Sandy Hook

I was working on a blog entry, a tortured affair that was probably too much of something or other for its own good, when the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School took place. After the killing of so many children and their teachers, I just don’t have it in me to comment on anything but our collective dis ease. The primal feelings evoked by such evil is beyond anything I can adequately do justice to in a blog. If you were like me, the sight of our President struggling to hold his emotions in check, speaking the unspeakable, was a mirror of the anger-grief churning inside as the enormity of the tragedy was further revealed. And once again, I felt the despair that our human journey is at a crossroads where our intentions–beautiful and transcendent, compassionate and caring, loving and forgiving, intelligent and thoughtful–continue to retreat in confusion and horror from the enormous evil we can and will inflict upon one another.

Who needs ALS to speak dis ease when horribly afflicted men-children perpetrate such heinous acts? For me Sandy Hook is personal.

I love a woman who teaches music to little children. I gaze at her as our understanding of the full horror continues to unfold, and I realize that it was teachers like my Ev, locking down classrooms, telling the children they were loved so that if the killer came to them, love would still be their final moment, holding the horrific sights at bay for as long as they could, asking the children to close their eyes, to perhaps keep one last vestige of any innocence their five and six and seven and eight year old lives deserved. I cannot imagine the haunting, terrifying dreams these incredibly strong and caring and competent teachers, women, will know in the coming years. We now know that the six women killed did everything they could to stop the killer. They were brave, and they were professional, and they placed themselves between children and evil in an attempt to save them.

As a newly retired dean of a school of education, I cannot help but see the faces of the young pre-service teachers we prepared for teaching careers. For them, this is a life choice, not a stepping stone. It is a calling, a voice that says to them that a commitment to children is a far greater thing than the salary and esteem of another profession. Each of them will receive training, information, practice in how to mitigate horror if it should come knocking. And with that in mind, they will commit to creating a loving environment where all children learn. While not mutually exclusive, the skill and artistry required is enormous.

And let me share that there were a few times in my life as a principal where I felt my own safety threatened. Dawn Hochsprung was the principal of a K-4 school, and if you have seen her Twitter account, you see a principal who believed in projecting her entire being in support of her kids and teachers, underscoring their successes, bucking them up to the next challenge, urging them to see the joy in learning, defining her work with passion and love. I feel I know this remarkable woman for I have been privileged to work with so many like her, educators who skillfully bring teachers and kids and parents into a fold where school is opportunity after opportunity, an engaging world of wonder, a place where hard work is appreciated. She gave her life on a day when I am sure that the challenge of the upcoming holidays and keeping the kids somehow engaged was foremost on her mind. Not in her wildest dreams would she have predicted the terrible events to transpire and what would be required of her.

The faith required of parents to trust the safety of their schools cannot help but be tested. To send your six year old off to school on a Friday, to never see her alive again would crush your soul. Anyone who is a parent knows the normal safety fears that we carry for our children. The loss of so many children is so unfathomable, so overwhelming, so undefinable, so wrong, so wrong. My sons are grown, and I still fear for them and their lovely women. To lose your young child in such horrible circumstances would be harder than anything. I cannot help it. The grief swirls through my soul.

I cannot leave the above without considering some very preliminary thoughts about what we should do. I am sure others will have far better ideas than me, but here is a beginning.

Remember the saying, “Guns don’t kill people, people do?” Let’s agree with the point and start a discussion about responsibility. When do we begin to take responsibility for the fact that there is no meaningful way to intervene on behalf of an “adult” with serious mental health issues that could lead to violence? I recognize the possibility of abuse here, but common sense and logic would lead us to conclude that there must be better ways. An 18-20 year old, troubled to the point of homicide, is not going to seek out help on his own. We need better ways to provide meaningful interventions.

The temptation will be to forget, to find ease in the blessed amnesia of denial. We will find ourselves wanting to blame, to marginalize, to distance ourselves from the perpetrator and the illness he manifested. We will never find resolution this way. It is time we embrace the reality that the mix of guns and mental illness is too complex for a single, once and for all solution. It is immature to think otherwise. We need dialogue about mental illness that is decidedly different. The ease of collective amnesia will only allow more and more manifestation of such events as Sandy Hook. We need the adults to show up.

And in the name of responsibility, whether you like it or not, we need an educator’s sense of propriety. That means we don’t get to marginalize others due to their challenges. They are our children, and we need to take responsibility for them, not distance ourselves as if it couldn’t happen to us. This means that all our children need us to claim them, not just the easy ones. Educators do not get to be selective, and neither should our society at large.

