A New School Year But the Same Concerns about Safety

Over the summer, a post on social media complained about President Trump not receiving credit for the sudden pause in school shootings. Of course, as one response noted, school violence tends to be absent when schools are no longer in session.

This virtual exchange exposes the dangers of both partisan sniping and uninformed public debates.

As K-12 schools and colleges begin new academic years, we are all once again concerned about the safety of students, faculty, and staff.

However, actual policies and practices that would better insure that safety face many hurdles. One problem with implementing effective strategies for safer schools is a lack of credible data.

Anya Kamenetz reports for NPR: “Our reporting highlights just how difficult it can be to track school-related shootings and how researchers, educators and policymakers are hindered by a lack of data on gun violence.”

This confusion over how often school shootings occur is made even more complicated since high-profile mass shootings at schools tend to create a false and distorted picture of schools. Despite what political, media, and public debates suggest, numerous studies reveal that students are safer in schools than in their communities.

And here is where we must face a powerful but often ignored fact about how to make our schools safer: School safety initiatives must begin by making our communities and wider society safer, including addressing access to and the sheer amount of guns in the U.S.

School safety measures have proven time and again not to be effective. More troubling, some safety measures have been shown to create less safe environments in our schools.

Metal detectors, surveillance cameras, and resource officers are all widely supported by politicians and the public, yet they do not create safer schools. And as a study released by the National Association of School Psychologists reveals,

There is no clear research evidence that the use of metal detectors, security cameras, or guards in schools is effective in preventing school violence (Addington, 2009; Borum, Cornell, Modzeleski, & Jimerson, 2010; Casella, 2006; Garcia, 2003). In fact, research has shown that their presence negatively impacts students’ perceptions of safety and even increases fear among some students (Bachman, Randolph, & Brown, 2011; Schreck & Miller, 2003). In addition, studies suggest that restrictive school security measures have the potential to harm school learning environments (Beger, 2003; Phaneuf, 2009).

After intense media coverage of shootings at schools in the 2017-2018 school year, many have been compelled to call for more people being armed, even arguing for increased armed officer presence in schools and arming teachers.

Yet, the evidence is overwhelming, as Melinda Wenner Moyer reports, “guns are associated with an increased risk for violence and homicide”—but not with greater safety.

If we can set aside partisan agendas and popular support for policies that lack credibility, we must confront that security cameras were present at Sandy Hook and Virginia Tech, that arm resource officers were present at Columbine and Parkland, and that turning schools into fortresses surrounded by barbed wire and gated with metal detectors is more likely to criminalize our students than protect them.

Ultimately, however, our choice is not between fatalism—throwing up our hands and doing nothing—and grasping at misleading and even harmful policies that give the appearance of making schools safer.

First, the U.S. is well overdue on a reckoning with our gun-lust. We have too many guns in the U.S., and we allow far too much access to those guns. Internationally, we are an obscene outlier in gun violence and access.

If school and community safety is a real concern in our country, we will find the political and public will to change our laws and our behavior. Without that will, our schools will remain ground zero for tragedies that could be avoided.

Next, of course, school policies and practices can have positive consequences for safety.

After Columbine, in fact, the Secret Service and U.S. Department of Education cautioned against safety structures (officers, metal detectors, cameras, etc.) and stressed:

Specifically, Initiative findings suggest that [school] officials may wish to consider focusing their efforts to formulate strategies for preventing these attacks in two principal areas:

  • developing the capacity to pick up on and evaluate available or knowable information that might indicate that there is a risk of a targeted school attack; and,
  • employing the results of these risk evaluations or “threat assessments” in developing strategies to prevent potential school attacks from occurring.

In other words, school safety is about paying close attention to our students, their needs and their struggles. School safety is a human issue, not something that can be barricaded or watched over closed circuit.

Ill-informed “gotcha” social media exchanges reveal the essential problems with our political and public responses to school violence: We are too often driven by our hearts and our guts while refusing to see and listen to the often hard answers for genuinely dangerous realities.


Be Informed, Not Ideological

The Onion has created a dark humor Groundhog Day response to school and mass shootings in the U.S.: ‘No Way To Prevent This,’ Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens.

Public discourse and social media discussions suffer from something as predictable after school shootings as well—a fruitless clash of ideological claims, often bereft of evidence or historical context.

