Doing Nothing Cannot Be the Right Answer

I just returned from the National School Board Association’s (NSBA) annual conference. NSBA’s Delegate Assembly met on the first day prior to the start of the conference, to set our legislative priorities for the year ahead. One of the issues discussed, was school safety. As you can imagine, the discussion was contentious and in the end, the resolution that passed was much too watered down and in my opinion, likely won’t have the desired impact.

In contrast, the Arizona School Boards Association (ASBA) released a thoughtful school safety resolution last month asking governing boards around the state to review and consider adopting it. Some boards have already done so, while others have rejected it or have yet to consider it.

ASBA has received numerous comments about the resolution from those who either think it doesn’t go far enough or think it goes too far. I can see both sides. I qualified as an expert marksman during my 22 years in the Air Force and even now own a revolver, which I occasionally fire at a local range. I understand both the incredulity of those who question anyone’s need to own a military-style “assault” weapon, and the defiance of those who believe that if they “give an inch” on gun issues, the other side will “take a mile.”

I don’t know the right answer, or how to best protect our students and school employees from gun-related violence. Properly enforcing laws and policies currently on the books is no doubt a good place to start. Knowing and understanding district policies and procedures, and revising them if necessary, would be another. But I fervently believe that to do nothing cannot be the correct answer.

Neither can it be correct for adults to remain so ideologically polarized they can’t have thoughtful discussions about the safety of our schoolchildren or, equally as unacceptable, for adults to purposefully avoid the discussions to save themselves stress and discomfort.

Yes, the discussion will be difficult, because it necessarily will include gun violence. Of course, we are all sadly well aware that gun violence is not the only threat our students face, but it is the one form of violence that is getting worse instead of better. Rates of both student-reported bullying and total victimization (theft, assault, robbery and sexual assault) have dropped over the last couple of decades. Mass shootings, however, are increasing in frequency and getting deadlier, and schools are the second-highest risk location. Parents know this and that’s why they list improved school safety as one of their top concerns and polling shows concern spikes after school shootings.

In light of this dark data, our districts have, over the past two decades, taken steps to try to ensure schools are safer places, with more security cameras, better controlled access, and written and well-coordinated and drilled active shooter plans. The bad news is that our districts are being forced to undertake these efforts and make improvements on funding that is already inadequate. We know for example, that school counselors – another important part of the solution – are woefully lacking in our schools. Instead of the 1:250 counselor/student ratio recommended or the 1:450 nationwide average, Arizona has a 1:952 ratio, a level that has worsen over the past decade of funding cuts. The damage caused by our anemic district funding isn’t limited to just a critical teacher shortage and dilapidated school facilities, it also makes our schools and the students and staff within, less safe.

ASBA’s School Safety Resolution recognizes (and states within) what everyone must recognize, that although student safety is a primary function of governing boards, it is a shared responsibility that cannot be borne by public schools alone. Rather, it requires support from the community, local and state public safety agencies, and policymakers at the local, state and federal levels. That’s why the resolution “calls upon leaders at all levels to prioritize the protection of students and school system employees from gun violence on campus.” Community members (voters) share in this responsibility to hold these leaders responsible. If your governing board hasn’t yet had the discussion about ASBA’s school safety resolution, you might want to ask why.

We have a diverse state with many different perspectives. That diversity makes us stronger when it is additive versus subtractive, in other words, when we can listen to and learn from, versus just talk “at,” each other. In the military, when we had a tough problem to solve or hard job to do, we would often just look at each other and say, “Well, if it was easy to do, they could get anybody to do it.”

That’s the thing, you see. Our students and professionals that teach and care for them, need us. They need their leaders at all levels, to find a way to make a real difference, before the violence finds its way to each of OUR schools. If there ever was an issue where “Lead, follow, or get the hell out of the way” applies, this must surely be it, and this call to lead applies to anyone who truly cares.

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Is the NRA America’s Taliban?

Six Taliban militants killed 145 people and injured another 100 on December 16th in a school in Peshawar, Pakistan.  The dead included 132 children, 10 staff school members and three soldiers.  CNN.com reported:

“Seventh-grader Mohammad Bilal said he was sitting outside his classroom taking a math test when the gunfire erupted. He fell into bushes before running to the school’s gates to safety.  Ahmed, the 14-year-old student, remembered being in the school’s auditorium when four or five people burst in through a back door “and started rapidly firing.” After getting shot in his left shoulder, the ninth-grader lay under a bench.

Bajwa told reporters that Pakistani security forces reached the school 15 minutes after the attack began.

They found, he said, “the children … drenched in blood, with their bodies on top of each other.”

As horrific as this story is, it really shouldn’t surprise Americans.  After all, we had 26 children gunned down at Sandy Hook and yet our leaders were unable to enact any sort of meaningful legislation to ensure more gun safety.  Since the tragedy in Newtown, there have been 74 more school shootings resulting in 38 deaths and 53 injuries.  In general, 282 people are shot each day in the U.S. – that’s almost 12 an hour.

