On December 14, a 20-year-old man named Adam Lanza broke into Sandy Hook Elementary School with an assault rifle and killed 20 first-graders and six adults.
No one wants to hear what I’m going to say, especially not from a former school administrator and member of a school committee, but I’ll say it anyway. Schools cannot guarantee that children are safe from such an unspeakably awful act at school. There is much that Vineyard schools can and should do to make children safer in school, but the disaster that struck in Newtown, Connecticut, was rare enough to be statistically almost unique, and the circumstances were so bizarre as to be unpreventable by the school.
Consider that Sandy Hook Elementary had excellent rules and procedures to keep children safe from outsiders, stricter than the schools on Martha’s Vineyard, stricter than in any school I ever worked at. The doors were locked. Visitors needed to be identified by a surveillance camera before being admitted. Adam Lanza was not admitted to Sandy Hook on that Friday morning, apparently because he was not recognized. He broke in.
Until we make schools like prisons, with bars on every door and window, it will always be a simple matter for a man with a high-powered weapon to shoot his way into a locked school. Even if we had the money to create fortress-schools and were willing to sacrifice the welcoming feeling of our buildings, would they be safer? After years and years without a threat, wouldn’t doors be sometimes carelessly left unlocked, or even propped open for extra ventilation? Unbarred windows may be ways for intruders to get in, but they are also escape routes from an attacker who is inside, as they were for Columbine students escaping Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold — or from fire, a much more likely threat.
The heroic principal who challenged Adam Lanza probably did save many lives. She activated the public address system in the school, and her dying screams alerted teachers who put the school in a lockdown. There had been drills. Students knew to hide in closets or other designated areas and be silent. Someone called 911 and the police were at the school in five minutes. The teacher-training, the lockdown drills, and the 911 call saved lives. But they could not save the 20 beautiful children who lost their lives in the first minutes of the attack.
The rest of the community
What about the greater community — the town, the state, or the federal government? Would more stringent gun laws have helped? Perhaps, but probably not. Connecticut has strong gun laws. Adam Lanza did not own the Bushmaster AR-15 assault rifle. Because of his age he could not have bought it legally. He stole it from his survivalist mother, whom he also killed. I would argue that no one, especially not Nancy Lanza, needed such a weapon — not for hunting, not for target shooting. It is famously inaccurate except at very close range. It has only one purpose, to kill human beings. It kills by sending a wall of deadly fire in the general direction of the target, and of so many bullets, some usually hit.
I am one who believes that such weapons and ammunition for them should not be sold in the U.S. However, if they were banned, survivalists like Nancy Lanza would probably have found ways to own such weapons illegally. There are even groups who believe that automatic weapons should be stockpiled in case a rebellion against the U.S. government is needed (a paranoid fantasy). If the U.S. were to ban the hateful things today, it would be decades before they would be eradicated. And anyway, if Adam Lanza had been denied the Bushmaster, he might have done nearly as much damage with the other stolen weapon he had with him — another rifle and two handguns.
How about easier gun laws? There are those who argue that allowing teachers to carry concealed firearms would have enabled one of them, perhaps the principal who first confronted Adam Lanza, to shoot and kill him before he could hurt anyone. Or, they say, knowing that teachers might be armed would deter potential school attackers. You’ll hear that from the NRA. While the argument has a certain twisted logic, it is unlikely that a random civilian would have the skill, training, or experience to take out an attacker without shooting and perhaps killing bystanders. Guns in school would raise the possibility of a whole set of consequences much more likely to harm students than an intruder. People who own guns are several times more likely to be killed by their own guns (like Nancy Lanza) than to hurt an intruder. Ask your local police whether arming teachers is a good idea.
Would an armed police officer at the school have deterred Adam Lanza? Perhaps. That’s the one security feature that Sandy Hook Elementary did not have. It’s impossible to say for sure, but it might have helped. From what we know of shooters like Harris and Klebold, it’s likely that shooting the police officer first would have been part of their plan. However for other demented attackers, just the presence of the officer might turn them away, or perhaps a well-trained officer could recognize and disarm or kill an attacker. But if the only reason to have a police officer at school is to prevent killings, I would reluctantly conclude that the risk is too small, and the outcome too uncertain, to justify the expense (at least $100,000 a year). However, there are other, very good reasons for a school to have a school resource officer (SRO) in the building during school hours. SROs are role models and sources of information and counseling not available elsewhere in schools. Especially at the middle and high school level, a SRO can establish lines of communication that will prove valuable in crime prevention, drug interdiction, and public safety outside of school. Therefor, even if the expense is not justified solely by the threat of a shooter on campus, SROs are worth considering by both school administrations and police departments. The extra margin of safety would be a bonus.
The evil that visited Newtown that day was like a tornado or a gas explosion or a meteor striking Sandy Hook Elementary School. Sudden, unexpected disaster can be guarded against, but not always prevented. Communities do what they can to protect children, and children can be consoled in knowing that adults are doing their best to keep them safe. Such disasters are very, very rare.
Dan Cabot is chairman of the Up-Island Regional School District committee and a frequent contributor to The Times.