In forum on school safety, consensus that school shootings won’t go away without action — but what action is unclear

Panelist David Muhammad said it would take prolonged effort by young people to see change school safety issues. File photo.

By Roxie Hammill

Students, parents and teachers cast a wide net Thursday night trying to find the reasons for gun violence in schools. The usual suspects were all there – mental health, easy access to guns, funding, toxic public discourse.

There were no clear answers. But in the end the crowd of about 75 at a forum presented by KCUR and the Shawnee Mission School District agreed that if the problem isn’t going away, then neither are they.

“Your civil rights moment right now is like other civil rights moments,” said Shawnee Mission East international relations teacher David Muhammad. “They go on for a long time. And as soon as you start thinking of the end game, that’s the time when more issues come up.

“If you sit down now because you didn’t get instant gratification like you do when you make a post, then that’s exactly what those lawmakers want you to do. If you look at it as 10, 20, 30 years, your children, your grandchildren, that’s when you’re going to see some change.”

The forum, taking place on the eve of the national March for our Lives in Washington D.C., and two days after another school shooting in Maryland, was taped and an edited version will be available on an upcoming No Wrong Answers podcast.

The forum featured a panel that included Muhammad, Shawnee Mission Northwest junior Julianna Kantner, Dr. Erin Hambrick, an associate professor of psychology at UMKC and John Douglass, executive director of emergency services for Shawnee Mission Schools. There were audience questions and comments as well. KCUR newscaster Kyle Palmer was host.

Topics ranged from the psychological impact of drills and new security procedures. Some said they were saddened that the discussion is even necessary.

“It’s grim,” said Douglass, noting that he spent a summer reading reports about the Sandy Hook school shooting in Connecticut in preparation for security changes at Shawnee Mission schools.

“It seemed like I could only do a little bit each day. It was pretty sad,” he said.

The Sandy Hook shooting was in December 2012. The shooter killed 20 students, mostly six and seven years old, as well as six staff members.

Since then, the district approved a bond issue of $20 million for cameras, doors and locks and in some cases new entrances to schools. Even so, people have to stay vigilant because shooters have adapted to security measures, as was evident recently in Parkland, Fla., when a shooting happened after a fire alarm was pulled, Douglass said.

Many in the audience stressed the need for effective counseling of troubled students before some event pushes them over the edge. And some said it would be nice if teachers had more time to have relaxed conversations with students. But that’s difficult given the teacher workload and time spent on standardized tests, said Muhammad.

One teacher in the audience characterized school violence as hopelessness turned inward. Students are under intense pressure to achieve with scholarships and advanced placement because of the threat of crushing college debt, she said. And social media contacts don’t always give them the support they need to cope.

Students at the event had differing opinions on what should be done. Emma Richardson, 16, a junior at Shawnee Mission South, was unimpressed by the response of lawmakers, including Florida Senator Marco Rubio, to demands for action.

When asked if she felt more energized to take issues to adults, she replied, “Yes and no. Yes, we want our voice to be heard but no, because in a sense we feel that we can’t trust adults. We can’t trust adults to carry our voices. Because yes, we are the next generation. But you’re not letting the next generation be heard. You’re shutting us out.”

Josh Marvine, a junior at Shawnee Mission Northwest from Shawnee, said most discussion avoids the real issue. “Since the Parkland shooting, I have seen people propose solutions. Everything from finding kids who seem like they’re the mentally unstable school shooter type and cracking down harder on them to limiting our consumption of violent movies or video games to turning schools into places with clear backpacks and metal detectors and armed security guards-slash-teachers in every corner,” he said.

Other countries have mental health problems, bullying and violent media, he said, but not the proliferation of guns seen in the United States.

“When are we going to focus on guns in addition to everything else like mental health or social media?”

However Kantner disagreed, saying stricter gun control wouldn’t make her feel better. Gun restrictions already on the books are not enforced, she noted.

Several took the microphone to denounce the idea of arming teachers, saying teachers don’t have the constant training of law enforcement, and the guns would make for an oppressive vibe.

“If we say, ‘Don’t shoot your peers,’ but we’re walking around with lots of guns I wonder from an observational learning perspective what message that sends,” said Hambrick.