Powerless -- that was my gut feeling when I heard about the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut. Though we live 1,000 miles away, I had a sudden need to keep my son safe, but besides checking him out of his elementary school to take him home early, there was little I could think to do. So until the end of the day, I reassured myself over and over: "He's fine. He's fine." And he was.
My feeling of powerlessness intensified as I saw the results of numerous polls about what it is Americans think we as a nation need to do to prevent violent acts like this. For example, my colleagues at Gallup released survey results showing Americans thought more police in schools and increased government spending on mental health would be most effective. And the media and lawmakers focused in on what to do about guns, mental health, video games and the movies.
As I sorted through all of the information and opinion, I had a realization. It actually came from an unlikely source -- the National Rifle Association's Wayne LaPierre stated, "It is now time for us to assume responsibility for their safety at school." While he used those words to make a call to arms, I believe we should all consider them a call to action.
We, as parents, can play a role in preventing violence at our schools. We are not powerless. We do not have to wait on institutions that are slow-moving and hard to influence -- specifically, the federal government and national media -- to care for America's children.
American parents have been boxed out of meaningful discussions about making our schools safer. Instead, the focus has been on sweeping proposals that we will be fighting about for a long time. Despite being primarily responsible for the safety and welfare of the 55 million children who attend America's public schools every day, parents are somehow not considered relevant to preventing violence in our schools.
In fact, we are the front lines of school violence prevention. And there are steps we can take today. These actions all start close to home, including:
• Turn off the television and the games. Media that models violence doesn't necessarily promote violence, but it doesn't promote good will toward people, either. When your kids are focusing on screens, they aren't learning how to deal with actual people.
• Monitor the wellbeing of your children and get them the help they need. Promoting the mental health of children is the best way to prevent or manage mental illness.
• Teach children (meaning yours, their friends and the ones in your neighborhood, too) how to buffer themselves from daily hassles and hurt feelings. The more hopeful children are about the future, the better they deal with stress, anger, and sadness today.
• Secure the guns and ammunition you own. Don't take the chance of them falling into the hands of curious children or someone wanting to harm others.
• Provide support to hopeless children and their struggling families so that their personal pain doesn't lead to violence against others. You may have to put your nose in someone else's business to protect the children in your neighborhood. Work with community mental health providers to build a better social safety net for people who need more help and hope.
What more can we do to take responsibility for our children's safety at school? Parents across America can tackle this question and work collectively to make schools safer. And parents, remember, we know as much as or more about protecting our children in today's world than the N.R.A., the media, and the federal government. And we have the power to do so.
Shane J. Lopez, Ph.D., a Gallup Senior Scientist, is the world's leading authority on the psychology of hope. His forthcoming book Making Hope Happen will be released March 2013.