Monday, August 18, 2008

Send Teachers, Guns, and Lunch Money

If there is anything that could further cripple the American public image in the world view, it is the decision of the Harrold, Texas school board that allows teachers to carry guns into the classroom.

Harrold sits in the Red River Valley, a geographic location most often threatened not by gunmen but by tornadoes. The closest large city is Wichita Falls. Two months ago, I drove through Harrold and it barely registered; it was dot on the map of America and somewhere you'd count more cows than criminals. The area attractions are billed as those of "agricultural tourism," meaning it's about as far from the big city as you can get. If you want to romanticize it, you could say that the Red River Valley, along with other vast rural tracts, is a place of strong values and straightforward ideologies--farm and family first. That's the Hollywood view, which always reduced everything to do with Western or cow culture into right versus wrong, with right generally triumphing (or at least on Saturday mornings).

But you never know, which is why school superintendent David Thweatt, using language straight out of a Gary Cooper western, paints his town as a place of "good guys with guns" whose presence will cause "bad guys" to "do less damage." Thweatt would turn a teacher into a hitman with a conscience, fully supported by his local sheriff.

The whole plot seems like something dreamed up in Hollywood; Black Bart snakes in off the highway, a madman with a six-shooter, and terrorizes Little Schoolhouse on the Prairie. Fortunately, the wise folks on the school board had enough foresight to outfit kindly Mr. White with permission to shoot right back, overruling his natural pacifist nature. Mr. White would have the benefit of advanced hostage negotiation training, naturally, and the same type of theoretical and practical coursework mandated for a federal air marshal.

Except he doesn't. Harrold's selectively armed teachers must have a gun permit, training in crisis management (a portion of which covers hostage situations) and non-ricocheting bullets. They aren't police and the lack of more sophisticated training seems indicative of a desire not to turn an educator into a lawman; their function is merely policing. In the broadest sense of the word, policing is deterring by supervision, which undermines the claims given to the media. Students are the ones more likely to be deterred--given local knowledge of the policy--than are the random outsiders of Mr. Thweatt's statement. To see it another way, there is an underlying presumption that foreknowledge and superior firearms training will stop the problem dead in its tracks.

It's a sad modern truth that shootings in American schools are becoming more commonplace. What once seemed a freakish anomaly is now nowhere near a surprise: Kids are being killed by other kids who bring guns and disaffected attitudes to school. Not nearly so reported are the numbers of kids who bring or attempt to bring guns to school and inflict psychic, not physical, wounds.

The Harrold school houses grades K-12 and 110 students. The way Mr. Thweatt sees it, in black and white, would have the school threatened by maniacs who drift in off the 287, the major route between Amarillo and Dallas. Most American school shootings have not been the work of a killer on the road but of the students themselves, present or former. Mr. Thweatt's logic is necessarily faulty; what he's not saying is what everyone fears: that little Johnny will kill his playground pals. That's not an apple in his lunchbox, it's a Colt .357.

Who knows what's gone wrong with Johnny? Drugs, alienation, despair? He's gone from bopping Betsy over the head with his ruler to popping her right between the eyes.

Ever since Charlie Whitman carted his arsenal into the tower of the University of Texas at Austin and opened fire, the causative links between personality and crime have been widely discussed and yet remain unresolved. Whitman, an autopsy showed, was suffering from a terminal glioblastoma that was never proved as culprit. Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold sparked investigations into teenage bullying and violent movies and games. In 1927, school board member Andrew Kehoe had neither brain tumor nor Mortal Kombat to motivate his bombing of the Bath Consolidated School in Michigan.

Without saying as much, Mr. Thweatt is confirming the growing fear that we need to protect ourselves from our students. From ourselves as parents and teachers and supposed nurturers of our youth.

At issue is the hard fact that these occurences are impossible to predict. The Harrold Independent School District is fighting gunfire with gunfire, which comes darn close to being Biblical in nature. They can mask it all they want by couching their fear in terms of strangers, but the truth is that your Four-H buddy is more likely to go on a rampage in the cafeteria than is an anonymous evildoer.

Anonymous evildoers are the stuff of American legend. They include Bruno Hauptmann and the Boston Strangler. They come from nowhere, commit their atrocity, and move over to make room for the next. They're what every mother tells her children to fear--candy- and bogeymen who come in the night and do despicable things to the innocent. They're the stuff of nightmares and, yes, they are out there. They troll the highways and bomb the airplanes and keep the F. B. I very, very busy.

Where they are not is in our schools. Harrold needs to call the problem by its proper name: Our children, who will not inherit the rich earth of the Red River Valley but a legacy of fear thy neighbor.

1 comment:

enc said...

The shite has hit the fan.

It sounds like Mr. Thweatt is afraid to call a spade a spade, and say that the teachers are afraid of the students.