We are once again faced with the horror of a mass school shooting.
Before my family moved to Maine, I went through grade school in Florida. The idea that a mass shooting would take place at any school, let alone one that I could have attended, is unconscionable. That could’ve been me. It could’ve been my friends shot to death for simply being at a place of learning. The one place you are supposed to feel safe. Since the shooting, I have been trying to find the right words to say. I can’t imagine what those at the school not only went through during it, but also in dealing with the emotional aftermath.
While this senseless killing of young people is beyond words, a shooting at a Florida school honestly didn’t surprise me. I vividly remember, at no more than 8 or 9 years old, the fear of constant bomb threats. Evacuations happened so often, it was almost routine. A fence surrounded my school with barb wire on top and was locked from vehicles getting in during the day. Right when my family moved us to Maine, they even installed metal detectors to screen each child coming off the bus and had student monitors to report suspicious activity. This was elementary school, mind you. My step dad was a public school teacher and had to deal with an active armed intruder going right by his classroom. There was nowhere to hide in his class. Hearing the footsteps of a potential killer right outside your door and seeing armed police and SWAT team members on the other side of the glass is something he still lives with today.
The slaughter of 17 innocent people at a school sent shockwaves throughout our entire education system. While it didn’t happen in Maine, the need for comfort, reassurance and action is ever present. Regardless of location, an attack on one is an attack on all. In particular, it’s an attack on our peace of mind. For parents, it’s wondering if their baby boy or girl will be safe from harm when they send them off to school in the morning at the bus stop. Kids attending school shouldn’t be a life or death proposition.
The reality is though, society can become numb to these tragedies. Numb to death and destruction. Complicit when something happens so often it represents just one 24-hour news cycle and we move onto the next thing. I hope this is not the case this time. I feel like with each school shooting we say, “We can’t let this happen again,” and then nothing is done. Politicians in Washington call for thoughts and prayers, but in the same breath think it’s always too soon to talk about prevention. Debates on social media divide even the closest of friends and neighbors. The political divides and anxieties are heightened.
There should be no doubt or debate that school is the one place where people should feel safe. This is the United States of America. There isn’t anything more basic than protecting children from harm. I don’t care if you are conservative or liberal, a proud gun owner who exercises their Second Amendment right responsibly or a gun-free zone individual, we should be able to agree on at least this basic point and come together to address it.
I frequently visit our local classrooms to read and speak to kids. As a guest, I’ve had to be buzzed into many of the schools. In the case of Burns, Fairfield and Young there is only one main entrance and you cannot enter the school unless the front office staff allows you in. Doors are securely locked. Obviously it depends on the layout. Thornton Academy is an open campus design making it harder to lock down. In the last few years, Saco has changed out locks in classrooms so that they can be locked from the inside in the event of a campus intruder.
While many changes need to come from the federal government, I believe the state should work with local communities to do our part when it comes to safety. First, we need to know the lay of the land. What is working and not working in schools across our state. Which schools have a locked campus design with a buzzed-in system? Which schools have or share resource officers or have none? Are cameras being used to digitally monitor activity on campus? Can classrooms lock from the inside? What is the ratio of guidance counselors and social workers to students? Are students getting the mental health and one-on-one counseling needed to work through issues and stressors? How are the anti-bullying laws working?
I am in the process of filing emergency legislation to establish a commission for student and school safety, to immediately collect, study and analyze data about how schools are protecting kids. It will be tasked with providing specific recommendations for immediate legislative action.
While there is no fool proof way of preventing someone who is unstable from carrying out heinous acts, there are steps we can take to make it that much more difficult for them to do it. Creating extra barriers of protection aren’t just feel-good measures to help us sleep at night, they could save lives and prevent future tragedies. Action is needed now, not just empty recycled rhetoric protecting high level donors. It’s time to protect our kids instead.
Justin Chenette is serving his first term as the youngest senator in the Maine Senate representing Saco, Old Orchard Beach, Hollis, Limington and Buxton. He previously served two terms in the Maine House of Representatives. Outside the Legislature, he is the owner of Chenette Media LLC, a marketing & public relations firm, works as the marketing coordinator of Saco Sport & Fitness, and is the president of Saco Main Street. Sign up for legislative updates at www.justinchenette.com or www.Facebook/JustinChenette.
Beyond the Headlines
Weekly Column featured in The Biddeford-Saco-OOB Courier Newspaper by Rep. Justin Chenette of Saco