After Newtown, a plea for perspective

In amongst all the words being written in the wake of the shocking shootings in Connecticut, I want to draw your attention to a calm, reasoned piece by my friend and fellow advocate for children’s freedoms, Lenore Skenazy. She reminds us how today’s media removes time and distance, and leaves us all helpless in the face of the raw pain of people we feel we know. “It feels like terrible things are happening to our children all the time, everywhere,” she writes. “Nowhere is safe.”

Lenore predicts more ratcheting-up of school safety in the wake of the tragedy. If what happened here in the UK in the aftermath of Dunblane is anything to go by, she is right. She is also right to cast doubt on whether it will all be worth it.

Such a response can sound hard-hearted, even cruel. How can we do nothing in the face of such an event? Non-Americans, already bemused at the USA’s devotion to firearms, may be particularly puzzled by Lenore’s hesitance to join the debate about gun control and school safety.

Yet Lenore’s call is not an argument for inaction. It is a plea for perspective. What does it mean to take a measured perspective on tragedy?

First, as I have written before, perspective means being aware of the power of the emotions that arise in the aftermath of tragic events, and of how strongly these are shaped by the way that the media personalises and dramatises these events in their pursuit of audiences. In the case of Newtown, the sheer size of the media frenzy shows just how vigorous that pursuit can be.

Newtown media circus

Photo: Ned Gerard / Connecticut Post

Perspective also means being sensitive to the dangers of 20:20 hindsight. As risk academic John Adams notes, once a tragedy has happened, it is all too tempting for everyone – politicians, the media, the lawyers – to track back through the chain of events in search of someone or something to blame: the one bad decision, missed clue, or wrong turning that made everything else happen. The problem is, real life does not work like this. What is more, we live our lives looking forward, not through a rear-view mirror. Picking out that needle in a haystack – the one troubled teenage loner who becomes a random killer – is all but impossible.

More generally, perspective means coming to terms with the complexity of risk. Risk management, as John Adams has also said, is not rocket science. It is more complicated. This is especially true with risks to the public. We are dealing with people, not rats in a cage. When new safety regimes are contemplated, the costs, benefits and potential side-effects all need to be looked at, thoughtfully and dispassionately.

Here in the UK, we have a good example of where that failed to happen, in relation to child protection. The last government was on the brink of bringing in a vetting system containing the details of millions of people, in response to the risk of abuse from professionals and volunteers. The system was developed in the wake of the Soham murders of two schoolchildren: another case so scarring that its memory is evoked simply by naming its location. Eventually a public outcry over the system’s size, intrusiveness and potential side-effects on volunteering and community activity led the scheme to be scrapped.

Perhaps most fundamental of all, gaining a perspective on tragic events means taking a look at the bigger picture: at the reality of the threats we face in our everyday lives. Understandably, parents will hug their children a little tighter when they get home from school today. I hope they will also help their children to understand that their world – their school – their neighbourhood – is not Newtown. In fact, for those of us living in the wealthier nations at least, the world today is probably a safer place to bring up a child than at any time in history [pdf link].

If we want our children to grow up to be confident, resilient people, we owe it to them to take a balanced and thoughtful view when tragedies strike. As Lenore Skenazy says, “a tragedy like this is so rare, our kids are already safe,” she says. “Not perfectly safe. No one ever is. But safe.”

18 responses to “After Newtown, a plea for perspective

  1. Hear hear.

  2. I was a school head teacher from 1998 til 2007. So I took up post in the aftermath of the Dunblane event in Scotland. It did result in tighter security measures. These were very much imposed via a top-down model. Experts decided what my school needed without due thought about the practical implications and necessity of the measures in my particular school.

    Many of them were more hindrance than a help. For example, I was expected to carry around a radio at all times with a panic button linked directly to the local police station – which happened to be 30 miles away and a 45 minute drive. The moment I stepped out of school (almost daily – we did a lot of lessons off-site) the radio would not work. The moment there was any electrical hitch, however minor, the local police have to be alerted to prevent a call out. Our security system on the door would seize up in wet weather so the only time I ever had to delay opening the school was when none of us could get in because of the security system keeping us out!

    I felt guilty about all of this at the time – it was a huge amount of money and time invested to keep my staff and children safe. Yet I did not feel the measures were appropriate.

    On Saturday I came across this blog post I thought some suggestions have merit and is more practical and economical than the security measures we had put upon us. Interestingly we did not get any training in handling emergency situations just the gear described above. But it would be interesting to know your thoughts.

    On a slightly difference note, in my second headship I had the more unusual situation of enrolling a child whose birth father had made 2 public death threats against him. I have to say, this really helped the whole staff tighten up procedures way beyond the post-Dunblane precautions.

