Equipped: Beyond Backpacks and Barricades

Last week, Sandy Hook Promise—a nonprofit formed by parents of students killed in 2012 at Sandy Hook Elementary School—released a public service announcement called “Know the Signs.” The video went viral, and it was chilling.

It begins like any other back-to-school commercial: upbeat music, kids showing off their new stuff. But quickly things change. While students continue to speak cheerfully about their school supplies—“these scissors really come in handy in art class”—the footage tells another story: The girl holding scissors is hiding by a classroom door as gunshots and screams are heard in the background. A boy uses his new skateboard to break the window of a classroom and escape; a girl uses a sock as a tourniquet for a bleeding friend.

The presence of mind depicted by the children in the video is startlingly dissonant with the backdrop of chaos; the creators make the point that children shouldn’t have to think about dual uses for objects that should only represent learning. At the same time, the courage they display—the ability to be clear-headed in the face of terror—is striking, and it suggests a way educators can help equip their students.

Fears related to school shootings were widespread long before this video. Demand for bulletproof backpacks reportedly surged after the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, last February; they were a hot item recently during the back-to-school season. Architects are designing schools with curved hallways to minimize sight lines and with impact-resistant glass for windows facing hallways. Active shooter drills are as commonplace as fire drills, required by law in most places and conducted in about 96 percent of schools.

The concerns aren’t groundless. There were 25 school shootings last year, and The Washington Post estimates that more than 228,000 students have been exposed to gun violence during school hours since the Columbine High School shooting in 1999. That’s a small percentage of the tens of millions of American students, but the scenes of horror that emerge after a shooting are so disturbing that they motivate adults to take measures to protect students, should the unlikely become a tragic reality. It makes sense to prepare.

Students learn to barricade the door and sit quietly with an item in hand to use in self-defense. They are taught the “run, hide, fight” tactic—a series of words to guide them through choosing the best response. But what if there is an element of preparation we are overlooking, one not related to safety of the body but to steadiness of the self?

Emergencies call not only for planning but for courage. To some, the idea of teaching virtues like courage in the face of mass shootings might sound outdated, or like simplistic response to a horrifying situation. But we know instinctively that we aspire to more than self-preservation; we want to live bravely. We desire this even and especially on our scariest days.

The human longing to be courageous is as old as recorded history, and it is time-tested sources that often serve as the best reference points for this kind of teaching. There are numerous sources from which courage can be taught. Aristotle discusses courage in Nicomachean Ethics Book 3.6, explaining that courage is the mean between too much fear (cowardice) and too little (rashness); modern resources have been developed based on Aristotle’s ideas. The chivalric code understood courage as the willingness to undertake difficult tasks and accept sacrifices that may be required. History is full of examples of men and women who, in the face of danger, acted with selflessness and mettle.

Religious schools can draw on additional resources. In both the Christian and Jewish scriptures, the command “do not fear” is often repeated, many times followed with a reminder that God helps and is near to his people. Similarly, the Quran promotes bravery in the face of opposition and is full of examples of people who did so.

For students growing up in a post-Columbine world, courage is needed not only when they consider facing an active shooter, but when they notice signs of violence or instability in a classmate. Many observations of disturbing behaviors in the Parkland school shooter went unreported. Speaking up is its own kind of courage.

It is good for teachers to be supplied with what they might need should the unthinkable happen, as it is wise for students to practice responding to such an attack. At the same time, the harrowing circumstance of active shooter preparation can serve as an opportunity to both teach and model courage, a trait that will serve students for the rest of their lives, should they face this particular threat or not.