The fact that not even the Sandy Hook tragedy lessened the seemingly stranglehold the National Rifle Association (NRA) has on our leaders at all levels, has led me to begin to think of the NRA as the American Taliban.  I’m quite sure that just as we look at the Taliban in Pakistan with total dismay for the killing of 145 innocents, other countries around the world look at us and think how crazy we are to continue to accept death after preventable death. After all, per the Brady Campaign, “our firearm homicide rate is 20 times higher than the combined rates of 22 countries that are our peers in wealth and population.”

I’m okay with gun ownership, but believe your right to own, carry and use does not trump my right to feel safe.  Truth is, I don’t feel safe in a public place with civilians openly carrying guns.  I know how to use guns, and I qualified as “Expert” during my 22 years in the Air Force.  There is a time and place for guns however and I don’t think that includes the grocery store, library, school, etc.  It also doesn’t include automatic weapons with extended clips.  And it surely doesn’t include allowing nine year olds to fire weapons they are not equipped to handle.

We know what we need to do to improve gun safety.  Many Americans want it done.  Those who don’t, have been convinced by the NRA that ANY safeguards put in place are just a toe in the door to ban guns all together.  That’s just B.S.  Gun ownership is a constitutional right.  But, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are also important principals to Americans.  Unfortunately, until we realize the NRA is out to protect their own interests (money and power) versus those of American citizens, they will continue to be major players.

I often see NRA stickers on people’s cars indicating they are proud of their membership in this organization.  Along with the NRA stickers, will often be military stickers, or US flags or something about patriotism.  I’ve got news for those folks.  Being a member of the NRA does not make them patriots.  It is more akin to their worshipping a false idol.  I view the NRA organization as domestic terrorists.  Just like the Taliban, they build their power base through fear and intimidation.  Just like the Taliban, they claim they have a higher purpose, but the truth is, they want power and money.  Just like the Taliban, there is probably no negotiating with them because they don’t ever operate in good faith.  And just like the Taliban, they don’t care how many innocent people are killed to maintain their power base and achieve their goals.

I urge patriotic Americans to drop their membership in the NRA.  Take a stand today that the status quo they’ve been perpetuating is unacceptable and we want common sense gun safety enacted.  Do it for yourself, for your family and for your country!

What’s in a label?

I was at the Arizona Capitol yesterday meeting with both Democrat and Republican legislators. My focus of course, was to advocate for support of traditional public education. What I came away with at the end of the day though, was a feeling that much of the dysfunction we currently see in our political process is a result of the labels we put on ourselves and others and the perceptions that drives. To illustrate my point, please bear with me as I ask you to read the following words and pay attention to what thoughts pop into your head. Here we go: BLACK, WHITE, GAY, STRAIGHT, REPUBLICAN, DEMOCRAT, LIBERTARIAN, TEA PARTY. I’m guessing that your brain defaulted to a fairly vivid stereotype based upon your frame of reference. That’s probably normal and something open-minded people work to avoid.

The harm in these labels is they inhibit the ability of those so labeled to work outside the stereotype to bridge the gaps in understanding between people. Yes, I am a Democrat. I believe in gay rights, a woman’s right to choose, and traditional public education. I also however, believe in fiscal responsibility (as I suspect most of my fellow Democrats do), I am pro-life (no, my default is not abortion), and I am okay with responsible gun ownership (although I don’t think anyone needs a semi-automatic, I think it is absolutely ridiculous to allow folks to take guns into bars, and I am uncomfortable with open carry by ordinary citizens.) I would guess that those positions are surprising to some people who conjured up the vision of a flaming liberal when I said I was a Democrat.

Our political process has become so hijacked by political parties and labels that our legislators can’t get the work done. I don’t know about you, but when I elect candidates to represent me at the local, state or national level, I don’t just want them to represent me, or far, far worse, to just vote the party line. I want them to study the issues, listen to constituents, reason with colleagues and then make the best decision they can for the health of the entity they represent. After all, if the United States is healthy and Arizona is healthy, I’m probably fairly happy too.

That’s not what is happening now and it needs to stop. Former Senator Russel Pearce (who was recalled by the people of Arizona for being a not so great legislator among other things), is now raising funds to oust AZ GOP legislators who voted for Medicaid expansion last year. I have to believe those legislators were voting their conscience, doing what they thought was best for the state, because they sure had to know that by voting against the far-right they were putting their chances for reelection at risk. I of course, thought this vote was the most positive thing I’d seen come out of the AZ legislature in the 5-1/2 years I’ve lived in this state.

I’m sick and tired of politics as usual and will do everything in my power to support candidates who think for themselves and support traditional public education. I pledge to go beyond the label and learn about my representatives and their viewpoints and yes, voting records. After all, labels make it easy for us to be lazy. When it comes to election day, how many people just vote the straight party ticket or, just for women, etc.? I must admit, I’ve done that sort of thing in the past when I was in the military, moved every couple of years and didn’t know the local candidates. Now though, I understand how important it is to our democracy for each of us to be informed and fully participate. Plain and simple, it is OUR government and if it is dysfunctional, it is OUR fault.  You want our government to work better? Get informed, get involved, hold your legislators accountable. Please go to the Arizona School Board Association (@AzSBA) website to learn how or comment on this blog and I’ll connect you to resources.  We need #ACTIONnotANGER!