A few weeks ago, a 5-year-old child brought a loaded handgun to school to show to his friends. It was loaded with 14 bullets. It never made it out of his backpack; no one save his teachers saw the gun. Thankfully, children talk and a little boy came up to a teacher on the playground and shared what his friend had told him about bringing a gun to school. The teachers sprang into action. The gun was removed from campus within 30 minutes.
That day is burned into my memory as a sinister blur; it is much more a memory of feelings than of actual events. I was tasked with staying with the little boy who brought the gun and keeping him calm. I had to interview him about the gun and why he brought it, and where he had found it in his parents’ house. This interview process was the hardest, lowest, worst experience of all of my 17 years of being an educator. The feeling of that day is akin to the feeling I felt the night that my father died: I was falling into a bottomless dark space, somewhere I didn’t know, and didn’t understand. He described it as “Batman” at first and then acknowledged that he knew it was also called a gun. He told us he played video games with his dad that were “shoot me games” and that his dad had many guns, even “big ones” all in the same spot in his bedroom. He took the gun when it was still dark outside and his dad didn’t know that his little boy slipped into his room, opened the unlocked cabinet, took a gun, and put it in his superhero backpack, under his lunchbox.
It has taken me a long time to begin to write about this new job. I am not sure where to write about it, or how. I am sure that I am not supposed to write this story here, but I am filled with the fear that schools are not acknowledging the scope of the gun problem. Gun incidents are still being regarded as isolated moments in time, rather than a web of overlapping misunderstandings that lead to injury and sometimes death. There is no conversation about how gun possession, gun safety, and gun violence are family and community issues that require discussion and listening, and acceptance that there is one thing that we all can agree on, which is: guns don’t belong in schools.
My new job as an assistant principal in an elementary school in a small but rapidly growing town is incredibly hard for so many reasons. I expected it to be stressful; there was no way this transition wasn’t going to be hard because I am learning a whole new aspect of the school system, but I am surprised at how limited the tools the schools have to respond to behavioral and mental health challenges are. To me, it seems that either you behave and you are normal, or you go to the counselor for 20 minutes and then go to class, or you go to ISS, or you are suspended. We can’t suspend children younger than 3rd grade. That is it.
Feels limited and limiting, doesn’t it? In this current mental health crisis that we are in, we have 2 counselors for 750 students. We have 1 district social worker for 7 campuses. We have almost 1000 new students that our district has gained since the beginning of the year when demographers thought we would have 250. So many of those new students are exhibiting signs of stress, anxiety, depression, violent tendencies, failure to adapt, learning disabilites, and lack of motivation.
In this ocean of limited resources and so many high needs, it feels overwhelming. Sometimes I get incredibly sad. Sometimes I feel that I can’t do the work and I need to quit like my principal did two weeks ago. I think I will make it, but I do wonder how effective I will feel in another few weeks. It seems like I am getting very little sleep because I wake up worrying almost every night. I feel that my school district-level directors and assistant superintendents don’t know what to do, and even though I can accept that, I feel angry about it.
Who does know what to do? Where are those people? Are they out there?