    Everyone was much more vigilant about visitors to the school. The local police were fantastic and went through procedures and what to do, what to expect, etc. Basically we did not use the situation to prevent any school activity from taking place. We just thought carefully about grouping of children and general common sense measures relating to being out and about, including playtimes and outdoor activities in the grounds. We trained children through playing games, e.g. to practice gathering quickly, etc which are essentially just good routines to develop for smooth transitions. The only structural change was creating a window in the school office to have a better view of the main entrance.

    For me, this second way of working was more positive and empowering – working out a proactive school-based solution compared with top-down negative reaction post-Dunblane.

  3. Mark, Juliet – thanks for the supportive comments. Juliet – I had a brief look at the relevant section of the Cullen report after Dunblane. I thought it was admirably balanced. I suspect few decision-makers read it. It seems likely that various commercial businesses would have seized the marketing opportunity, and done so using more emotive thinking and language than Cullen.
    I must say I was alarmed at the tone of the post you link to, though I agree that some of the suggestions seem reasonable. No-where did it make the basic point that such events are rare in the extreme. One could reasonably ask the question why schools should be expected to do anything. After all, we don’t expect them to protect themselves against a meteor strike, or a missile attack.

  4. On a post-Dunblane issue. I and a colleague from the University of Sheffield did a review of the security measures that schools had adopted post the Dunblane attacks on the 10th anniversary in 2006. One of the things we found was that where a school had adopted high security fencing in the main they had also experienced higher levels of vandalism and deliberate damage. Of those schools that had established single door entry systems we found that more than three in ten still had at least one unlocked door on site on a regular basis.

    Of more concern we noted a significant ‘can’t do’ attitude that was often blamed on ‘security issues’. For example, a number of schools reported that they could not engage in more community initiatives because because to do so would be to place the school population ‘at risk’.

    More recently I did a training job for a local council that started at 3pm weekly in a secondary (academy) school in which there was a strict signing in policy for ‘fire safety reasons’. However, there was no opportunity to sign out. Hmmmm.

  5. The freedom that should be curtailed – not because of the death of these children, but because they will join around 30,000 other Americans on the gun death toll this year – is the one that allows virtually anyone in that country to arm him or herself with weapons designed for the rapid, multiple killing of other humans.

  6. I agree that this tragedy has to be seen in perspective and deplore the media frenzy that has ensued, but some action also needs to be taken.
    Following Dunblane, there was tighter gun control in the UK and, at the very least, America has to look to its legislation around possessing deadly weapons.
    There’s never any guarantee that these horrific events will be prevented by tighter laws but attitudes have to change.
    I liked what New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg said : “Nobody questions the second amendment’s right to bear arms, but I don’t think the founding fathers had the idea that every man, woman, and child should carry an assault weapon.”

    • The initial point was, I understand, to arm a standing militia rather than a regular army. Switzerland has kept that model and has a *very* large number of assault rifles stored in private homes… Of course, the culture of Switzerland is somewhat different to that of the US in many ways, not least the variance of the culture (or rather cultures, plural: the US is a very big place with lots of diversity). Which gets us back to the favourite NRA slogan that guns don’t kill people, people kill people… which is correct, but given the number of people apparently willing to kill other people in the US does it make much sense providing them easy access to such excellent tools for the job?

      But back to Ms. Skenazy’s point that you’re actually pretty safe in the US… Awful though the firearm death figures are, the fact is you’re in more danger on the roads so if it’s “personal protection” you need then painting your car in hi-viz, fitting roll cages and 5 point harnesses and wearing a crash helmet and flame-proof suit to go for a drive (at a reduced speed) actually makes rather more sense than packing heat. Except everyone /knows/ that driving is “safe”…

      • Thank Peter – as you may know I make a similar comparison – between child pedestrian casualties and playground casualties – in No Fear. There’s a big academic literature on the social construction of risk, some of which argues against the very idea of ‘real risk’. I am a little more inclined to a rationalist position. But sometimes that flies in the face of what I see.

  7. Marc, Adrian, Martin – thanks for the comments (and nice to see you here Martin!) Marc – if your research is in the public domain, do say where.
    Of course, tighter control on gun ownership is needed. I cannot see any justification, even given a constitutional ‘right to bear arms’, for allowing people to own some of the weapons on sale in the USA. Sad that it takes a massacre of kindergarten children to put the issue on the political agenda. Another statistic, from here: around 200 children under 20 a year die from firearms *accidents*, while nearly 500 under-14s a year die overall – the equivalent of a Newtown every fortnight.

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  9. Further to my comments on the media’s reaction – this article by Jonny Dymond, the BBC’s Washington correspondent, is powerful and disturbing. He says, of his visit to Newtown, “I have covered stories for 15 years in the field, some of the biggest, and have never seen anything like this, nor felt so uncomfortable about being part of it.” He adds, “some reporting comes close to repeatedly ripping a sticking plaster off. Watch or listen or read too much, and it feels as if we are wallowing in other people’s pain.”