As an educator and a scholar, I feel compelled to advocate for safety in our society and our schools; therefore, I routinely address the research base on gun violence and school safety through my Twitter feed, on Facebook, and in my blogging.

Here’s a pattern I witness each time.

I post something about gun violence and school shootings, and someone comments with a claim that the school shootings are the result of a decline in morals, occasionally tossing in a reference to taking God and prayer out of schools (this last part is, by the way, entirely false as forced prayer has been deemed unconstitutional in public schools, but everyone in those schools are free to pray without interference).

This popped up after the shooting in Santa Fe, Texas, so I simply responded by asking what evidence exists that the U.S. was ever a moral/ethical country and thus how do we prove a decline.

The person openly stated that they had no proof, and just believed it to be true—conceding that I had the right to believe whatever I wanted.

Herein is the problem: Most people believe and argue as ideologues, and thus, assume everyone else is arguing as an ideologue also—reducing public and social media debate to little more than a shouting match absence evidence.

The worst extremes of being ideological, for example, are racism and sexism. Racism is the idea that some races are superior to others, and racists, then, impose that idea onto the world instead of drawing conclusions about race from evidence. Sexism functions the same regarding sex/gender.

The ideologue, then, can often be discredited by evidence—except that those functioning by ideology alone refuse to move from being ideological to being informed by that evidence.

Science, often misunderstood, is a discipline designed to build better understanding through a variety of ways of thinking, reasoning:

“In inductive inference, we go from the specific to the general. We make many observations, discern a pattern, make a generalization, and infer an explanation or a theory,” Wassertheil-Smoller told Live Science. “In science, there is a constant interplay between inductive inference (based on observations) and deductive inference (based on theory), until we get closer and closer to the ‘truth,’ which we can only approach but not ascertain with complete certainty.”

We start with some idea—I think this is true about the world, or human behavior—and then we put that idea to a test. The outcome of that testing creates some foundation for anticipating how the world will work, how humans will behave.

However, those ideas grounded in evidence are then always subject to the consequences of further evidence—if the evidence reinforces the idea, it survives; if the evidence contradicts the idea, it must change.

Ideologues, resistant to evidence, become victims to logical fallacies—flawed thinking, for example:

A leading candidate would be “attribution error.” Attribution error leads us to resist attempts to explain the bad behavior of people in the enemy tribe by reference to “situational” factors—poverty, enemy occupation, humiliation, peer group pressure, whatever. We’d rather think our enemies and rivals do bad things because that’s the kind of people they are: bad….

This is attribution error working as designed. It sustains your conviction that, though your team may do bad things, it’s only the other team that’s actually bad. Your badness is “situational,” theirs is “dispositional.”…

Another cognitive bias—probably the most famous—is confirmation bias, the tendency to embrace, perhaps uncritically, evidence that supports your side of an argument and to either not notice, reject, or forget evidence that undermines it.

To refuse continually interrogating our ideas about the world against the evidence is to commit to faulty thinking, attribution error and confirmation bias, for a just a couple of the most powerful ways people become mired in false ideology and resistant to credible ideas.

Being ideological instead of informed has dire consequences. Ideological thinking created a healthcare crisis because patients believed antibiotics cure every sort of illness, and then the medical field made a market error by allowing patient demand to drive bad medical practice.

Antibiotic-resistant disease is the child of ideological over informed behavior.

The gun debate and the pursuit of safety also suffer from ideological flaws.

For example, many people argue for gun ownership, and against gun regulation, because they believe guns in the home protect their family and property.

Two aspects of this argument are important.

First, this argument conflates safety with gun ownership without investigating whether or not this is a fair association.

The personal and family safety—self-defense—argument is both rational and irrational. To desire safety is entirely rational; to cling to guns in that pursuit, once you are informed and not ideological, becomes irrational.

Thus, second, gun ownership for safety has many outcomes more common that self-defense—domestic violence, suicide, and accidental shootings (see research listed here).

At the root of many people being ideological and not informed is our basic human nature; we are causal machines as a pursuit of survival.

Humans are constantly jumping from correlation to causation because we are predisposed to making those inferences at the unconscious level, split-second decisions once necessary to survive.