Only when we have this dialogue on mental health, can we begin to have a meaningful discussion about guns.

It will be tempting to go after the gun laws. For whatever reason, Americans own so many guns that the effect can only be cosmetic. I am not saying that we should not talk about what we want gun laws to do, but as an old dyed in the wool liberal, I already know it will be a lot of energy expended for little return. Gun ownership is legitimated by our laws. The estimate is that there are over 300 million guns in the US. The horse is out of the barn. But, we can certainly have much more meaningful requirements for owning a gun.

A Honda Civic can also be a lethal weapon in the wrong hands. Why don’t we require licenses for everyone, much like we do for driving, with background checks, and periodic refresher courses and checkups on safe storage and whether one still meets the licensing requirements of gun ownership? I am an adult with disabilities that preclude my driving safely. Just as my eligibility for a drivers license should be reevaluated against my ability, so too should we ask the same of gun owners.

And everyone–buyers and sellers–needs to meet the standards over and over again.

Finally, we need to recognize that many of the best solutions to guns and mental illness will be local. What works in Wyoming might not work in Minneapolis, and vice versa. This also means we need ongoing dialogue, constantly holding ourselves responsible to work the tensions between safety and security, individual freedom and social responsibility.

My heart is broken by the events in Newtown. I take this so personally as a teacher, a principal, a preparer of new teachers and principals, a father, a citizen. Platitudes will not help, and the only inappropriate response is to not engage in the dialogue with respect and truthfulness.

I will return to my blog next week with a seasonal thought, but today, I hug my wife and sons and daughters-in-law a little more tightly and thank God they are here and safe.


20 thoughts on “Sandy Hook

  1. Bruce, you have taken your difficult position and turned it into something positive and lasting. People will be inspired by your example for many years. This is because you had the insight to deal with a seemingly impossible problem is a fresh way. The reality that a national solution of the gun problem seems impossible, but why not keep hope that some bright people will learn how to mitigate it. At one point, drunk driving seemed like an impossible problem – but through concerted efforts, it is now much better. Other societies with just as many guns don’t have our problem. We need to learn from them, rather than continue to assume that somehow our situation is unique. We don’t let people have their own personal nuclear weapons, tanks or other effective killing machines, but we allow people to sell guns that would allow one person to kill hundreds of people within 10-15 minutes at their personal whim – and how many million people out there are capable of such an act?. We are lucky the toll at the school wasn’t 100 students. The only purpose for high capacity weapons is to kill a lot of people quickly. Under our laws, people can have a gun, but a gun like that. I just don’t see why we cannot try to reduce the magnitude of the issue.

    • Hi Joel,
      Ultimately, I would hope to get to a point where we just cannot justify the killing machines. Personally, I am with you, but I also see consequences just as harmful to our society if we do not cast a broad net for the discussions. Thank you for the point. It is a powerful and reasonable one.

      • Hi Bruce,

        Of course, you are right that this is a very complex problem, but as a society, we cannot afford to have angry, suicidal people who don’t respect life having the easy ability to kill dozens of people who have no defense against their attack. Some have suggested putting weapons in principal’s offices for immediate defense of such an attack. Consider some of the discussions that happen in that setting, can you imagine having guns in every public school in the country? I think that we just need to make it a lot more difficult to carry out a mass murder, and then get into the root causes.

        Best wishes,

  2. Amen, amen, amen. Bruce, amen for articulating what we need to hear, know and ideas upon which we need to act. As parents, as teachers and humans who can influence other humans … we all must be part of the conversation, not part of the easier choice: collective amnesia. Your post was the clearest articulation yet where our cultural conversation needs to — MUST — go. Amen, Bruce Kramer, amen. And thank you, yet again.

  3. I, too, am Adam Lanza’s mother, but fortunate. It takes a lot of love, compassion, understanding, persistence, time, work, patience, consulting, support, blood, sweat, and tears… and money to utilize all the necessary support systems. There is much work to be done. God, help us.

  4. The sadness flows over the dams, overwhelms all other senses, and engulfs us collectively in sorrow. We struggle to understand why, but the force of global warming releasing animus frozen for decades is upon us. Thankfully civility, kindness, and love are still powerful forces. I do not think it is too late to turn the tide, but why do we need reminders like this? It is not enough to just build new dams.

    This was a rough week to come out of cancer surgery. First the mall shooting here in Portland, and then the Sandy Hook tragedy. The blare of the television set on the wall in my hospital room was not much help in my recovery to health. But I am recovering, and I count my blessings as the surgical margins reported by pathology are clear of dis ease. Home and walking. A glimer of hope is a sea of bad news. I am thankful for small blessings. Bruce, I so wish our collective cure, your cure, was so easy.

