massive that campus felt on my first day of freshman year, and how claustrophobic I was by graduation. I beam with a quiet pride at the end of the The Breakfast Club, when Judd Nelson walks triumphantly across a dusty old football field with his arm raised in victory -- that's my high school. I only felt unsafe at Deerfield once. There was a bomb threat during my sophomore year, but after a thorough investigation it was proved to be nothing more than an empty threat. After that I never felt particularly nervous about my well-being. Deerfield was an embodiment of the town for which it is named -- calm, trusting, safe.
Last month, in light of recent school shootings, officials at Deerfield announced massive changes coming to the school. Not only will they be adding $400,000 of enhanced security, but that they also plan on installing an armed guard at the school by July. I write now as an appeal to officials at Deerfield High School, and to the many other schools across the United States considering the possibility of adding armed guards to the payroll, to rethink this decision. And while I can't speak directly to the circumstances at other schools, I know that Deerfield High School will not be improved by the constant presence of a gun on campus.
Earlier this month, Kate Selker wrote a brilliant article for Salon called "Pause it when he gets shot". A product of her experiences in New Orleans as a sixth grade teacher with Teach for America, Selker describes the culture of numbness towards gun violence that she notices in her classroom. She recounts a particularly powerful moment during a viewing of the film Coach Carter that epitomized her students' fascination with the violence that surrounds them every day in the murder capital of the country. During the scene where the best friend gets shot, her students call out, "'Ms. Selker, can you rewind it? We wanna see that again!' 'Pause it right when he gets hit, Ms. Selker!'"
Despite her initial horror, Selker comes to understand this moment as a tragic combination of numbness and control. Numbness, because gun deaths happen every day in New Orleans, becoming, as Selker writes, "as usual as laundry." Control, because unlike in the lives of her students, this shooting can be paused and rewound. It can be analyzed and maybe even rationalized. To students who have experienced violence, the urge to want to control and manipulate the moment of death is understandable.
It's heartbreaking at the same time. Wanting to see a moment when a man gets shot over again seems to take the humanity out of the situation. It reminds me of dissecting a frog in middle school -- you hold your breath and find a way to disconnect your mind from what you are actually doing. Suddenly that frog on your plate is not something that was once alive and hopping, it's like a clock that you can open and examine the gears to see how they work. The more you disconnect, the more you train yourself in numbness. It's a survival strategy for Selker's students.
Coming to work as a defense investigator in New Orleans was a culture shock for me, much in the way it was for Selker. I thank my small town for that, because as rich and beautiful and unique as New Orleans is, I feel safe in Deerfield in a way I could never feel there. In Deerfield, I never encountered a gun that was not tucked away in the holster of the local police. I never even heard gun shots.
I know that coming to school every day and being greeted by the sight of a gun will change the culture of my school. It would be a shame if that sense of security that characterized my high school experience was changed to a wary acceptance that every day is about survival for future Deerfield students. We are talking about students, not inmates; high school should not feel like a prison.
Perhaps even worse than feeling uneasy every morning upon arriving at school is to not feel anything. I shudder to think what would happen to the culture of Deerfield if students became numb to the daily presence of a gun on campus. Like the students in Selker's classroom, I hope the normalcy of guns and violence does not become a fixture of the classrooms where I grew up. We should be aiming to change the culture of gun violence in New Orleans, not import it to other towns across the United States. It is no coincidence that students in New Orleans are comfortable around guns and that there are more murders per capita there than anywhere else in the United States -- it's a self-perpetuating cycle that I beg does not become a part of my alma mater's official policy. This is not a way to prevent violence. It is a way of making it normal.
We must not forget that on a basic level, students are consumers. So rather than making school feel like a prison, a place where they are forced to trudge towards a meaningless goal of graduation, make school something in which they want to invest their time. Take that $400,000 to improve and diversify available courses. Spend it on teacher training in mental health so that teachers can recognize students and trouble and know what to do about it. Spend it on mental health services available to students.
Most importantly, work to remove the stigmatization of mental health in this school. If students feel like they can get real, judgment-free help at Deerfield, they will seek it. It wasn't a lack of an armed guard that caused the tragedy at Columbine. It wasn't a door carelessly propped open that made the shooting in Aurora happen. If we are going to change the culture at Deerfield, we should make it a place where students feel safe to come forward and seek assistance for mental health concerns, not a place where students feel unsafe about showing up for class.