Millions of kids fear being killed at school. It's time for adults to say: enough
The voices of first-graders singing in the holiday show — tiny warbles echoing in the huge gym, nearly drowned out by grandpa coughs and chair-leg scratches — were unforgettable that year.
Usually, I well up when it's my kid on the stage. But that year, 2012, just a few days after 20 first-graders were gunned down inside Sandy Hook Elementary School, it was impossible not to choke back tears at just the sight of 6-year-olds filing onto the risers.
Counting them, there were 18, 19, oh my God, 20. Exactly.
It was gut-wrenching, trying not to envision those 40 small hands going up to shield a storm of gunfire.
This won't stand, we thought. It's the horrific tragedy that will change America. And it did. But not in a way we hoped.
Six years later, American schools experienced a record-breaking year for carnage, with 94 people shot, 33 of them fatally, according to The Washington Post database on school shootings. Compared to all the other gun violence, school shootings are few in number, 25 this year. But that doesn't account for the radiating, collateral damage to an entire generation of children.
There are the witnesses, kids who experience wartime-level carnage in math class. We see what that kind of violence did to generations of soldiers. Imagine an 8-year-old going through shell shock.
These kids are among at least 220,000 students exposed to gun violence at school since the 1999 massacre at Columbine High School in Colorado, according to The Post's series on school shootings. Kids heard screams, the boom of gunfire, and experienced the panic of marching with their hands up out of their schools as SWAT teams swarmed the campuses.
Then there are the kids who have been in a school during a lockdown. More than 4.1 million kids lived through at least one lockdown during the 2017-2018 school year.
Imagine a nation that used to be determined enough to shield children from violence that we created a ratings system for movies. Now, we legislatively shrug at the idea that we ask millions of kids to live through a horror movie every day.
The Educator's School Safety Network estimated that threats or actual violence happens about 10 times a day in American schools. The Post's research — which included other forms of violence, like bomb threats — found that about 16 campuses lock down every day, with nine of those ordeals related to gun violence or the threat of it. The Post's final tally found more than 6,200 lockdowns.
The millions of other children who have managed to avoid living through a lockdown have not escaped emotional trauma, thanks to the ubiquity of active-shooter drills.
Some schools try to calm the kids by telling them to practice hiding from a tiger. Even when it's just a drill, as kids scrunch up under desks or stay silent and learn to communicate with hand signals, teachers have reported their students are emotionally traumatized by the acting.
On a weekend after a drill at his school, my 11-year-old son ducked for cover in the laundry room, blanching with fear when he heard a loud noise outside. That night, he slept on the floor of our bedroom.
This mauling of a generation has been the nation's answer to Sandy Hook, until now. Calls for change came fast and furious after a gunman with an AR-15 semiautomatic rifle walked into Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. on Valentine's Day and slaughtered 17 people.
The teenage survivors of that shooting have demanded action — and delivered it. They organized a massive March for Our Lives protest and challenged gun culture during the midterm elections that ended Republican control of the U.S. House of Representatives.
Legislators in 26 states and the District of Columbia enacted 67 gun control laws in 2018, according to the Giffords Law Center. A number of those include red flag laws that allow those close to a suicidal gun owner to apply for an emergency judicial order to have the weapons temporarily removed. School shootings are often suicides that begin with a massacre.
This has been an especially deadly year in our schools. But if it leads to gun control laws, 2018 could be forever remembered as the year our nation said "enough."
Petula Dvorak is a local columnist for The Washington Post.
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