Consider, again, our rush to make medical claims not based in evidence: People think being cold causes colds; however, colds are the result of the presence of viruses. (It seems worth noting we can experience cold with our senses and viruses are not recognizable to the bare senses.)

Extreme cold can lead to hypothermia, and can reduce our resistance to bacteria and viruses. But cold weather doesn’t cause colds.

To be ideological (and wrong) is easier because there is some seemingly concrete way to jumble correlation with causation; the be informed requires a willingness to step back from what we believe.

As great failures of ideology, then, we demand antibiotics and cling to guns because we have made flawed associations with both in pursuit of perfectly good outcomes—health and safety.

To be informed, and not ideological, means that we must be willing to identify what it is we are trying to understand. And then we must be willing not only to seek out evidence but also to recognize that evidence even as it goes against our initial idea—that which we have always believed.

Education’s Fatal Flaw: “[T]he considerable gap”

In my upper-level writing and research course, Scholarly Reading and Writing in Education, students have been practicing critical discourse analysis of how media cover selected issues in education in order to compare that coverage to the research base on that topic.

They have recently submitted initial drafts of the major scholarly essay and are now drafting a public commentary drawn from the same analysis. One student in last evening’s seminar approached me with a question.

She was very concerned that her topic seemed to show a distinct disconnect between education policy and the research base, wondering if that was unique to her topic, and why that failure existed.

Her question came during the workshop time after we had read and discussed a recent public commentary of mine on school safety and the threat of gun violence as a model for their commentaries. I noted that her observation was accurate, and that it was not simply her topic, but common across all of public education—as I noted in my commentary that challenges popular school safety measures not supported by research

Coincidentally, I came across the next morning a Twitter thread about the broader failure in education to embrace progressivism:

While progressivism in education (often linked directly to John Dewey) has been routinely blamed for causing educational failure, as Alfie Kohn has addressed, the reality is that education has failed progressivism:

The rarity of this approach, while discouraging to some of us, is also rather significant with respect to the larger debate about education. If progressive schooling is actually quite uncommon, then it’s hard to blame our problems (real or alleged) on this model. Indeed, the facts have the effect of turning the argument on its head: If students aren’t learning effectively, it may be because of the persistence of traditional beliefs and practices in our nation’s schools.

Kohn’s analysis is a mere decade old, and if anything, his observations have intensified as the U.S. continues to double-down on traditional and technocratic practices such as standards and high-stakes testing.

However, if we look back to 1942, Lou LaBrant exposed the exact same dynamic grounded in a public outcry over low literacy among men enlisted in the military:

Within the past ten years we have made great strides in the teaching of purposeful reading, reading for understanding (the kind of reading, incidentally, which the army and navy want). Nevertheless, we hear many persons saying that the present group of near-illiterates are results of “new methods,” “progressive schools,” or any deviation from the old mechanical procedures. They say we must return to drill and formal reciting from a text book. (p. 240)

However, LaBrant completely discredits the blame:

1. Not many men in the army now have been taught by these newer methods. Those few come for the most part from private or highly privileged schools, are among those who have completed high school or college, and have no difficulty with reading.

2. While so-called “progressive schools may have their limitations, and certainly do allow their pupils to progress at varied rates, above the second grade their pupils consistently show superior ability in reading. Indeed, the most eager critics have complained that these children read everything they can find, and consequently do not concentrate on a few facts. Abundant data now testify to the superior results of purposeful, individualized reading programs.

3. The reading skills required by the military leaders are relatively simple, and cause no problem for normal persons who have remained in school until they are fourteen or fifteen. Unfortunately the large group of non-readers are drop-outs, who have not completed elementary school, come from poorly taught and poorly equipped schools, and actually represent the most conservative and backward teaching in the United States. (pp. 240-241)

Just 5 years later, LaBrant penned what would become a refrain of her six-plus decades as an educator: “A brief consideration will indicate reasons for the considerable gap between the research currently available and the utilization of that research in school programs and methods” (p. 87).

“[T]he considerable gap” between policy/ practice and research has, then, defined public education throughout the twentieth and into the twenty-first centuries.

Again, as I confront about fortifying schools against gun violence and the research base on those so-called safety measures, practices such as grade retention and even corporal punishment [1] remain policy all across the U.S. despite decades of evidence overwhelmingly rejecting their use. Grade retention, for example, has been formally refuted by the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), yet states continue to adopt grade retention based on high-stakes tests for third graders.

