In the Dark as a School Locks Down

Terry H. Schwadron

March 13, 2018

The sudden PA announcement from the school principal signaled the emergency shooter drill in the multi-racial Harlem classroom where I tutor a third-grader in reading.

The teacher quickly locked the door, shut the lights, and pulled the shades, and we sat quietly in the dark until a hall monitor came by to check up on us. The students were fine; the adult tutors were relatively far more freaked out, though they did their best not to show it and kept the kids calm.

This is the battlefield that President Trump envisions, where a young Teach for America instructor learns how to shoot a handgun at a would-be camo-clad shooter spraying a semi-automatic assault weapon with multiple bullets per second while we sit in the dark at child-sized desks, struggling for pronunciation and inference.

After three weeks of pondering, The White House has come out for sensible improvements to existing national gun backgrounding information collection, a vague advocacy for state laws to take guns from those individuals for whom there have been reports of mental health issues, and a general, unfunded recommendation to states to train teachers and staffers in gun use to protect students.

God forbid, let’s not touch the guns — or even raise the minimum age requirement for legal purchase of semi-automatic long guns to 21.

No, somehow this teacher who spends her own money on stars for return of take-home book reports and in-class colored markers, will now be expected attend training classes, to hold and train at shooting a gun, make split-second decisions about moving, dangerous foes, and be able to distinguish friendlies, including other school staff, from enemies. Somehow, sitting there at a child desk in the dark doesn’t seem quite as weird.

Earlier this week, I wrote a column about repeated Trump policies that flip-flop, and then I wrote about my anger over the president’s reliance on slogans to eschew the normal processes of the justice system just to wish death to drug dealers. Among other things, the president insisted that we need action, not more blue-ribbon committees and talk.

So, it made perfect sense to hear that Trump had flip-flopped on his own suggestion about raising the minimum gun purchase age and that he was appointing a blue-ribbon committee to consider other ways to make schools safe. The National Rifle Assn. lobbyists drew a line in the sand, and the president obeyed, making the NRA great again.

Over this year, I have tried to write about policy-making in the Trump White House not as a polemic discussion, or the usual left-right split, but as exercises in effective policy making. Through his disdain for detail, for thorough examination of data, even by stepping away from what most of us would call common sense, Trump shows that he simply wants what he wants, without considering the how’s and why’s of the situation. Consistency probably does matter in this regard; policy-making should be like building with bricks. Setting a good notional foundation allows expectation about what will and should follow.

In place of all that, we have chaotic, grabby slogans meant to show a public relations attempt to deal with situations without really dealing with them.

This school guns situation is a perfect case for seeing this at work. We do have a problem with violence, and specifically with guns. But the White House response is to remove guns from the equation for political reasons, and then to promote whatever remains. So, in the last weeks, Trump has blamed video makers for violent cultural content, Hollywood, “the media,” for unclear reasons, the loss of mental health institutions, and a lack of good-guy weapons in schools for trained personnel.

But it you actually believe all that, put up the training money, and properly equip the school personnel. If you believe in action and not blue-ribbon commissions, don’t name one. And, whatever you do, do not put the committee in the hands of Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, who has proved as inept a Cabinet member as is possible to have.

DeVos told reporters the administration’s efforts represent “a pragmatic plan to dramatically increase school safety,” adding “We are committed to working quickly because there’s no time to waste. . . No student, no family, no teacher and no school should have to live the horror of Parkland or Sandy Hook or Columbine again.”

Andrew Bremberg, director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, said the administration will start working with states to provide “rigorous firearms training” to teachers and other school personnel who volunteer to be armed, but offered no new funds for training or equipment. Bremberg said the administration is backing two pieces of legislation: A bipartisan bill by Sens. John Cornyn (R-TX) and Chris Murphy (D-CT) that is designed to improve the accuracy and effectiveness of the National Instant Criminal Background Check System and the STOP School Violence Act, which would authorize state-based grants to implement violence prevention training for teachers and students.

The administration also is urging all states to pass risk protection orders, as Florida recently did, allowing law enforcement officers to remove firearms from individuals who are considered a threat to themselves or others and to prevent them from purchasing new guns, Bremberg said. For that matter, there is no new money for mental health either.

Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions submitted a proposed regulation banning “bump stocks,” devices that can make semiautomatic weapons fire like fully automatic firearms, to the Office of Management and Budget, which must approve it.

I sense a national shrug that reflects a divide. These actions by the president won’t stop school shootings but they couldn’t hurt. At the same time, supporters of gun rights are probably barely gratified that the president listened to the minimum age issue and pushed the narrative to one about mental health intervention. And once again, this is an issue Trump is pushing to the states in the same week that the feds sued California for veering from federal policy on immigration. It may all be good politics, which can pass a divided Congress, but I don’t feel safer for my student reading partner or other kids.

But what we did get was another set of policy flip-flops, and a photograph of a PR effort posing as policy.

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Journalist, musician, community volunteer

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Terry Schwadron

Terry Schwadron

Journalist, musician, community volunteer

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