Being the Target

This is about a 1965 school shooting—a shooting that never happened. If it had, I might not be here to tell the story.

My first full-time job after college was teaching seventh- and ninth-grade English at a combined junior-senior high school in upstate New York. I’d turned 21 only a month before the first day of school, so there were lots of students who were only three or four years younger than I was. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the seniors, and maybe some juniors, were even closer to my age. (That’s probably why, within a month after school began, there were songs being dedicated to me and another young male first-year teacher—on WPTR, the Top-40 station in Albany.)

The school district was mostly rural, so most of the kids—and pretty close to all of the boys—had grown up with guns. Mostly rifles. Mostly .22 caliber. And on one of the first warm days in the spring, one of those boys brought his gun to school.

I found out about it later, after the situation had been handled—by Sal, the principal, and Bill, the boys’ gym teacher. It was Bill who told me about it.

“Did you hear that Vincent came to school with his hunting rifle this morning?” he said. (I think the kid’s name was Vincent. Maybe Victor. I don’t remember his surname.) I said no, I hadn’t heard that.

“Yeah,” Bill said. “He was looking for you.”

“For me?” I didn’t have Vincent in class. I didn’t know Vincent. I’d never encountered him in the hallways. I wasn’t even sure which of the hundreds of kids he was. I had no idea why he’d have been looking for me.

“Yeah, it’s probably a good thing Sal and I found him before he found you.”

I left that school at the end of the year, and I still don’t know why Vincent was looking for me. I’ve wondered whether maybe his girlfriend was behind those dedications on WPTR, and he was jealous. But I don’t know whether he even had a girlfriend; he could have been a classic mass-shooter loner. Nor do I know what ultimately became of him—whether he wound up spending time in jail, or getting killed in Vietnam, or maybe being elected to the school board.

But I think my memory of this incident is part of what’s shaping my response to the shooting at Stoneman Douglas High—and the unconscionable number of school shootings that preceded it.

My near-encounter took place in the Sixties, so I’m aware not only of the potential dangers that are part of being a teacher, but also that those dangers have existed for a long time—maybe forever. On the other hand, I’m also aware of the technological innovations and interest-group lobbying that have altered the parameters of comparable situations today.

So I’m glad Vincent had only a bolt-action .22, not an AR-15. I’m glad Sal and Bill weren’t armed with anything more than commanding presences and the art of persuasion.

And I’m especially glad that neither Sal nor Bill nor I was ever put in the position of having to draw a weapon in an attempt to kill a student.

Profit Motive

There’s a common thread developing in the right wing’s education policies. People like Betsy DeVos, on the national level. And Richard Corcoran, Speaker of the House here in Florida. They say we should:

  • Deal with struggling students by further crippling their public schools and then labeling them and their schools as “failures”;
  • Deal with educational “failures” by opening a proliferation of charter schools (that can pick and choose their students to make sure they meet test-score requirements) and private schools (that are exempt from test-score requirements);
  • Deal with growing teacher shortages not by improving autonomy, compensation and working conditions, but by opening more charter and private schools that don’t require certification or even training for their faculty … and by targeting de-certification of teacher unions;
  • Deal with constitutional barriers to public funding of religious schools by creating tax-dodge “scholarships” for students attending unregulated private schools;
  • And deal with school shootings not by restricting access to military weapons, but rather by arming teachers.

So what’s the common thread? An effort to convince us:

  • That our public schools are failing;
  • That our teachers are incompetent;
  • That what we need is “choice,” or at least the appearance of it, not improved resources for our existing public schools;
  • That charter and private schools are prima facie “better” than public schools;
  • And that everything they advocate is somehow aimed at supporting students, especially disadvantaged and minority students.

But what they’re really creating is a smokescreen, an ostensible justification for eliminating free, nonprofit public education and replacing it with ever-increasing profit opportunities for the education entrepreneurs. Ensuring that for-profit schools’ costs will be lower by exempting them from testing standards, curriculum regulations, and certification requirements. And guaranteeing a steady cash flow with direct and indirect government funding.

Why? Same motivation as always: to repay the people who donate to their campaigns and hang out at the same country clubs—by ensuring the sanctity of their profit margins.

And that’s the motivation behind their school safety proposal too. There are more than three million public school teachers in the United States. If they deal with the threat of more school shootings by arming teachers—even if they arm only 20 percent of them—they’ve just handed the arms manufacturers and their NRA lobbyists something like $300,000 in additional sales.

And they’ll likely get the added benefit of eliminating some of those pesky teachers, too—either because they’ll resign rather than carry, or because their handguns will be no match for the active shooters’ still-legal assault rifles.

Another School Shooting

And, inevitably, another blizzard of legislative leaders blaming it on mental illness.

“It’s not the guns,” they say. “They can always find a way to kill. They can make explosives out of fertilizer. They can drive trucks onto sidewalks. They can use machetes and knives and box-cutters.”

Well, yes, it’s true that people afflicted with mental illness—at least the homicidal ones—will always be able to find a way to kill. But it is the guns. Specifically, it’s the semi-automatic assault rifles.

It’s not likely Nikolas Cruz could have killed 17 and injured another 14 in less than five minutes with any weapon other than a semi-automatic rifle. Nor would Stephen Paddock have been able to kill 58 and injure more than 400—at a range of 450 meters—in less than ten minutes. Semi-automatic weapons like these were specifically developed for only one purpose: to kill or grievously injure as many people as possible as rapidly as possible.

Semi-automatic weapons are suited specifically and explicitly for killing people—human beings, not deer or elephants or inanimate targets. And they accomplish that very well—just ask any veteran who’s been trained on an M-4.

I admit it’s unlikely we’ll be able to eliminate all mass shootings by eliminating semi-automatics. But maybe we can at least make such shootings less common. And maybe that will give us time to work on our mental health problem; maybe, if we can stanch the proliferation of semi-automatic weapons, we can at least reduce the number of casualties while we search for ways to treat the underlying mental illnesses.

And that will take time. Not all mental illness is presently preventable; not all cases lend themselves to timely diagnosis and treatment; and not all illnesses can be effectively managed, much less cured. And it’s worth pointing out that mental illness affects people in other countries too. And it affects women as well as men. But mass shootings occur disproportionately in the U.S. And the perpetrators have been more than 90% male.