As LaBrant challenged decades ago, literacy today is failing students because policy remains anchored to discredited practices and ideologies such as the “word gap,” reading programs, leveled texts, isolated phonics and grammar instruction, and test-prep.

Possibly one of the most troubling examples of this phenomenon is the relentless and bi-partisan obsession with charter schools, especially the abusive practices found in so-called “no excuses” charters. As this review details,

A report, Charter Schools and the Achievement Gap, finds that, though charter schools on average perform no better than traditional public schools, urban “no-excuses” charter schools—which often use intensive discipline to enforce order—demonstrate promising results. It recommends that these schools and their practices be widely replicated within and outside of the charter school sector. We find three major flaws with this conclusion.

This endorsement of “no excuses” charter schools, again, simply ignores the broader research base that cautions against charter schools broadly and “no excuses” practices more specifically.

So, as I answered my student’s insightful question, I noted a few important ways to understand “the considerable gap” between policy/practice and research.

First, educators—unlike doctors and lawyers, for example—have never controlled the field of education. Public education has always been hostage to partisan politics and mind-numbing bureaucracy.

Let me caution here that I am not making a narrow Libertarian swipe at “government” schooling—since we are government—but acknowledging that just as education has failed progressive and critical theory and practice, public institutions have mostly failed the promise of democratic government because of partisan politics and bureaucracy.

Next, and related, the evidence vacuum that exists in the dynamic between political leaders and the public, again, can be witnessed in the school safety debate. Politicians both speak to and perpetuate public misconceptions about fortifying school—the public’s irrational trust in armed police on campuses, surveillance cameras, and metal detectors (all of which have been shown to make schools more dangerous, not safer).

But that same evidence vacuum occurs throughout the adoption and implementation of education policy.

LaBrant’s 1947 unmasking of “the considerable gap” ends with her imploring English teachers and NCTE:

This is not the time for the teacher of any language to follow the line of least resistance, to teach without the fullest possible knowledge of the implications of his medium. Before we, either as individuals or as a Council, experiment with methods of doing specific things or block out a curriculum, let us spend some time with the best scholars in the various fields of language study to discover what they know, what they believe uncertain and in need of study. Let us go to the best sources, and study the answers thoughtfully. (p. 94)

As teachers strike across the U.S. in 2018, let’s us carry LaBrant’s message forward because the only hope that exists for our schools and the students they serve is to close the gap by allowing teachers as professionals to practice our field guided by the evidence too long ignored by the political bureaucracy that has defined public education for more than a century.

[1] The list of ideologies and practices that represent “the considerable gap” is far too long to include in the discussion above, but here are many of the key ones worth recognizing: “grit,” growth mindset, merit pay, VAM, standards, and high-stakes testing. Please refer to the Categories in the right menu for posts related to each of these.

The Rational and Irrational of Protection and Guns

Few issues expose the ineffectiveness of evidence and research on people’s beliefs and fears than the gun debate.

Social media prove to be terrible avenues for such exchanges as well, but one recurring argument about gun control is that some gun advocates who fear gun control are driven by a mostly rational urge to protect themselves, their families, and their possessions.

As a subset of the larger debate about the possibility of using gun control to curb mass and school shootings as well as all types of gun violence—all of which are far more common in the U.S. than other democracies across Europe and Scandinavia—arguments for in-home gun ownership for protection often fail the evidence test. In fact, those who cling to guns and oppose gun control because of concerns about protection tend to offer “what if” arguments and depend on anecdote.

This exposes a fundamental lack of awareness among many, if not most, people that significant bodies of research on guns, gun control, and gun violence have been conducted, and while we do not know everything definitively, we know quite a lot—and we do not have to speculate, and we do not need to depend on fear or irrational scenarios.

Evidence, in fact, suggests that even if gun ownership can contribute to protection and self-defense, the negative consequences of guns in the home far outweigh that possibility—suicides, accidental shootings, and domestic violence.

Research also shows that other strategies often prove better for protection and safety than returning or using gun fire.

