Years ago, in my previous life as a newspaper reporter, I was interviewing a school superintendent in a small West Texas town when the conversation turned to school consolidation. With hundreds of rural and small-town school districts scattered all over the state, that issue comes up periodically.
At one time or another, people have suggested that consolidations of some of these small districts would make for a more-efficient, more cost-effective school system. This superintendent opposed that idea and old me why.
“When you lose your local school or school district, you lose your sense of community,” he said, or words to that effect.
That is because a public school is more than a place of learning. It is the heart of a community, where not only students but also their parents and other community members feel welcome and can come together to support each other and unite in a common cause. It may be a football or basketball game, a PTA meeting, a tutoring session, a graduation ceremony or a potluck fundraising dinner. Whatever the occasion, people identify with the school community, support the students and their teachers and take pride in their accomplishments.
This is especially true in small towns, but schools also can be the hearts of urban and suburban neighborhoods, where identity with schools runs high and community support contributes to student success.
It was true in Uvalde, where community pride was suddenly stricken with overwhelming grief when a gunman killed 19 elementary school children and two of their teachers. They were the latest victims in a plague of senseless mass shootings that cowardly policymakers, including Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, refuse to address with reasonable gun control laws. They are cowardly because they fear the wrath of the gun lobby and voters who wrongly interpret the Second Amendment, which calls for a “well-regulated militia,” not a gun in everyone’s hand.
Abbott, Patrick, et al avoid the main issue – lax gun laws – by talking about beefing up mental health services, which they have largely ignored, and “hardening schools” – making schools physically more difficult to enter with things such as high fences, more locked doors, more security officers, more security cameras and maybe metal detectors.
One particularly impractical idea, especially for most urban and suburban schools, would be to limit entry to campuses to only one door. Some high schools in Austin have more than 2,000 students, and some schools may be even larger in other Texas cities. How early are the kids supposed to start lining up to pass through the one security entrance? Three a.m.?
Parents would love that, wouldn’t they? And taxpayers would choke on the cost of erecting all the barriers.
Increased campus security may have some merit. But many of these hardening proposals, as well as the dangerous idea of putting more guns into schools by arming teachers, are cop outs. They are excuses for ignoring the real problem policymakers refuse to address – keeping guns out of the hands of people who shouldn’t have them. Texas can start by repealing the law that lets an 18-year-old legally purchase a military-style assault rifle, as the 18-year-old Uvalde shooter did.
Turning public schools into fortresses or prisons would destroy the sense of community, described above, which is so important to the learning and socialization process. It would destroy what public education is supposed to be.
And it wouldn’t stop gun violence. It would simply shift the violence to other venues, wherever an armed assailant with an urge to kill and an easily acquired firearm chose to strike next.