No easy answer to keeping schools safe

The shooting death Wednesday of a high school student in Birmingham, Alabama, was one more reminder of the complexity of keeping schools safe.

Courtlin Arrington, 17, was killed and another student was wounded in a classroom, apparently not in an intentional shooting but instead an accident that occurred while students were handling a gun one of them took to school.

How the gun got into the school, which has heavy security including metal detectors, was being investigated.

In all likelihood, not a single one of the state and federal bills being considered now, on guns or school security, would have prevented the death. It was another grim reminder that simplistic solutions will fall short of keeping our children safe in their schools.

That echoes what two local social workers wrote in recent Opinion page submissions in light of the recent mass murder at a high school in Parkland, Florida. And they, in turn, echoed wisdom they had absorbed over their careers.

As Jack Carney of Long Lake pointed out in a Guest Commentary published Monday, “The governor’s and president’s plans rely on the mistaken assumption that the public mental health system will somehow medicate or control or institutionalize the alienated loners that it identifies. It can’t and never has. The shooter ‘profile’ is not a diagnosis but a description of socially disaffected or alienated individuals. Further, there is no psychiatric diagnosis for alienation.”

There is actually a simple answer to school safety, Carney said, but it’s hard. It’s crystalized on the website set up by parents at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, where 20 children were murdered in December 2012.

“Their message is simple and straightforward: It takes a community,” Carney wrote.


In a letter published Wednesday, Henry D. “Buz” Graves Jr. of Saranac Lake, who worked with teens and their families for more than 40 years in southeast Connecticut, explained how a community can do that.

“The most successful programs involved parents, school bus drivers and all staff on school grounds,” he wrote. “A good communication system was a key factor. Different positions in the school had responsibility for evaluating a student’s threat level.”

It comes down to teamwork, that complicated thing that is essential for so many tasks to get done — working together in structured coordination, being flexible, being communicative, everyone playing their role.

This isn’t going to work all the time. It’s just too hard, there are too many schools in this country, and they all are focused on their main job — teaching kids. We can’t expect perfection, but if we do our best it will prevent some of these horrors in the future.

And yes, some gun regulations are needed, at least including enhancing background checks and banning bump stocks that make semi-automatic guns automatic.

But ultimately, America can’t legislate its way out of this problem of shootings, at schools and elsewhere. People in this country are too afraid, too hostile, too selfish, too obsessed with protection. They have to change their minds, master their fears, be humble, believe in the power of goodness and perhaps have faith in a higher power.

We hope local high school students keep that in mind as they join a national walkout for 17 minutes Wednesday — one for every person murdered in Parkland. It’s great that teenagers are thinking about what they can do, but it’s naive to demand that grown-ups solve the world’s problems by passing a few laws. It takes a community, and people have to live their part of that every day.