  5. I want to address one of the many issues here. You talk about embracing all the children, not only the “easy” ones. This is a beautiful thought. We teachers should reach out and educate all, including those with special needs. But in order for this to happen, there needs to be a dialogue between the parents, the teachers and ultimately the medical professionals. The problem is that the mental illnesses are still a taboo. Don’t even mention staying in a mental institution! Now, in 2012, some people will admit depression. Anything more than that remains unspoken. Parents are not always willing to admit the children’s shortcomings. The kid is smoking, drinking and boozing, but many parents still want to keep the façade of having a perfect child. If they won’t admit those things, they are even less likely to admit a mental problem. Some won’t even admit it to themselves. The reality is that some parents are in denial. Who, then, is supposed to initiate the dialogue? Will a parent take kindly to a teacher who will call in for a conference to inform about disturbing behavior at school? Or a neighbor will tell you that they noticed something disturbing?
    The dialogue is necessary, but unless all 3 sides are ready and willing to communicate and take action, not much will be accomplished. The individual in question, as you said, may be too far gone to reach out for help. There is a lot waiting to be done.

    • Hanna, you raise the important issues. We need to be able to express concerns without getting sued. I think of the Edinger family who did express great concerns about their paranoid schizophrenic son, only to have no recourse until he killed seven of his coworkers. The dialogue, honest dialogue, needs to take place.

  6. We must find ways to restrict the choices and limit the freedoms of psychotically violent people in a humane, caring way. We cannot allow their media-driven death-wishes free rein in a peaceful society. We are required to report the abuse of a child when we see it. We must find a way to to report and then prevent violent harm to others before it happens by restricting the threat. Bruce mentions several suggestions worthy of consideration. We need more ideas and more dialogue. Now.

  7. Bruce et al
    I can’t find words adequate enough to compliment or succeed your thoughtful and empathic comments on here. I share very deeply your concerns or should I say “the concerns of most around the country?” I am original from Liberia, West Africa and experienced civil war and had to pass through areas where numerous dead bodies (some decayed) laid by the way side, while I was walking to unknown destinations seeking refuge. However, at the time I knew very later about mental illness because everybody with a strange behavior was termed “crazy”! Therefore I was forced to believe that the killings at the time were the results of war.
    Today I forget my experience and focus on the most recent incident at Sandy Hook, which brings up a different experience/imagination for me because now I am a parent of four (one being a 5-year-old), and a professional working in the mental health field. My struggle is trying to understand why the killer targeted that population or the particular school. In any case nothing is more important than everything each of you have mentioned here, not to mention the need to address the issue of mental health services. I believe it is time to move beyond cultural/local approaches to addressing mental health if we must bring the necessary attention to this issue. This means raising awareness and encouraging local communities to act proactively in ways that will respectfully engage all stakeholders. I just completed a research on “the concept of inclusion as it relates to disability in the Liberian education system” and one of the participants said something profound which was “society will do what people demand”! Therefore I think as professionals, we should serve as conduits for the voice of the marginalized as well as supporters of self-advocates who can be the testimonies to the dis ease of disabilities in general but in this case menatl health issues. To end, let me once again commend all of you for your empathic,thoughtful and challenging comments on this issue but I also want to encourage us all to take the conversation to every possible medium we can access and make this conversation global for the safety of the world.

  8. Bruce,
    This is not a response to this blog entry, but an admission of my failure, over the past year or more, to contact you. I remember the first report I heard about you on MPR. I didn’t hear the beginning, but you were conducting some music and I thought, “I know him. He and Evvy were on two of the multiple-day bike rides we took. We never did arrange to ride together in town.” Then, you were talking about your loss of strength in your arms and I heard Kathy Wurzer talk about your diagnosis. I was shocked, but did nothing.

    I read your op ex in the Star Tribune and I’ve heard more reports on Morning Edition. Each time, I thought I must contact you, make you and Evvy know that I am thinking of you, willing for your path to be as easy as possible.

    After this morning’s report, I decided to look up your blog. I am not a good blog reader, but it will keep me in touch with you, so I signed up for notifications.

    I just needed to reach out to you and wish you all the best. And I will, finally, add your name to my prayer list.

    Jo Pasternack

  9. Thank you Bruce, and all those who replied to your blog. I think that your blog, and all the replies should be read and digested completely by gun owners and non-gun owners alike, before we as a society and country take any action. Unfortunately, we need to act quickly and wisely, and I’m not sure that our leaders will do both. My prayers are that they will!

    David Merry

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