But, since social media are a hot mess for this reason, no one should accept the claims above simply because I make them here in this post. Therefore, here is what I can find accessible online:

Statistics on the Dangers of Gun Use for Self-Defense (Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence)

Though guns may be successfully used in self-defense even when they are not fired, the evidence shows that their presence in the home makes a person more vulnerable, not less.  Instead of keeping owners safer from harm, objective studies confirm that firearms in the home place owners and their families at greater risk.  Research published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that living in a home where guns are kept increased an individual’s risk of death by homicide by between 40 and 170%.2  Another study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology similarly found that “persons with guns in the home were at greater risk of dying from a homicide in the home than those without guns in the home.”  This study determined that the presence of guns in the home increased an individual’s risk of death by homicide by 90%.3

Guns in the Home and Risk of a Violent Death in the Home: Findings from a National Study | American Journal of Epidemiology


Data from a US mortality follow-back survey were analyzed to determine whether having a firearm in the home increases the risk of a violent death in the home and whether risk varies by storage practice, type of gun, or number of guns in the home. Those persons with guns in the home were at greater risk than those without guns in the home of dying from a homicide in the home (adjusted odds ratio = 1.9, 95% confidence interval: 1.1, 3.4). They were also at greater risk of dying from a firearm homicide, but risk varied by age and whether the person was living with others at the time of death. The risk of dying from a suicide in the home was greater for males in homes with guns than for males without guns in the home (adjusted odds ratio = 10.4, 95% confidence interval: 5.8, 18.9). Persons with guns in the home were also more likely to have died from suicide committed with a firearm than from one committed by using a different method (adjusted odds ratio = 31.1, 95% confidence interval: 19.5, 49.6). Results show that regardless of storage practice, type of gun, or number of firearms in the home, having a gun in the home was associated with an increased risk of firearm homicide and firearm suicide in the home.

Injuries and deaths due to firearms in the home

Determine the relative frequency with which guns in the home are used to injure or kill in self-defense, compared with the number of times these weapons are involved in an unintentional injury, suicide attempt, or criminal assault or homicide.

We reviewed the police, medical examiner, emergency medical service, emergency department, and hospital records of all fatal and nonfatal shootings in three U.S. cities: Memphis, Tennessee; Seattle, Washington; and Galveston, Texas.

During the study interval (12 months in Memphis, 18 months in Seattle, and Galveston) 626 shootings occurred in or around a residence. This total included 54 unintentional shootings, 118 attempted or completed suicides, and 438 assaults/homicides. Thirteen shootings were legally justifiable or an act of self-defense, including three that involved law enforcement officers acting in the line of duty. For every time a gun in the home was used in a self-defense or legally justifiable shooting, there were four unintentional shootings, seven criminal assaults or homicides, and 11 attempted or completed suicides.

Guns kept in homes are more likely to be involved in a fatal or nonfatal accidental shooting, criminal assault, or suicide attempt than to be used to injure or kill in self-defense.

Gun owners say they buy for protection, but harm is more likely

Meanwhile, there are at least four distinct risks from having a gun in the home:

  • Legal liability, as illustrated by the Springport case. Law enforcement officials warn using a gun in self defense can put a gun owner in legal jeopardy if they injure or kill someone and a prosecutor decides the shooting doesn’t fit Michigan’s fairly narrow allowable uses of deadly force.
  • Risk of an accidental shooting. In 2016, Michigan had at least 73 accidental shootings that resulted in death or injury, including 15 events that involved children under age 12, according to Gun Violence Archive, a website that tracks self-defense shootings from a variety of sources.
  • Risk of a gun being used against a family member, friend or acquaintance during an argument. Four out of five gun homicide victims in Michigan are killed by someone they know, based on an MLive analysis of cases where the relationship between shooter and victim was reported.
  • Increased risk of suicide, since guns provide a particularly convenient and lethal means of self-harm. A majority of Michigan gun deaths are suicides, not homicides, and counties with high rates of gun suicides also have higher rates of suicides overall.

Firearm availability and unintentional firearm deaths

Between 1979 and 1997, almost 30,000 Americans died from unintentional firearm injuries, half of whom were under 25 years of age and 4,600 of whom were less than 15 years old.

To explore the association between state firearm levels and rates of unintentional firearm deaths by age group, accounting for several potential confounders.

The study used a proxy for firearm availability and pooled cross-sectional time-series data on unintentional firearm deaths for the 50 United States from 1979 to 1997. Negative binomial models were used to estimate the association between firearm availability and unintentional firearm deaths.

