Opinion

Mom Talk: Pondering Tough Questions About What Gun-Free Zones Mean for Student Safety

By Erika Sanzi | April 20, 2018

Erika Sanzi and her three sons. (Photo courtesy Erika Sanzi)

A grieving, and now well-known Parkland father, has put a new spin on the school choice debate and it’s not about arts programs, longer school days, or dual language. It’s about guns and whether a parent prefers that their child spend their days in a gun-free zone or in a school where the safety plan includes protection by people who are armed.

“You have the choice to go to any school you want, so my answer to them is, ‘If you don’t want [an armed] teacher or a marshal or you don’t want someone with a gun at your school, you go to a gun-free school zone. That’s where you go,’” Andrew Pollack said on CNN.

Leaving to parents whether to send their children to schools with armed teachers or a police presence “fixes everything,” Pollack added. “This is America, and it’s freedom of choice, right?”

Pollack’s daughter Meadow died in the February massacre at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

While Pollack is not technically correct that people are free to go to any school they want, his point about parent preference is well taken. On the one hand, Parkland is a glaring and painful example of how the mere presence of a trained law enforcement officer on campus comes with no guarantees. The student resource officer at Stoneman Douglas didn’t even enter the building while Nikolas Cruz emptied out an AR-15 into the bodies of his former schoolmates and teachers.

But that’s a hard argument to make in the wake of the subsequent Great Mills High School shooting where a lone school resource officer — who is also a former SWAT team member — rushed to the scene of the gunfire. Initial reports were that he had fatally shot the perpetrator, but subsequent reports have come out that indicate that the gunman actually shot and killed himself at the same time the SRO fired at him. So while his quick action potentially saved collateral lives, the target of the gunman’s violence, Jaelynn Wiley, was shot. While she survived that day, she has since been taken off life support and died. The shooter, her former boyfriend, killed her. At school.

It goes without saying that it is terrifying and almost surreal that we, as parents, even need to consider the question of whether or not we want our schools to be “gun-free zones.” While Facebook and other social media sites are ablaze with heated debates, even between friends and neighbors, consensus seems out of reach. Even a respectful exchange of ideas on the topic can be hard to find.

Although I hadn’t thought about it in a long time, Parkland and the subsequent debates about school safety have brought my mind back to a sign on the door of my youngest son’s preschool that said — and likely still says — “Gun Free Zone.” He is in third grade now but I remember the sign giving me pause four years ago as I reflected on its meaning and potential implications.

My initial reaction was to feel comforted by the thought that none of the people walking in and out of the building would have weapons strapped to their ankles or hidden under their jackets. But I did occasionally feel a pang of dread when I imagined a gunman entering a building full of defenseless children without a single person there equipped to stop him. Those feelings of uncertainty and dread were fleeting but Andrew Pollack’s comments — and now his life’s work — have sent my mind to a place where I can again see that sign on the door of my youngest son’s preschool.

There is no doubt that most people — certainly in my neck of the woods here in the northeast — will scoff at even raising the issue of guns as a potential new piece of the school choice conversation. But most of them will hopefully resist the urge to mock Andrew Pollack’s opinions, not necessarily because they believe his ideas are good or reasonable but because he is a grieving father who just lost his daughter to a school shooting.

If anyone’s opinions deserve to be heard — no matter how out of step with the current national narrative they may be — Andrew Pollack’s do. He voted for President Donald Trump. He doesn’t believe changing gun laws is the answer. He wants heightened security, including armed marshalls, or even teachers, to be present in the schools that his remaining children attend.

We would all be wise to assume best intentions and not mock or ridicule anyone who wants to have this conversation. Even the two-year experience I had as a parent who walked by a “Gun Free Zone” sign every morning and every afternoon helped me better appreciate that it means different things to different people, and especially to different parents. While some see it as as a symbol of safety and security, others see it as a symbol of total vulnerability and defenselessness. And all of these parents, regardless of which side they come down on, love their children just the same.

Erika Sanzi writes for Education Post and at Goodschoolhunting.org. She has taught in Massachusetts, California, and Rhode Island and is currently a senior visiting fellow at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.

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