Saturday, March 25, 2023

Stop Speaking for Our Kids

A school shooting is every parent’s worst nightmare. We can all agree on that. 

But that seems to be where the agreement ends. Many on the left are adamant that the only solution lies in passing gun control legislation. Others on the right are committed to the philosophy that “guns don’t kill people. People kill people.” And most of us, myself included, live somewhere in the middle.

For the purposes of this piece, I am defining a school shooting as what we have seen in suburban communities like Columbine, Sandyhook, and Parkland. I am keenly aware that some communities —and the students and parents who live in them— feel paralyzed by gun violence. Neighborhoods reel over the violence on their streets and parents fear for their children’s safety as they make their way to and from school. The statistics I cite here, however, are specifically about shootings that take place in school buildings and receive wall-to-wall coverage by the national media.

One problem with the conversation about school shootings is that both extremes suck up so much oxygen in the debate that reasonable non-activists—whether on the right or the left—almost become desensitized to the talking points. But we can’t let that happen. Dishonesty and hyperbole must be called out, especially when they involve people speaking for us and for our children. 

I listen to local radio a lot in the afternoon while in the car doing school pick ups. Walmart’s decision to stop selling some kinds of ammunition and to discourage open carry in its stores was a lead story yesterday. Linda Finn, the executive director of the Rhode Island Coalition Against Gun Violence, called in to the show to weigh in on the retail giant’s decision. Everything she was saying about the Walmart decision sounded honest and sensible. 

But then she made a comment that I have heard many times and that I unequivocally dispute. 

Our kids are nervous to go to school”, she said. 

When the radio host rightly pushed back on her assertion, she reiterated her belief that children are afraid to go to school—and she indicated that her organization hears from lots of students and parents who say they are scared. I called into the show to express my frustration with the claim and to share that none of my children have ever said or shown signs of being nervous to go to school because of a potential school shooting.

Maybe they do get lots of calls. I have no reason to doubt that claim. But where is the evidence that children across America—or across Rhode Island—are nervous to go to school because of school shootings? Are we supposed to believe that what we were really seeing in all those first day of school pictures, that covered Facebook, was fear? Certainly in the days following a catastrophic event like Sandyhook or Parkland, parents begin to imagine the worst and start to ask questions about school safety protocols and school security. They debate student walkouts and some post memes about guns on their social media pages. But, for the vast majority of folks, the focus quickly shifts back to routines—children head off to school while their parents smile and wave goodbye. 

Rhode Island’s governor, Gina Raimondo, is the executive of a state that has a B+ rating from the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. And she has said, on the record, that she “worries about her kids safety every time she sends them off to school.” Color me skeptical but I just don’t buy it. 

Given the nature of activism—and politics— it is reasonable to believe that parents who are passionate about gun control talk more with their children about school shootings than parents who are not (just like I talk more with my children about school choice and educational justice than parents who do not share my passion for those causes.) It also stands to reason that activist parents are much more likely to involve their children in their advocacy. One may conclude that the child of an activist is more likely to express or mirror the sentiments of their parents. Maybe their children are apt to say that they are nervous or scared to go to school. 

But most parents aren’t activists. Polling consistently shows that between 80 and 90 percent of Americans support universal background checks but most of them aren’t marching in the streets about it. In fact, despite the coverage of parents at rallies with young children perched upon their shoulders, those images don’t represent most parents. On the contrary, it is extremely common for parents to shield their children —especially younger ones—from news of violence, especially when it runs on a repetitive 24 hour loop but rarely addresses the complexity of the issue at hand. 

I hate to get morbid but bear with me. My children are more likely to die in a traffic accident on the way to school than in a school shooting. They are more likely to be killed by a lightning strike than by a school shooter. And, as athletes, they are more likely to die from an injury sustained playing interscholastic sports than in a shooting at their school. These data points are important because they help us and our children to keep perspective and exist in a space of reason, even when the topic is one as painful and emotionally charged as school shootings. 

We all stand to benefit from fewer generalizations and less hyperbole when it comes to the issues with which we, as a nation, continue to grapple. We can have reasonable and respectful debates about what some call “third rail issues”—like gun laws and gun rights—without pretending that our children are so focused on school shootings that they are nervous about going to school. 

Erika Sanzi
Erika Sanzi is a former educator and elected school committee member. She is also a senior visiting fellow at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. Her blog is Good School Hunting and her Substack is Sanzi Says. She occasionally writes for other outlets including Scary Mommy, The 74, and The Hill. She is the mother of three school aged sons and calls Rhode Island home.


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