A statistically significant and robust association exists between gun availability and unintentional firearm deaths for the US as a whole and within each age group. Multivariate analysis found that, compared to states with the lowest gun levels, states with the highest gun levels had, on average, 9 times the rate of unintentional firearm deaths. These results hold among men and women, for Whites and African Americans.

Of the almost 30,000 people who died in unintentional firearm deaths over the 19-year study period, a disproportionately high number died in states where guns are more prevalent. The results suggest that the increased risk of unintentional violent death among all age groups is not entirely explained by a state’s level of poverty, urbanization, or regional location.

Myth vs. Fact: Debunking the Gun Lobby’s Favorite Talking Points – Center for American Progress

Myth: Owning a gun makes you safer

Fact: Owning a gun puts you at heightened risk for gun violence

The NRA often argues that the United States is a dangerous place and that owning and carrying a gun is the only way to protect both oneself and one’s family. While gun ownership is certainly one option for home defense, a growing body of data and research shows that owning a gun also increases the risk of a gun-related tragedy occurring in the home.

  • Numerous studies have found that gun ownership increases the risk of both gun-related homicides and suicides.1
  • Guns in the home are particularly dangerous for victims of domestic violence. The presence of a gun in a home with a history of domestic violence increases the risk that a woman will be killed by 500 percent.2
  • Guns intended for self-defense are commonly involved in fatal accidents. Studies have shown that across states, higher levels of gun ownership are linked to higher rates of unintentional firearm deaths.3

Guns are used far more often in criminal homicides than in justifiable acts of self-defense. In 2014, for every self-defense gun homicide in the United States, guns were used in 34 criminal homicides.4

Seeking safety is a rational urge for anyone, but associating guns and gun ownership with greater safety is irrational, guaranteeing more violence and death in fact.

GUEST POST: In Defense of Civic Engagement in Schools

Brian Charest, PhD
Assistant Professor
University of Redlands
School of Education
Department of Teaching and Learning

Last week, we saw firsthand the incredible democratic potential and power of civic engagement. Hundreds of thousands of students across the country, in places like Los Angeles and Chicago, from New York to Parkland, and many small towns and cities in between, peacefully walked out of their schools and universities to protest gun violence in the US.

We heard the impassioned voices of students speaking out and urging legislators not only to look carefully at the research that supports gun safety regulations, but also to act on this research by passing sensible public safety legislation that protects our young people. These students (who some are calling activists), with their earnest, inspired, and eloquent speeches, are not only an amazing antidote to the cynicism infecting so much of our national politics (they even convinced our president to reverse his positions on gun safety—if only temporarily), they are also an example to us all of what civic engagement can look like when we make it a priority in schools.

Yet, there are still some who have openly criticized and tried to intimidate these students. Make no mistake, the people making these threats to these students are attempting to undermine our democracy. We should all be vigilant when we see these types of smear campaigns aimed at silencing or intimidating our fellow citizens. When people are silenced, debate ends and democracy ceases to function. We have an ethical obligation, as educators, to engage in debate with our students and to ask questions with them about how to change the world for the better.

Let’s remember this: it was a group of high school students in Parkland who stood up and spoke out against some of the most powerful and well-funded special interests in our country and started a national movement. We might begin by asking why would such powerful groups need to threaten and intimidate a group of young adults exercising their rights to participate? The answer, of course, is that these students are engaging in the public sphere and making powerful arguments to change our society for the better. What’s more, because of who they are and where they come from, they’re being heard. Why these students have the power and privilege to be heard is also worth examining. The point here, of course, is that all of these questions are worth asking and asking them now is part of what it means to be civically engaged. And, the lesson here is that people can often out organize the big money and special interests. Who wouldn’t want students to learn this lesson?

If we believe that our democracy requires citizen participation, then all of us no matter what side of the debate we find ourselves, should be supporting school walkouts, rather than discouraging them. Why? Because civic engagement is necessary for our democracy to function. This is also an opportunity to for educators to redefine what civic engagement means in schools.

So, while I understand the urge to call these students activists, doing so undermines the core responsibilities that fall to all ordinary citizens. In other words, citizenship includes both rights and responsibilities. Each of us is both responsible for participating and also exercising our rights in our democracy. When we call citizen participation activism, though, we turn it into something that’s viewed as outside the norm, when, in fact, citizen participation is a requirement for a healthy democracy.

