BY SAM RAPPAPORT
In the early 1950s, when it became apparent that Russian warheads had the capability of reaching every corner of America, schoolchildren across the nation began preparing for a nuclear attack. One widely – circulated government-commissioned film—which featured an animated turtle named Burt—instructed thousands of students in the proper way to seek cover in the event of an attack. In the film, produced by the since-defunct Federal Civil Defense Administration, students lunge under wooden desks for protection and tuck their heads into their chests to avoid flying debris. Weekly drills accompanied by blaring sirens became the norm in schools throughout the country as the possibility of nuclear annihilation became a concrete fixture of American life.
Today, a different threat occupies the minds of American students: the prospect of a campus shooting. The mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, on Feb. 14 that left 17 people dead brought the omnipresent danger back to the forefront of the national discourse.
Following the shooting, President Donald Trump floated the possibility of arming teachers to act as school guardians. Mayor Bill de Blasio called for a renewed focus on “active shooter” drills in New York City schools, while city Department of Education (DOE) Chancellor Carmen Fariña assured parents—in a Feb. 15 letter—of her agency’s relationship with the city Police Department and asked principals to review the safety protocols of their schools with faculty and staff. Yet, the overwhelming sentiment from educators and students is that any sense of safety will remain elusive without federal action.
Students across New York City will lead walkouts in March and April to protest the federal government’s sluggish approach to stricter gun laws.
“How many more innocent children have to die to get commonsense gun laws?” said Ramija Alam, a junior at Bayside’s Benjamin Cardozo High School who plans to lead a walkout on April 20. “After the Parkland shooting, I got inspired to do something. This issue impacts us directly. It’s not something we can ignore.”
Alam said that, in 2016, Cardozo High School was put on lockdown in response to a gun threat. The following week, she said, the school responded to a bomb threat.
“I cried after Parkland because I can easily put myself in their shoes,” Alam said. “We shouldn’t have to go to school thinking, ‘Oh my God, am I going to get shot at?’”
Anais Fallait, a senior at Long Island City’s Bard High School Early College, will lead a walkout on March 14. Similar to Alam, Fallait drew inspiration from the Parkland survivors.
“After the Parkland shooting, the students were being very vocal,” Fallait said. “Just hearing them speak was inspiring. It made us feel like we could do it too.”
Fallait said that her school has amped up the frequency of its lockdown drills in recent years.
“It’s always unsettling to go through a lockdown drill,” Fallait said. “We go inside the classrooms, hide in the furthest corner of the room, turn off the lights, stay away from the windows. We have at least two or three of those a year.”
Still, Fallait said that she has doubts about the efficacy of the lockdown drills in actually preventing school shootings.
“It’s always impossible to know how it will go down in the moment,” she said. “I’ve read so many things about Parkland and how they took so many precautions, and [the alleged gunman] still was able to get into the classrooms.”
For Alam and Fallait, the only viable means to prevent school shootings is to enact stricter gun control legislation.
“The goal is to tell the government that this can’t keep happening,” Fallait said. “The solution can’t be just thoughts and prayers. This feels very urgent.”
Dermot Smyth, a representative for the Queens branch of the United Federation of Teachers (UFT), said that focusing so much on individual school safety measures diverts attention from legislative priorities that may actually have an impact.
“There should be solid protocols, but I’m not going to get distracted from the fact that there has to be legislative action,” Smyth said.
Smyth added that there is a role for teachers to play in shaping legislation.
“The overwhelming majority of feedback I’ve gotten from educators is that they want to be a part of this debate on gun laws,” Smyth said.
Queens Borough President Melinda Katz said that there is a fine line between preparing students for the possibility of an active shooter on campus and burdening them with anxiety.
“Students need to be prepared without being fearful,” Katz said.
Although she has some reservations about the benefits of such precautions as active shooter drills, Katz views these protocols as necessary.
“Training children is a good thing, but it’s an unfortunate part of our world,” she said.
Uniformed school officers and strict adherence to proper protocol, Katz said, provide some relief for parents.
“Every time you walk your kid to school, you wait for your child to walk into that school building,” Katz said. “You want to hope your kid is safe, and the security officers—that gives you a sense of safety.”
However, security guards and robust protocol can only do so much, she noted.
“You’ve got to get the guns off the street,” Katz said. “The country as a whole needs to realize that you can’t have guns as available as they are. As a city, we take all the precautions that we can. But as a country, moving forward, we need to realize that if guns are available as readily as they are—it’s not healthy.”
According to nonprofit advocacy group Everytown for Gun Safety, there have already been 18 school shootings so far this year. Between 2013 and this year, there have been nearly 300.
The Gun Violence Archive puts the number of mass shootings in the state of New York since 2014 at 63. The organization defines a mass shooting as one that injures four or more people.
On Wednesday, U.S. Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-Jackson Heights) issued a statement that called on Republican lawmakers to free themselves from the binds of the National Rifle Association, which lobbies against stricter gun laws.
“America’s schools, places of worship and public spaces are no longer safe from gun violence,” Crowley said. “Yet, Speaker [Paul] Ryan and Republican leaders are too indebted to the NRA to do the right thing and enact commonsense, bipartisan gun safety measures. Americans overwhelmingly support strengthening background checks and closing the dangerous loopholes that allow gun sales over the internet and at gun shows without proper vetting, and they want their leaders to act.”
Last week, state Sen. Michael Gianaris (D-Astoria) penned an op-ed in the Gotham Gazette in which he called on state and federal politicians to “do something to prevent even more parents from burying their children.”
Gianaris highlighted a piece of legislation that he has introduced known as the Effective Background Check Act, which would extend the wait time for gun purchases from 72 hours to 240 hours. Gianaris said he believed that this extended time period would allow law enforcement officials to carry out more comprehensive background checks on gun buyers. On Wednesday, Republicans in the state Senate blocked Gianaris’ bill from passing.
Stricter regulations for gun buyers is exactly the type of initiative that Sophia Schupp, a 10th-grader at Bard High School Early College, hopes to encourage by participating in a school walkout next month.
Schupp said that among students, there is a growing frustration that no one is listening.
“Why does it seem like we are being more responsible than the politicians?” Schupp asked. “If we don’t say something, this is clearly going to keep happening.”
The specter of a shooting at her school began to haunt Schupp after watching news coverage of 2012’s Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. Since then, Schupp and her classmates have borne witness to 2016’s Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, Florida, which left more than 40 people dead and more than 50 others injured, as well as 2017’s mass shooting at a Las Vegas music festival, which left more than 50 people dead and more than 800 others injured.
If given the opportunity to meet with politicians who have the power to enact gun laws, there are certain points that Schupp would like to drive home.
“I’d want to ban assault weapons, I’d want the age at which you’re able to buy a gun to go up, and I’d want greater restrictions for people with domestic violence histories and people with mental health issues,” Schupp said. “I’d want to make sure they know that it’s scary going to school.”
Reach reporter Sam Rappaport at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at (718) 357-7400, ext. 123.