EDITORIAL: Let them walk March 14

SCROLL THROUGH WEB SEARCH results for “school safety” and you’ll find link after link to school boards across the country questioning how to protect students and staff from an attack by a heavily-armed intruder. At this week’s meeting the Chatham school board faced that topic too.

The statements and questions by the handful of residents who spoke to the board were calm and to the point as was the response by Chatham schools Superintendent Sal DeAngelo. Without revealing specifics, he said the district has been practicing its lockdown procedures in coordination with police agencies.

In a moment at odds with these somber comments, Chatham students who built a robot for the regional robotics contest arrived at the library, where the board meets, and demonstrated their creation. The mood lightened momentarily. But after the students had ushered their creation into the hallway, Dr. DeAngelo said that he was disturbed by having to discuss school security rather than what students are learning. He said the district has a sheriff’s deputy school resource officer two days a week but now and the district expects to hire a full-time officer. He said the money for the added three days would have to come from some other part of the school budget.

We measure the cost of tragedies like the Parkland, FL, murders in terms of lives lost and injuries suffered. Those directly affected, the people who survive, the families and friends, the community where it happened are affected by the trauma too. But the impact is wider than that. Supt. DeAngelo said some children in the Chatham District are experiencing depression and other symptoms stemming from the attack. Images from Parkland remain as close as our digital devices.

What is the financial cost of gun violence? In this state, which has one of the lowest gun violence rates per capita in the nation, the toll is $5.6 billion per year. Yes, billion. If you do the math, that means the measurable price of gun violence to Columbia County would come to $18.2 million a year or about $700 per household.

Maybe it’s not fair to lump the county with our state’s big cities. So pick a percentage of the total that you think is due to gun violence. Any reasonable estimate is still likely to be in the millions for the county. How much should we be willing to spend? Whatever it is it’s money that won’t go toward the education of our kids.

While school officials in Chatham and elsewhere are doing what they can to prepare for an attack, some students are looking farther into the future… their future. At this week’s meeting a Chatham student calmly informed the board and superintendent that students would be leaving their classrooms and gathering outside later this month as part of a national action to call attention to the need for laws that will protect them from violent people with semi-automatic firearms.

The superintendent said he and the administration would try to find a compromise with these students. But leaving the school is not allowed and he said that allowing a walkout to happen might be a decision that would return to haunt the district.

He is duty bound to enforce the rules. But judging from the online activity of March 14 walkout organizers, there are students willing to risk the consequences for the opportunity to show their resolve. They want politicians to act. The students are right to make this demand.

There is a solution that might allow school districts to permit these demonstrations without a confrontation that pits school authorities against the needs of students. It would have to come from the state Board of Regents, which should sanction any walkouts March 14 as an activity consistent with the education and wellbeing of high school students.

It’s a radical proposal. It will undoubtedly cause the Regents some discomfort now and in the future. So what? We cannot allow the murder of children in school to be treated as normal. We must take care that preparations to prevent such murders do not teach children that we are powerless to prevent such crimes. That would be a disgrace and a lie.

In this state we don’t have to settle only for necessary defensive measures. We adults, we voters, we need to assure that teens who choose to walk out March 14 are not punished for that act. We should celebrate their willingness to speak truthfully about gun violence. What better lesson could we teach them?

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