We, as a society have failed to keep our students safe. Use of the ALICE (Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter, and Evacuate) program is indicative of that failure.
As an educator my primary responsibility is to deliver the kids safely back to their parents. I'm obsessed with safety. It's the cardinal rule in circus; not just the physical safety of the students, but their emotional safety as well. And so I have to call out a state government that ignores the will of the people and passes the responsibility for safety along to a school system which is reasonably responding to a problem much bigger than their mandate. Vermont has passed its failure to keep our kids safe at school onto the children themselves. "Sorry we couldn't keep assault rifles out of hands of law-abiding citizens kids, maybe you could throw these staplers at his head?"
These two events: the ALICE program and the failure to get universal backgrounds checks passed in Vermont are disturbingly related. In February of 2015 the Senate Judiciary Committee of the Vermont Legislature, under the leadership of Senator Sears, took up the issue of passing universal background checks for firearms. Gov. Shumlin put intense pressure on Sears letting him know through back channels that he favored no changes to existing gun laws. Sears made sure the bill never got out of committee. A recent VPR poll puts the percentage of Vermonters who favor universal background checks at 89 percent.
"We need a 50-state solution," says an insincere Shumlin. Agreed, but when he had the chance in Vermont to lead, to show the country and the world that Vermont won't wait for the next tragedy, he sat on his hands.
The ALICE program (well-meaning though I'm sure it is) is pathetic. It's an attempt to kick the can down the road from a society that doesn't possess the moral courage to stand up to the gun lobby. The 'C' in the acronym ALICE stands for Counter. So now we are teaching teachers and kids how to weaponize their school.
I teach kids, all over the world, and have done so for over thirty years. Ever since the tragedy at Columbine High School I've not felt safe in schools, especially here in the United States. The fantasy that I entertain from time to time about taking a bullet for my students should not even be in my consciousness. That's one small price of terror. While much of the country's media and politicians react to recent attacks in San Bernadino, Brussels or Paris there is a daily gun-violence carnage here in the United States that goes on un-abated. Three years ago a disturbed young man named Adam Lanza shot and killed six adults and twenty first graders in their school in Sandy Hook, CT. Since that time 554 children have died from gun violence.
Thanks to a carefully coordinated assault on public information we are not sure how many assault rifles exist in Vermont or the US. We have more information about how many people own lawn mowers than guns. 40 percent of the guns sold in our country are not registered.
Assault rifles — I refuse to call them by the term gun manufacturers use in an Orwellian twist of language as "sports rifles" — can fire up to 45 rounds per minute. Unless a hunter is swarmed by an angry herd of does next deer season they can do without an assault rifle and the large magazine capacities that have over 30 rounds of ammunition in them. I'll take our kids safety over the enjoyment of a few hunters at shooting ranges any day.
There are those who'll read this letter and say something like,"What we really need to focus on is mental health." Yes, I completely agree and universal background checks saves lives. Or they might quip, "The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun." Seems to work in the movies, but in reality, facts say just the opposite. More guns equal more gun violence, gun accidents and more gun suicides. And universal background checks saves lives. Or they may say,"Well, you know the 2nd Amendment says: 'A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.'" Now that we have the strongest militia ever assembled on the face of the earth, can we please register guns that sportsmen and women use for sport and hunting? And universal background checks saves lives.
"You can take my gun from cold dead hands," said a hearty Charlton Heston at an NRA meeting in 2000. For the last time gun nuts: No one wants to take your gun away. If you want to use a gun in a responsible manner, much like an automobile, then you must register it. If responsibility of registration is too much for you then don't buy a gun.
Lastly, gun violence is good business. Gun violence is a great way to instill fear in a population. The NRA is a savvy lobbying tool for exploiting that fear. And gun violence is good business for gun manufacturers. More gun owners equals more membership, power and leverage for the NRA. More guns equal more profits.
Someday, in the near future I'd like to be able to walk into a classroom without wondering whether me and my students will survive.
Kevin O'Keefe lives in Brattleboro. He is the artistic director of Circus Minimus.