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school safety debate wages

Leading Hard Conversations: Schools in the Safety Debate

Confrontation. Sadness. Anger. Hope?

Emotions ran high during a series of conversations held Wednesday in reaction to the recent mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.

As survivors of the attack gathered at a rally at the Florida state capitol in Tallahassee, a televised town hall with Sen. Marco Rubio (R) in Florida, and an emotional listening session with President Trump in the White House, they sought both emotional release and a plan of action for preventing future tragedies.

The conversations quickly became heated–and political. But, they also signalled a glimmer of hope that society is prepared to tackle the problem of gun violence in schools.

Whether or not you agree with the solutions proposed this week, it was refreshing to see national and local leaders partake in raw, unscripted conversations with students and parents whose lives have been forever changed by tragedy.

While the national debate continues, school leaders at districts across the country are having similar conversations in their local communities.

Here’s a quick look at what’s been happening.

Students descend on Tallahassee

Hundreds of Stoneman Douglas students and educators travelled to Tallahassee–the capital of Florida–to meet with state officials Wednesday morning, Politico reports.

Students made speeches in the capitol rotunda and talked with state officials, such as Gov. Rick Scott, Attorney General Pam Bondi, Education Commissioner Pam Stewart, and members of the state house and senate.

Top of mind for students was stronger gun control measures–including a statewide assault weapons ban–as well as the need for increased mental health support.

Florida lawmakers had previously opted not to debate new assault weapons legislation, but calls from students and others might have swayed them to reconsider. Politico reports that legislators are now floating a new weapons bill that would put age limits and extended waiting periods on gun purchases, while potentially establishing a program to train and arm school personnel.

Discussions between students and education commissioner Pam Stewart addressed smaller, perhaps more practical steps, including new policies for locking classroom doors.

“Teachers shouldn’t have to go on the outside to lock the door, because that takes so much time,” freshman Melissa Camilo told Politico. “Within those seconds, someone could get hurt.”

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A televised community conversation

Later Wednesday evening, survivors of the attack took part in a CNN town hall meeting that included Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel, a spokesperson for the National Rifle Association, and both of Florida’s U.S. Senators.

Headlines from that event included Rubio getting grilled by students and parents over perceived close ties with the NRA and his strong defense of gun rights.

Still, the fact that Rubio attended the meeting, along with the proposals he suggested, including age restrictions for gun purchases, opposition to arming school teachers, and limits to gun magazine capacity, at least hinted at a willingness for compromise.

Prior to the meeting, Broward County Public Schools Superintendent Robert Runcie addressed the crowd and pointed to teacher engagement and compensation as oft ignored, but important pieces in the conversation around school safety.

“We don’t need to put guns in the hands of teachers,” Runcie said, drawing a standing ovation. “You know what we need? We need to arm our teachers with more money in their pockets. This country pays a lot of lip service to the importance of the teaching profession, but we never put our money behind it. Let teacher compensation, benefits, and working conditions be part of this national debate as well.”

Listening in Washington

At the White House, President Trump held his own conversation on gun violence, as the New York Times reports.

After listening to the emotional pleas and first-hand accounts from survivors of Parkland as well as other school shootings, the president vowed to propose new solutions. He suggested expanded background checks on gun buyers and increased mental health support, as well as a controversial plan to arm teachers with military backgrounds or training, as Politico reports.

But perhaps the most poignant moment of the afternoon came when Andrew Pollack, the father of one of the 17 Parkland shooting victims, pleaded for the country to put aside its differences and come together to make school safety a national priority.

How many schools, how many children have to get shot? It stops here, with this administration and me, because I’m not going to sleep until it’s fixed. It’s not about gun laws right now—that’s another fight, another battle. We need our children safe.”

Regardless of what eventually happens at the national level, local school leaders continue to focus on school safety. They know that feeling safe in school is about more than gun control–it’s about having a way to report issues, making sure families know about the strategies and protocols that are in place, and ensuring parents, students,  and staff feel safe, both physically and emotionally, when they are with them.

Is your school or district having conversations about school safety in the wake of recent events? Tell us what you’re talking about in the comments.