School as Prison

PrisonAir
A blueprint for America’s schools of the future?

W.J. Astore

Back in the 1970s, when I was in high school, smart aleck students used to joke about high school as “prison.”  Nowadays, American schools have metal detectors, school police, even armed teachers.  And let’s not forget reinforced doors and lockdown drills–just like real prisons!  And all these guns and security devices and police presence is together touted as “the solution” to school violence.

I thought of this when I read this morning that Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, where seventeen students were murdered last February, is adding metal detectors to protect students.  (Not that metal detectors would have kept out the former student/shooter, Nikolas Cruz, who murdered all those teenagers in cold blood.)  Perhaps the school is doing this to reassure parents; or to deter copy-cats; or to preempt possible lawsuits in case of future attacks.  Or maybe they really believe that having 3,200 students pass through metal detectors each and every morning is the cost of being “safe.”

One thing is certain: We’re raising our young people with a lockdown mentality.  We’re teaching them the best way to be safe is to submit passively to metal detectors and other forms of security screening.  We’re indoctrinating them with the idea that a guard with a gun is the very best form of security, and that even their teachers, charged with educating them, may be packing heat in the classroom — to keep them safe, naturally.  (These teachers may even be making a few extra bucks after completing gun training.)

Who says American students aren’t learning anything in our schools?  They’re learning every day they pass through a metal detector, or see heavily armed police in school corridors, or their teachers toting firearms.  Every day they have to submit to lockdown drills, they’re learning.

I don’t have a smart aleck observation here.  Just a sad one: that old joke about school as prison isn’t even worth a teenager’s smirk anymore.

Lockdown America and School Shootings

cartoon

W.J. Astore

Five years ago, I remember talking about lockdown drills (or “active shooter drills”) with colleagues at Penn College.  Such drills were voluntary.  Basically, the drill involved locking the classroom door, moving students to the back of the classroom, and having them hunker down, away from windows, while keeping silent so as to avoid detection by a shooter roaming the halls.

I was against these drills.  I thought they added to the fear, and I chose not to do them.  But maybe I would do them today.

After one shooting massacre (I can’t recall if it was Virginia Tech in 2007 or Sandy Hook in 2012), locks were added to the classroom doors.  In theory, if I heard gunshots, I or one of my students could jump up and lock the door before a shooter got in.  But what if a determined shooter shot the lock out?

What a world we Americans live in.  Locked classrooms, lockdown drills for active shooters, and now the proposal to turn teachers into so many Harry Callahans (Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry) and our schools into “hardened” targets by arming teachers with pistols.  Perhaps we should keep an AR-15 in each classroom (alongside the fire extinguisher), with a sign that reads, “In case of emergency, break glass – then lock and load.”

President Trump has argued that select teachers be armed – following the NRA’s theory that a good man with a gun is the best insurance against a bad man with a gun.  It’s a crazy idea, but we live in a crazy country.  Among the worst parts of Trump’s proposal was his stingy suggestion that armed and trained teachers might earn “a little bit” of a bonus.  How generous of our brave commander-in-chief.

Think about that for a moment.  There is an active shooter (or shooters) in a school, armed with military-style assault weapons and perhaps protected by body armor.  Young people are running and screaming, bullets are flying, and in this bloody chaos, we place our faith in a teacher, perhaps armed with a 9mm pistol, thoroughly trained in shooting under combat conditions, willing to risk it all “for a little bit of a bonus.”

It’s a powerful fantasy: the cold bold Harry Callahan-like teacher, taking aim with his or her pistol and blowing away school intruders with perfect head shots.  And that’s exactly what it is: a fantasy.  As Belle Chesler, a teacher, put it at TomDispatch.com, “We are not warriors, we are teachers. We are not heroes, we are teachers.”

It’s one thing to shoot at paper targets on a gun range; it’s another thing entirely to fire accurately in combat when you’re outgunned and someone is firing back at you.  What if, during the chaos of shooting, a teacher accidentally shoots a few students?  So-called friendly fire incidents happen frequently in combat, despite the most careful troop training.

