COMMENTARY | COLUMNISTS | GEORGE HAWKINS

What’s the best way to keep kids safe at school?

School districts all around San Diego are reviewing their security needs, in part because of the horrible events that occurred nearly three years ago at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. A deranged gun-toting 20-year-old shot his way through that elementary school and killed 20 children and six adult staff members.

A review is always justified. In fact, it ought to be at the top of the agenda every year, not at the exclusion of other education issues, but in addition to them. The lessons of Columbine High School in Colorado in 1999 and Cleveland Elementary school in San Diego in 1979, where two adults were killed and eight kids and a police officer were wounded, should have taught us that. But one has to wonder about the current approach that is being taken to address the security issue.

School administrators, at least in the San Diego area, and, according to some friends, in some parts of Texas, are using chain-link fence systems to protect kids. Check nearly any middle or elementary school in San Diego County. They look a lot like medium-security prisons.

Add a little razor wire and a controlled entrance for school buses, and elementary and middle schools could be mistaken for, well, if not Alcatraz without the water, at least a place of involuntary confinement. I wonder what that means to the inmates, I mean students.

Are locked gates the answer? Are chain-link fences just a way to make it appear something wise is being done?

Conspiracy theorists have an opportunity, here, to claim yet another incursion. Some extremists already line up behind a belief that the Common Core curriculum is another centralized federal government effort by the philosophical elite to control what is taught to kids. Add a couple of padlocks and kids won’t be able to escape.

I don’t necessarily subscribe to either a conspiracy involving Common Core or some nefarious long term objective to force feed indoctrination of our kids behind security fences. But I can’t help but wonder what message kids receive, either consciously or subconsciously, when our collective wisdom concludes that locking nuts out is the only way America can let its young citizens learn.

The immediate suggested alternative by some is “confiscate all the guns.” First, it is not likely to happen. Second, it wouldn’t work, anyway.

In many countries it is illegal to own a firearm. There, the only people who have guns are the bad guys and the police, some of whom might also be bad guys. Innocent civilians die frequently in those countries.

There is not much information available about how this fencing system concept is being explained to kids, or if it is being explained at all. Parents may know, if they pay attention. The kids may have only the images they see to explain why, when they go to school, they have to pass through gates and learn behind fences. It can’t be particularly uplifting if those kids have also seen pictures of hungry and frightened faces peering out of similar enclosures in other countries.

Worse, it may not be much in the way of protection, anyway. U.S. government installations are meant to be especially secure. They aren’t. Some who subscribe to violence to make a point manage to find ways in to these so-called safe facilities to commit mayhem.

The horror of these slaughters can’t be shrugged off. Any measure that will help school authorities protect the kids in their charge warrants consideration. I don’t have a better way.

Still, I can’t help but wonder how my world view, and especially my view of the United States, would have been different if, when I attended elementary and middle school, I went to a place where bad guys had to be locked out for me to be safe. I might not have thought much about it, but I would certainly see things in a different light.

No sensible school administrator will ever fail to take appropriate precautions to protect their charges. It may be a no win scenario to use chain-link fences for that purpose. I hope someone smarter than I am can come up with a better answer.


Hawkins is retired after 35 years as a construction industry association manager. He was a broadcast reporter and news anchor in Denver. As a Navy officer, he saw action in Vietnam in the River Assault Squadrons and is the recipient of a Silver Star and Purple Heart.

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