  10. Well, that was perhaps the most sane stuff I’ve read over the past few days. Thoughtful and considered, and thought provoking.

  11. excellent piece by George Monbiot in the Guardian yesterday too., and also today on mental health issues.

  12. Hi Tim

    Thanks very much for the Cullen link – when I clicked on it, I remembered that this is what we used in my second school as a discussion for managing unwanted intruders and deciding what action was needed.

    Returning to my previous comment – the blog link is interesting which is why I posted it (partly as a bit of a provocation) – and oh my goodness the tone and comments in the guy’s twitter feed are definitely on the “let’s all carry guns now” type of thing if I remember rightly.

    There is often a sense of helplessness after hearing and reading about events such as that which happened at Sandhook. What I liked about the blog post was one or two of the practical suggestions (and er definitely not all of them) which- at this moment in time – may help some teachers feel that they can do something. Just because one has a plan in the back of one’s head, it doesn’t mean to say it will ever need to come to fruition. It is a bit like some aspects of cognitive behaviour therapy where you work through all sorts of possible outcomes as a way of reducing the angst rather than feeding it.

    Sometimes, for some people, the issue of likehood is irrelevant, particularly if a person has experienced a traumatic situation or abuse or is in emotional turmoil . Again, very often having “escapes” or ways of managing a similar situation, even if highly unlikely is a helpful coping strategy and a way of coming to terms with the past and present or ongoing events. Saying that, I think a Government or council reacting emotionally is quite different to an individual.

    Whilst massacres are extremely rare, when I look back over the array of issues that arose during my time as a HT it is quite surprising what occurred. It also can help explain why perhaps “unlikely” or “rare” doesn’t always wash with teachers. In my experience a lot of “rare” incidents kept happening. All my headships were of rural primary schools – but nice quiet backwaters they were not (a lovely Peruvian proverb says that in little villages there are big infernos). In the last 2.5yrs alone all sorts of events happened – an 8yr old pulled a penknife on another child on the way home from school, I had to send staff home at short notice when a parent with a history of violence charged over to the school in anger one day after school, we had an attempted abduction of a child, a child protection incident on school transport, a drug-related incident, a taxi driver issuing threats and anonymous phone calls to me (he blamed me for losing his job). Oh and the year before I arrived in one school, a teenager had walked into the playground carrying a machete (he was an American kid on holiday in a nearby castle).

    As you can see there are an array of other issues that those who work in schools have to deal with, so in a certain sense, the question is how we as teachers build up stamina, resilience and the skill set needed to support the children with whom we work – that includes acting rationally whilst dealing with the hinterland of our own emotions and those of others around us in light of all these unlikely or rare instances.

    Needless to say, these days I rather like my quiet life as a consultant.

  13. Mark, Juliet – thanks for coming back. Mark – George Monbiot’s point speaks to some wider questions about how different cultures weigh up the moral worth of victims in different contexts. These cultural biases are important (as I hinted at towards the end of my piece). All I’ll say here is that the USA is hardly alone in privileging its own children (though that does not justify its actions, in Pakistan or anywhere else). Juliet, your point about the value of ‘having a plan’ – even if it is incredibly unlikely you’ll ever have to implement it – is very well made, and gave me pause for thought. I agree that quoting statistics may not cut it, if a risk feels real and present. It’s also very fair to point out the spectrum of risky issues that HTs and schools may well have to deal with. A timely reminder for those of us who do not spend much time at the chalk face!

  14. Schools may physically be in our neighborhoods but they remain psychologically isolated, walled-in and inaccessible – though not impenetrable.

    If schools were less stand-offish from the rest of society – i.e.: more open to the world – with no fencing or locked doors – with classrooms physically closer to marketplaces, town halls, places of worship and other community centers – unbalanced individuals would have a harder time “sneaking in”. Why? Because, for all intents and purposes, sneaking in is much more difficult to achieve in the midst of communal activities. Also, in a more open environment, there would be less of a need for “lock-down” scenarios and more opportunities for children and teens to learn from a wider array of people. As it stands, children are presently excluded from active life due to, ironically, a school system based on separateness and an overall increasing level of anxiety.

    Our present over-protective attitudes aren’t working. Rather than guide or lead, they openly reflect feelings of impotence. Rather than consider, ponder, think about or act, we now react emotionally to all traumatic events as if they are universal and constant. And this does nothing less than erode our ability to deal with difficulties in general.

    Due to the recent Newtown tragedy, many communities are considering tightening the reins – closing off schools even more from the rest of the world. I fear that such decisions will prove not only erroneous but dangerous. These reactions, instead, will only prepare our children for a life of normalized fear and submission to an authority base which is even more frightened than they are. Times, if they are ever to get better, demand that we react less, think more and get closer to each other.

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