If you want more security guards in America’s schools, hire them.  Don’t try to turn teachers into cheap cut-rate guards.  Yet “a little bit of a bonus” for armed teachers is the best idea our stingy billionaire of a president can come up with.

As we saw in Parkland, Florida, even armed and trained deputies may hesitate before confronting a heavily-armed shooter.  How is your average teacher going to react? At least we know Trump will rush in, heel spurs and all, whether he’s armed or unarmed, to save the day.  Or so he says.

Most people, even when armed, will not rush toward the sound of gunfire.  We tend instinctively to freeze, to take cover, or to run.  It takes a combination of training, willpower, and courage to rush toward danger, often strengthened by teamwork and inspired by one or more leaders who set the example.  The problem is not as simple as “give a teacher a gun, and he or she will blow the bad guy away.”

In a country awash in weapons, there are no easy answers.  One model is to turn our schools into fortresses, complete with surveillance cameras and panic buttons and smoke ejectors in hallways, as in this “safe” school in Indiana.  Trump’s model is to arm select teachers for a tiny bonus.  Limited efforts at gun control, such as raising the age to purchase an assault rifle from 18 to 21, are like putting a Band-Aid on a sucking chest wound.  One thing is certain: better law enforcement is crucial, e.g. there were many warnings about the Parkland shooter that were dismissed or ignored.

Again, there are no easy answers.  And so Lockdown America is now our reality.

Update (3/9/18): In the wake of the Parkland shootings, Florida legislators have approved guns for teachers in the classroom, as well as more spending on school security.  Assault weapons, however, are not to be banned.  So the solution to bad men with guns is indeed good men with guns, according to Florida.  The NRA wins again.

How long before a teacher, teacher’s aide, or coach with a gun accidentally or intentionally hurts a student with a gun?  How long before the inevitable lawsuits result from this, the multi-million dollar settlements?  Will school districts be required to carry expensive insurance against gun shootings by educators?  Are taxpayers ready to pony up a lot more money to cover the costs of insurance premiums and lawsuits?

Preventing Doomsday

cmc
I well recall walking in and out of this tunnel.  (You could take a bus too.)

W.J. Astore

It’s hard to think of a higher priority than the prevention of doomsday. Global catastrophe could strike in quick-time via nuclear war, or in slow-motion via global warming. Yet our leaders persist in rattling and sharpening the nuclear saber while denying the very reality of global warming (even as state-size chunks of ice break off from the polar ice caps).

Global catastrophe: What, me worry? It’s a MAD world indeed.

alfred_e_neuman_thumb

Today at TomDispatch.com, I return to my days working in Cheyenne Mountain, America’s nuclear command and control center, tunneled out of a massive granite mountain in Colorado. I argue that it’s time to overcome our lockdown, shelter-in-place, mentality, before that fear-filled mindset leads us all to catastrophe. You can read the entire article here. What follows is an excerpt:

Duck and Cover, America!

Remember those old American Express card commercials with the tag line “Don’t leave home without it”?  If America’s Department of Homeland Security had its own card, its tag would be: “Don’t leave home.”

Consider the words of retired General John Kelly, the head of that department, who recently suggested that if Americans knew what he knew about the nasty terror threats facing this country, they’d “never leave the house.”  General Kelly, a big bad Marine, is a man who — one would think — does not frighten easily.  It’s unclear, however, whether he considers it best for us to “shelter in place” just for now (until he sends the all-clear signal) or for all eternity.

One thing is clear, however: Islamic terrorism, an exceedingly modest danger to Americans, has in these years become the excuse for the endless construction and funding of an increasingly powerful national security state (the Department of Homeland Security included), complete with a global surveillance system for the ages.  And with that, of course, goes the urge to demobilize the American people and put them in an eternal lockdown mode, while the warrior pros go about the business of keeping them “safe” and “secure.”

