Schools, safety, childhood, and public policy

I think most parents in the U.S. shook with rage and a visceral fear on hearing of the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting. Our children are 20 and 17, and I have an almost-empty-nester’s version of that fear. Yesterday afternoon, our son came home from school, wished his mother a happy birthday, and gave her a long hug. It doesn’t matter how old your child is; he or she is still your child.

For me, the last 36 hours have been a mix of good and terrible. Yesterday was my wife’s birthday, and in the evening our son found out that he was accepted into his first-choice college. Yesterday, a young man shot 20 children and 6 educators at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. Yesterday was the end of finals week at USF, and this morning I spent several hours reading the work of students in my History of Childhood seminar. Later today, I head to the fall commencement ceremony for graduate students at USF, where a number of our college’s new graduates will hope to land a teaching gig at a place like Sandy Hook, with a principal like Dawn Hochsprung. It’s an odd juxtaposition.

The theme for the seminar this fall was the question, Is childhood for children? Graduate students are more cynical than undergraduates, and they generally leaned towards No at the end of the semester. The explanations ranged from “it should be but hasn’t been” to “childhood has always been and is inevitably a social construction that adults define.” That construction of childhood gives us filters we bring to events like the shooting. Broadcast media use those filters as script templates for reporting we have already seen and can expect to see: the innocent murdered children, the educators and other staff who gave up their lives in an attempt to keep children safe, the mourning parents. And those same filters also feed the expected contrary arguments about how schools are generally safe places. And that’s not even getting into the policy and politics of gun laws.

As I’ve been reading my students’ work today, a few thoughts have been running through my head:

  • Children’s safety is a relative term; in no place are children perfectly safe from harm. Only one out of every 100 children in Newtown, Connecticut, is in a household living below the federal poverty rate; that context provides all sorts of advantages, but not perfect protection. Almost everywhere else in the country has a higher poverty rate for children, and despite the general decline in violent crime since the early 1960s, there are some places where violent crime has spiked recently, most especially in Chicago.
  • Whenever there is a real or perceived threat to children’s safety, the academic goals of schooling take a back seat in public debate, at least for a little while. In Tampa this year, two children with disabilities have died in the care of Hillsborough County schools here in Tampa (one escaping supervision during P.E., one while on a bus)–the anguish and debate after the deaths became public have been about safety, not the instructional needs of students with disabilities.
  • Visible threats to children can change broader policy debates, but they are not sufficient in themselves. In Pricing the Priceless Child, Viviana Zelizer traced the changing attitudes towards children in the late 19th and early 20th century, a shift she calls the “sacralization” of childhood.1 Zelizer uses dozens of specific cases to point to the broader trend–there is no one “cause” of the change. This type of broad cultural shift is complex and never tied to one or two specific events.
  • The last two thoughts are in tension to some degree–specific events can craft politics at the local level much more easily than they can at a national level. Congress needs to reinstate/craft reasonable gun regulation at the federal level, with bans or tight regulation of automatic and semi-automatic weapons, bans on armor-penetrating bullets, and a tighter requirement for the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (i.e., eliminating the gun-show loophole). But I have no fantasy that even the horrible events in Newtown are going to shift gun-policy debates enough for that. It would take a great deal of careful work to change the current lock the NRA has on gun policy in dozens of states, let alone in Congress.

None of these thoughts change my mood significantly, but it’s how I process events like yesterday’s shooting. If you have children, hug them and tell them that you love them. You can do that regardless of what happens with public policy.


  1. For example, plenty of court cases in the 19th century involved the death of children in various accidents, but the earlier cases she describes often resulted in payment to parents based on the lost wages of children, in contrast with much larger payments to compensate the pain and suffering of parents who have lost their children in the past century. That shift in wrongful-death cases helped reframed childhood as innocent and needing protection, or maybe it was the result of a deeper cultural shift. []

One response to “Schools, safety, childhood, and public policy”

  1. Glen S. McGhee

    The public policy response will be, how do we make sure this doesn’t happen again? And the investigations, committee meetings, and pundits will have their say (as we all will), and then the bureaucratic response will be rolled out, with or without fanfare. Unintended consequences will emerge, but because we all committed to “making sure this doesn’t happen again,” we probably won’t even notice. Psychological commitments can determine what is, and what is not, perceived. Guaranteed: it will cost more, and it will inconvenience some, and others will benefit. Guaranteed.

    The shooter was (for how long?) Special Ed, but (for how long?) managed to attend college. Here’s the question to ask: if he, as has been true for centuries before now, was economically independent and on his own, and not still enmeshed in his family of origin, would this have happened? Not.

    Oddly, I see Sherman’s considerations here somehow missing the point — the more alienated youth we produce, the less integrated they are, and the greater the emergence generational tensions.