I never thought we’d be debating whether or not it is more likely that a child die in school from heat stroke or from an active shooter, but that was part of the conversation happening in Rhode Island this week when 2 school related debates took center stage on the same day. Rhode Island was under a heat advisory last week, with temperatures in the high 90’s and a heat index over 100°. This record breaking heatwave happened to hit just as many school districts were celebrating that long awaited first day of school, welcoming students into old buildings that lack air conditioning and trap heat.
Parent Facebook pages and the radio airwaves were filled with people opining on the correct course of action when classrooms are so extremely hot, and one can easily make the argument that learning is nearly impossible and student and teacher health is potentially at risk. Others rolled their eyes at what they saw as “whining” and essentially thought people should “suck it up” and “toughen up.” A few local districts dismissed early, and most—if not all—districts cancelled all after school activities and sports practices.
Meanwhile, at the same time that people across the state bemoaned a school calendar that, in many districts, begins before Labor Day and argued about how the high temperatures should be handled, Governor Gina Raimondo and her Education Commissioner, Ken Wagner, held a press conference to announce that they were taking executive action to ban all firearms in schools and on school property, largely because the legislature did not take action on the issue during the past session. As WPRI explained it, “the ban was issued as an administrative order from Wagner to school districts throughout the state, meaning individuals would not face criminal charges if they were found in possession of a firearm in a school.” Raimondo pointed out during the press conference that concealed carry is already prohibited in state buildings and seems to think that adding schools to the list is a no brainer. Opponents say that the comparison is disingenuous because the state offices and court houses are protected by armed security and most schools are not. We can debate the merits of the ban but it does seem like apples and oranges to compare buildings with armed guards to buildings that either do not have any security personnel at all or have a shared School Resource Officer responsible for some—or all—all schools in the district.
And there is one other problem: Retired police officers who served for at least twenty years have the the right, under federal law, to carry concealed in all 50 states. But the Governor’s new gun ban says that only active—and “visibly identifiable”— law enforcement are exempt from the directive and that puts what they are calling a binding directive in direct conflict with a federal law known as the Law Enforcement Officers Officers Safety Act (LEOSA):
Meanwhile, the language of the executive order states that “all firearms, including concealed-carry firearms, are hereby banned from all public school buildings and grounds by anyone other than visibly identified active law enforcement officers.” But in a conversation with Commissioner Wagner late in the week, he explained to me that it is his responsibility to interpret the laws currently on the books and figure out how they do and do not apply to education. He added that much of the confusion around the whole issue of guns in schools is a direct result of state statutes that are in direct conflict. As each side of the issue cherry picks the laws and statutes that support their position, it is impossible to say that one is right and the other is wrong since both can easily point to current state law to support their position.
During the press conference on the gun ban held at the Rhode Island Department of Education, a few reporters went off topic a bit and asked the Governor and the Commissioner about the decision by district leaders to keep schools open despite dangerously high temperatures and very few air conditioned buildings. While both agreed that teaching and learning would be tough under such uncomfortable conditions, they were steadfast in their belief that decisions about school closures—and early dismissals—belong to superintendents and not to them as state officials.
And so began a conversation about the different ways we react to potential danger facing our students. Dan Yorke of WPRO actually raised the question of whether or not a tragedy involving a student would have to happen before state leaders took action on hot temperatures and schools. History tells us the answer is yes. Let’s remember, it’s the ghost of Donny Evans, former Providence Superintendent, that has state leaders petrified of a repeat of the snowstorm that had young children still stuck on buses and incommunicado from their parents at 11 o’clock at night. And Raimondo did err this past winter when her premature decision to close state offices created the predictable domino effect that saw every school district close for the snowstorm that never was.
We have certainly seen students in other parts of the country die during school sports practices or after being left on a school bus in the sweltering heat. I’m not aware of a Rhode Island student dying or suffering serious harm due to extreme heat but that doesn’t mean it has never happened. But we haven’t had a school shooting in Rhode Island either but we now see executive action happening on the gun front.
Reasonable people can disagree about firearms and where they should and should not be permitted. But fear should never be the sole driver of public policy. Despite the impression created by elected officials, the 24 hour news cycle, and social media, school shootings—and school violence in general—are on the decline, if we are to believe the data. Youth suicide is on the rise.
According to the educational news outlet, The 74, the school security industry is booming despite what the actual likelihood of a school shooting.
David Ropeik, a consultant on the psychology of risk perception, has written that the odds that a K-12 student will be shot and killed at a public school are roughly 1 in 614 million. According to the most recent federal education statistics, between 1992 and 2015, fewer than 3 percent of murders in which the victims were children and fewer than 1 percent of youth suicides occurred at schools. The data showed that reported incidents of violent crimes in schools has declined over the same time period.
None of this empirical data minimizes the tragedy of gun deaths in school nor does it mean that we shouldn’t be having robust—and honest—conversations about how and why these shootings happen and what we as a society and as a nation can do about them. We need the federal government to study gun violence, as it used to until partisan politics pulled the plug—and the funding— on it. We need to be honest about mental illness and what schools can—and cannot—do to protect students and staff from students who are dangerous but also legally entitled to a public education. And we need to talk about gun control in a way that recognizes differences in the states and their laws, uses proper terms and definitions of what we are talking about, and doesn’t caricature one side or the other. Throwing around inflated statistics and shaming those who see a different solution doesn’t only not move us forward but it makes respectful dialog and meaningful action far less likely.
As former Vice President Joe Biden said during the eulogy he gave for Senator John McCain, we should question the argument of our opposition, not their motives. We would get so much more done at the local, state, and national level if we took heed of that advice. We all want to protect children, right?
Were the Governor and Ed Commissioner right to issue a “binding directive” that bans firearms in schools? Were they right to stay out of the decision making with regard to extreme temperatures in the state’s schools? And can the gun ban even hold up to a legal challenge?
All are interesting questions for us to consider and debate and Good School Hunting wants to hear what you think.
To read about Erika’s thoughts on how gun-free zones mean different things to different people, click here.