As a teacher, I’m no stranger to the issue of student safety. At the schools I worked in, the wind of change was blowing and it brought with it an unpleasant smell. The smell of fear. At the beginning of my career, student safety focused on the very real threats faced by our kids in the UK – drugs, gangs and knife crime. And that was bad enough.
Then saw the arrival of police searches, knife arches and sniffer dogs in the classrooms. Part of our training was also being aware of all forms of abuse and how to spot the warning signs. These were always the darkest days of the term and had me running home to my own children, full of gratitude for their safe and loving home – something that all too many of my students did not have.
Then came the anti-terrorism training and the additional responsibility the school now had for spotting and reporting radicalisation. And finally, in my last term as a teacher, the one we’d all been dreading: the ‘lock down’ training.
Sometimes, as I drifted off to sleep at night, I would think about the unthinkable. I’d imagine how I’d protect the thirty kids in my care, kids I loved but who weren’t my own. It went as far as planning just how many of them I could squeeze into my store cupboard. How many could be shielded and hidden. My classroom was near the front entrance of our school. How many barriers stood between me and my kids and someone intent on murder? I’d push this scenario to the back of my mind. Surely it could never, would never, happen?
As a teacher and a parent I was aware of the processes and procedures in place in our schools to protect our children in increasingly dangerous times. Mostly, I didn’t dwell on it and sent both my boys off to school each day in the utter certainty that they would return, unscathed, at the end of the day. I took it for granted, like so many things, that everything would just be ok.
Wind forward to our new life here in Chicago. Within weeks of our arrival the news was full of the most horrific tragedy. Another school shooting. Seventeen beautiful lives lost. Suddenly, it dawned on us that we could no longer be complacent – things are very different here. I realised very quickly that son #2 was completely naive about the whole subject of gun crime and school shootings. And so he should be. But I wondered whether we could continue to live in blissful ignorance. Did we, as parents, now have a duty to educate our son about the very real risks to his safety… or should we do what we’ve always done – protect him from it?
When I dropped my son off at school today, the day of the student walk out, he was still pretty non-plussed about it all. It’s not that he doesn’t care, it’s just that he’s never had to think about it, never had to form an opinion. But this can’t last. As his new friends left their classrooms in angry droves to defend their safety, I’m sure my son was bemused that they even had to. Bemused that the adults in power weren’t doing everything to protect them. It’s unfathomable to him.
Who knows what the future holds. The winds of change are blowing here too, and the children are no longer entrusting their safety to the grown-ups. There are lots of new lessons to learn here, I just wish this wasn’t one of them.