Too often, civic participation in our schools and communities is reduced to following the laws, voting, contributing to a political campaign, or volunteering. All of these forms of civic participation are important, no doubt, but citizenship doesn’t end there. Our country has a long history of civic participation and civil disobedience. This is something that we should teach our students about civic engagement. A healthy democracy requires that all of us get involved in public debates, participate in marches, speak out, protest, go on strike, or invent some new way to engage in the public sphere when necessary and appropriate.

One of the stated purposes of the current walkouts is to galvanize public support as a way to pressure lawmakers to enact effective gun safety legislation so that students will never again have to hide in fear or run for their lives from school. These students have had enough, and they are sending a clear message: listen to us, or we will vote you out of office.

What these students have discovered is that a majority of Americans support them and their stated goal of more and better gun safety legislation. But, that’s not all that these students have learned. They’ve also realized that money and special interests have undermined our democracy and that it’s up to ordinary citizens to fight back. Our elected officials are no longer supporting or enacting legislation that’s supported by a majority of Americans. What better reason than this could there be for a national call for civic participation?

Two more nationwide protests are scheduled to take place on March 24 and on April 20, the anniversary of the Columbine shooting. As educators (including teachers, university faculty, researchers, and administrators), we should be publicly supporting, participating in, and helping to organize with our students, teachers, and principals in our schools and universities, who wish to participate in the upcoming protest against gun violence.

Our schools, for better or for worse, reflect our priorities as a society and should be spaces where students and teachers discuss what those priorities should be. In other words, even if we disagree about what to do about our culture of violence in the US, we should still support the rights of all citizens to participate in peaceful protests. There are many ways to respectfully include those who choose not to march or walkout. We can begin by engaging with them in dialogue about civic participation as well as debates about the root causes of gun violence and what to do about it.

In fact, those of us who work in schools and universities need to carve out time in our classes to research and discuss the root causes that have created a culture of violence in the US. Doing so would allow students to participate in an informed discussion about how to address the root causes of gun violence in our society. Such a conversation would examine the larger issues of public safety, the culture of violence in the US that equates masculinity with guns, bullying in schools and on campuses, violence against women in our society, the increase in militarism in schools that serve our most vulnerable youth (e.g, ROTC programs, military-run schools, junior police academies, etc.), state sanctioned violence through policing, and, perhaps, most importantly, the systemic racism that blinds us to the effects of gun violence in poor communities of color.

These national protests are the first step toward a public conversation about these root causes—a step that can help lead to the enactment of a public safety plan to reduce gun violence in the US. Such a plan would emerge from what we currently know about gun safety and gun violence prevention. Such a plan would also align with the views of a majority of Americans who believe in things like background checks for all gun buyers (93%), a ban on the sale of guns to anyone convicted of a violent crime (88%), and for waiting periods for all gun purchases (72%).

I urge all educators and advocates to take this moment to not only voice your support for civic engagement (no matter which side of the debate you’re on), but also take concrete steps to engage in the public gun safety debate. There are many ways to get involved, and we shouldn’t let this moment pass in silence.

This is an important moment for our nation, and students and teachers have an opportunity to not only debate the issue of public safety, but also get involved in a process of democratic policy making. Doing so would not only encourage teachers to teach about the power of civic engagement, but also provide an opportunity for students to see firsthand the importance of civic action in a democracy.

We need look no further than our own national history to know the power and promise of civic engagement. It has always been through a combination of careful study and vigorous debate combined with direct civic action that citizens have worked to shape their world for the better. If we don’t teach our students how to be citizens now, when will they learn to do it?

Twenty-first Century Smoking Gun?

My mother died of stage 4 lung cancer in early December 2017 after fumbling through life reduced by the weight of a stroke in June of the same year.

As a teen in the 1950s, she was taunted by her own mother for not smoking—and eventually caved, becoming a heavy smoker for decades, including while my sister and I were babies, children, and teens. We lived in the ever-present smoke of my parents, filling the house and the car.

My father resisted peer pressure when he was a teen and a four-sport letterman in high school. He used to tell us about sitting around socially with his friends smoking and drinking beer while he abstained from both, drinking milk in defiance instead.

