Thursday, September 12, 2019

As D.C. dithers, students prepare for unthinkable -- Sept. 12, 2019 column


Fresh from their summer break, Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee Tuesday sent to the House floor three gun control bills.

The Democratic-controlled House likely will pass the bills within weeks -- but they’re probably dead on arrival in the Republican-controlled Senate. Republicans, as usual, say the bills are flawed and violate 2nd Amendment rights.

Meanwhile, fresh from their summer break, 56.6 million American students in grades K-12 have gone back to active shooter drills.

One of the first lessons for many students this school year wasn’t about reading or writing, study habits or sportsmanship. It was about survival.

In Virginia and across the country, lockdown drills are now an essential part of the student experience.

The Virginia Code requires every public school to hold a lockdown drill at least twice during the first 20 days of each school session and two other lockdown drills during the remainder of the session.

“Unannounced drills may be more effective than announced drills since they add a component of realism,” according to state guidelines.

Drills can feel frighteningly real, as students and teachers at Short Pump Middle School in Glen Allen, Va., learned last year.

An unannounced active shooter drill -- with multiple fire alarms, loud noises and people jiggling classroom door handles from the outside – left students crying and texting farewells to parents and family. Some teachers also broke down, according to news reports.

Outraged parents complained, and Henrico County schools decided to announce all drills going forward.

Schools are in a no-win situation. Active shooter incidents in schools are extremely rare – but deadly.

Mass shootings are less than 1% of school gun violence incidents in the United States, but they account for 28% of overall deaths in schools and 14% of injuries, according to an analysis by the Everytown for Gun Safety Support Fund, research arm of the gun control group founded by former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

So schools must prepare students and teachers for the unthinkable -- while trying not to traumatize students.

The standard response to a school emergency is: “Lock Down. Evacuate. Shelter in Place” – and wait for law enforcement.

After the Sandy Hook school massacre in 2012, the U.S. Education Department said school training also may include “Run. Hide. Fight,” the response often taught in workplaces.

In the extreme case of a nearby active shooter, younger students may try to distract the shooter by throwing books and scissors. As a last resort, older students may try physical intervention.

Two students died as heroes last spring, fighting a shooter in their classrooms.

In April, Riley Howell, 21, tackled a gunman at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte and refused to let go, despite being shot repeatedly. Another student was killed, and four were injured. Authorities credited Howell with saving many lives.

In May, Kendrick Castillo, 18, was only a few days short of high school graduation in a suburb of Denver when a classmate pulled a gun. Castillo charged the shooter and three other students joined him, giving classmates time to escape. Eight students were wounded.

His grieving father, John Castillo, said of his only child: “I wish he’d gone and hid, but that’s not his character.”

It’s a sad commentary on American life that we rely on courageous young people to sacrifice their lives for others when our elected officials lack the backbone to tighten gun laws.

But pressure on Congress is mounting. On Thursday, 145 CEOs urged the Senate to expand background checks to all firearm sales and pass a strong “red flag” law – also called extreme risk protection orders – allowing judges to remove guns temporarily from people deemed a danger to themselves or others.

It’s time for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Senate Republicans to stop playing “Mother, May I” with President Donald Trump. McConnell refuses to bring a bill to a vote unless Trump agrees to sign it into law so as to protect Republicans running for re-election from a tough vote.

“Doing nothing about America’s gun violence crisis is simply unacceptable,” said the letter signed by CEOs of Twitter, Dick’s Sporting Goods, Uber, Lyft and others.

The CEOs are right, and they join a growing chorus calling on Congress to act. Congress and Trump must act before more children face the unthinkable.

©2019 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

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