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Protecting Other People's Children

Few professional endeavors are more fraught with anxiety and danger than the work that makes us responsible for other people's children. Sandy Hook Elementary School is the latest scene of every educator's nightmare.
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When I was new in my job as Trinity's president in 1989, an irate father called me one evening to complain about wild parties that were allegedly going on in his daughter's residence hall.

"Don't you know what's going on over there?" he demanded indignantly. Well, I didn't know about any wild parties, but in an effort to soothe his feelings I naively said, "Gosh, I'm so glad you called and I can hear your concern. I'm not a parent, never had children, and cannot quite imagine what you must be going through."

There was dead silence on the other end of the phone. Then he came back at me with a roar. "No children? Not a parent?" he bellowed, "What the heck do you think you just got yourself into? You now have hundreds of children and you are responsible for each and every one of them!"

I never made that mistake again.

Few professional endeavors are more fraught with anxiety and danger than the work that makes us responsible for other people's children. And few professionals work more closely with children of all ages on a sustained basis than educators -- teachers, principals, guidance counselors, college faculty, university presidents, campus life and security personnel, school health care providers and all related educational professionals. We enter our classrooms and campuses each day with a deep sense of responsibility for the safety and welfare of the students in our care.

Sandy Hook Elementary School is the latest scene of every educator's nightmare. When people ask me what keeps me awake at night, it's not the budget or enrollment or constituent complaints, but rather, the constant concern for the safety and security of students and all people on my campus.

From Columbine to Virginia Tech and too many other schools and campuses, educators have paid the ultimate price for this profound responsibility. News accounts reveal that the principal of Sandy Hook Elementary School, Dawn Hochsprung, instinctively did what school leaders the world over would do when hearing gunshots on the corridor -- she rushed to the scene along with other administrators and teachers, all shot down while trying to stop the gunman. Evidence coming out from the crime scene reveals that teachers died trying to shield their students.

Principal Hochsprung, who was also earning her doctorate in educational leadership at The Sage Colleges in New York, had an excellent reputation as a devoted and creative school leader. Her Twitter feed recounts the delights of life in the K-4 Sandy Hook school, from the Book Fairy reading to first graders to the International Festival to articles about educational issues. Her last tweet, ironically, is for an article on "Nine Ways Successful People Defeat Stress."

After the Columbine High School massacre in Littleton, Colorado in 1999, schools beefed-up security, instituted lockdown drills, and trained teachers on how to protect their pupils from the unthinkable. The nation saw Columbine as a turning point in school security, but also as an anomaly, something that resulted from the tragic combination of mental illness and a lack of awareness of the danger. We educators vowed to do a better job of protecting the children in our care.

Then came more shootings -- in schools, in shopping malls, in churches, in workplaces, at Fort Hood, at Delaware State, at Virginia Tech, at a Sikh Temple, at a political rally in Arizona, at a theater in Aurora, now in an elementary school in Connecticut, each massacre more appalling than the last.

Frank DeAngelis, who remains the principal of Columbine High School more than a decade after the tragedy there, said in an interview on CBS News after the Sandy Hook tragedy this week, ""Don't allow these people to go through it and die in vain. Violence has to stop in our schools. We have to come together."

President Barack Obama made it clear that the nation must come together to "take meaningful action" about the violence in our midst. Other political leaders echoed that sentiment. But very few actually joined New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg in making a loud and urgent demand to address the words that most politicians dare not speak -- gun control.

Why is there so much spinelessness on this obvious issue?

The nation wept along with President Obama and the Newtown community on Friday, but as the days pass in the weeks and months to come, will we sustain the raw outrage we feel right now sufficiently to do something more than merely emote?

It's high time for this nation's leaders -- political, educational, religious, civic, corporate leaders working together -- to blow past the senseless opposition to gun control to insist on laws and policies that will make this nation a safer, more secure place to live and work domestically.

In the name of safety and security, we willingly and knowingly remove our shoes in airports, submit to intrusive body screening, wear seat belts and sneak out to the street to indulge the pathetic habit of smoking. If New York City can ban the Big Gulp, which is only slow death, why can't this nation ban assault rifles that are so much quicker and more efficient killers? The NRA's claim to defense of rights based on a dubious reading of history oppresses the rights of all other citizens to enjoy freedom and security safe from the fear of random violence. Indeed, the very right to life, itself, is abridged by the prevalence of guns. Where is the pro-life lobby on this issue?

All of us who are responsible for other people's children need to take a stand and be heard on this issue. My institution, Trinity, spends three times more money on campus security than we spend on the library. Colleges and schools everywhere are, increasingly, fortresses against the evil results of a nation whose priorities are tragically wrong. We spend more and more money on security systems even as our liabilities and legal expenses keep growing, an oft-unspoken part of the tuition spiral. Yet, even as I lay awake wondering about how much more we can do to protect our students, our nation's lawmakers can't find the backbone to impose reasonable controls on assault rifles, handguns and other weapons that are not part of the typical hunter's kit (as if protecting the rights of hunters, which seems to be a popular gun-rights claim, is more important than protecting the lives of children.)

Yes, of course, it's not just guns. Yes, knives kill people, too. Yes, our visual entertainment is full of horrifically violent images. I'm not much of a TV watcher, but last week while waiting for the 10 p.m. news, I saw the end of one show that featured a man being cut in half with a chainsaw (yes, in prime time, on a regular network) and then another show that involved a busload of teenagers taken captive and murdered by sadistic brothers playing fantasy games. So, yes, the discussion is more than just about gun control.

But we must start with gun control because gun violence is both a cause and symptom of our increasingly frequent domestic bloodbaths. If we cannot agree to sensible management of weapons, how can we resolve any of the other issues? We cannot allow some people's definition of liberty to rob others of the very life that is essential for freedom to flourish.

I call on my fellow college and university presidents, as well as school principals nationwide, to honor the courage and selfless sacrifice of Dawn Hochsprung and her colleagues with more urgent and relentless advocacy to stanch the potential for violence on our campuses, including the real need for stronger laws regulating guns.

Our responsibility for other people's children must extend beyond prayers and messages of support for the victims today to more effective action for the long-term future of our nation, demanding far more of our public officials than public tears, insisting that this nation enact laws to protect our students and campus communities from the harm of violent minds with easily accessible weapons in hand.

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