He told these stories and others while sitting in our living room smoking and drinking Crown Royal Canadian whiskey. My father also regularly told us not to smoke or drink.

But by the time my parents married, my mom 19 and my dad turning 21 on their wedding day, they were a cool 1960s working-class couple, smoking their way toward the American Dream.

As a child, I remember being at my paternal grandparents’ house and all the adults were smoking. They even handed us cigarettes to try and laughed as we gagged.

We were children.

Another enduring memory of my childhood is my sister and me in the backseat of our family baby blue station wagon, no seat belts and the car filled with the smoke from both parents smoking.

This was early and mid-twentieth century America where media was saturated with alluring smokers on billboards [1] and TV, in magazine ads smiling, and romantically in films.

Product placement was in full swing, and at least part of the tar-and-nicotine-stained American Dream appeared to be several packs of cigarettes a day.

Paul Newman, set of The Hustler (1961)

When I was in high school, my father stopped mid-cigarette on the drive home from work one day, never smoking again. His death, a couple weeks after my mother’s stroke, from heart failure, like hers, certainly can be traced to years of smoking, a habit that during their early lives seemed not only reasonable, but the cool thing to do.

But my mother persisted for many years after I moved out—even though during our childhood my sister and I often collected all her packs of Kool cigarettes, hiding them or writing imploring pleas for her to stop all over the packages.

I never smoked, or even felt compelled to smoke. I was a hopeful athlete so cigarettes seemed anathema to my faltering efforts to be the sort of athlete my father had been.

I abhorred smoking, cigarettes and the pot common among my peers during the 1970s, and throughout my teens and into adulthood, I became vigilant about non-smoking environments even though the world was by default a place for smokers for a good 40 years of my life.

Non-smoking sections in restaurants often required walking through the smoking section, the larger main area, to get to non-smoking. One chain restaurant had a lattice partition between non-smoking and smoking; the smoke drifted through the gaping holes rendering the division symbolic only.

Even in South Carolina and North Carolina (home of tobacco), this seems archaic today, even fantastical. Smoking now is prohibited in restaurants, and smokers have clearly been relegated to minority status.

The default of the second decade of the twenty-first century is non-smoking—a new normal that has come about from both free market responses and government mandate. In fact,many states still do not legislate smoke-free areas as one would think considering how common non-smoking environments have become.

I am in my sixth decade, and in my life time, cigarette smoking and Big Tobacco went from cool and powerful to shunned and unmasked. It wasn’t easy or quick, however.

Part of this cultural shift can be linked to the tobacco industry being exposed in 1994 by Congressional hearings and a major law suit a few years later.

Hindsight is 20/20, but my perspective on how the battle for non-smoking environments was won is captured well by Mike Campbell’s explanation for how he became bankrupt in Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises: “‘Two ways….Gradually and then suddenly.'”

While I am not prone to optimism, I have been contemplating the shift from a smoking to a non-smoking culture in the US as some solace for those of us resisting fatalism about America’s gun culture.

I genuinely believe the smoking culture in this country, aided by Big Tobacco and negligent political leadership, killed my parents prematurely.

Today, I also believe the gun culture in this country, aided by the NRA and negligent political leadership, needlessly sacrifices countless lives for a hollow symbolic gesture that aligns guns with freedom.

But as the 1990s proved to be a tipping point for the rights and lives of non-smokers, I wonder if Parkland, Florida will prove to be equally important in hindsight for the fight to end mass and school shootings, to end pervasive gun violence, to end gun-assisted suicide.

Some day, I hope some day soon, I hope in what remains of my life time, that we will, like Mike Campbell, declare that our country’s corrosive gun lust ended gradually and then all at once.

[1] An early poem of mine:


(You! Driver) “Come to MARLBORO COUNTRY”:
a cowboy’s face looming over passing
cars with passengers racing, just lighting
like the cowboy’s massive fist; flat, paltry,
and weather-beaten, the billboard stands tall
and proud—a god-head begging for money,
promising a land of milk and honey.
He pushes both regular and menthol.

MARLBORO COUNTRY: Do come. Cough and gag
in the blackened swirling smoke, walk on low,
lifeless plains where tobacco once would grow
and light your decorated cancer fag.
Go ahead! Read the big words and inhale
the clear, clean manhood—the photographed smell.