I have a few questions for General Kelly: Is closing our personal blast doors the answer to keeping our enemies and especially our fears at bay?  What does security really mean?  With respect to nuclear Armageddon, should the rich among us indeed start building personal bomb shelters again, while our government continues to perfect our nuclear arsenal by endlessly updating and “modernizing” it?  (Think: smart nukes and next generation delivery systems.)  Or should we work toward locking down and in the end eliminating our doomsday weaponry?  With respect to both terrorism and immigration, should we really hunker down in Homeland U.S.A., slamming shut our Trumpian blast door with Mexico (actually long under construction) and our immigration system, or should we be working to reduce the tensions of poverty and violence that generate both desperate immigrants and terrorist acts?

President Trump and “his” generals are plainly in favor of you and yours just hunkering down, even as they continue to lash out militarily around the globe.  The result so far: the worst of both worlds — a fortress America mentality of fear and passivity domestically and a kinetic, manic urge to surge, weapons in hand, across significant parts of the planet.

Call it a passive-aggressive policy.  We the people are told to remain passive, huddling in our respective home bunkers, sheltering in place, even as America’s finest aggressively strike out at those we fear most.  The common denominator of such a project is fear — a fear that breeds compliance at home and passivity before uniformed, if often uninformed, experts, even as it generates repetitive, seemingly endless, violence abroad.  In short, it’s the doomsday mentality applied every day in every way.

Returning to Cheyenne Mountain

Thirty years ago, as a young Air Force officer, Cheyenne Mountain played a memorable role in my life.  In 1988 I left that mountain redoubt behind, though I carried with me a small slab of granite from it with a souvenir pen attached.  Today, with greying hair and my very own time machine (my memories), I find myself returning regularly to Cheyenne Mountain, thinking over where we went wrong as a country in allowing a doomsday-lockdown mentality to get such a hold on us.

Amazingly, Barack Obama, the president who made high-minded pleas to put an end to nuclear weapons (and won a Nobel Prize for them), pleas supported by hard-headed realists like former Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and George Shultz, gave his approval to a trillion-dollar renovation of America’s nuclear triad before leaving office.  That military-industrial boondoggle will now be carried forward by the Trump administration.  Though revealing complete ignorance about America’s nuclear triad during the 2016 election campaign, President Trump has nevertheless boasted that the U.S. will always be “at the top of the pack” when it comes to doomsday weaponry.  And whether with Iran or North Korea, he foolishly favors policies that rattle the nuclear saber.

In addition, recent reports indicate that America’s nuclear arsenal may be less than secure.  In fact, as of this March, inspection results for nuclear weapons safety and security, which had been shared freely with the American public, are now classified in what the Associated Press calls a “lockdown of information.”  Naturally, the Pentagon claims greater secrecy is needed to protect us against terrorism, but it serves another purpose: shielding incompetence and failing grades.  Given the U.S. military’s nightmarish history of major accidents with nuclear weapons, more secrecy and less accountability doesn’t exactly inspire greater confidence.

Today, the Cheyenne complex sits deactivated, buried inside its mountain, awaiting fresh purpose.  And I have one.  Let’s bring our collective fears there, America.  Let’s bury them under all that granite.  Let’s close the blast doors behind us as we walk out of that dark tunnel toward the light.  For sheltering in place shouldn’t be the American way.  Nor should we lock ourselves down for life.  It would be so much better to lockdown instead what should be truly unthinkable: doomsday itself, the mass murder of ourselves and the destruction of our planet.

That Word Again: Lockdown

"Fear is the only darkness" -- Master Po
“Fear is the only darkness” — Master Po

W.J. Astore

A word that’s symbolic of our growing police state mentality is “lockdown.”  I saw today on the news that Indiana University is in “lockdown” due to a suspect on the loose with a knife.

You can lockdown a prison.  But you can’t lockdown a campus as large as Indiana University in Bloomington.  Nor is a college campus a prison.  The campus should certainly be alerted to a potentially dangerous situation, but there’s no need to apply prison terminology to the situation.

In so many aspects of our lives, Americans are being told to be afraid.  We’re told “to shelter in place,” to huddle scared like so many rabbits, until the proper “locked and loaded” authorities are deployed with their SWAT teams and armored cars.

This lockdown mentality extends to commercials.  New TV ads for ADT show parents smiling as they secretly monitor their children at home with cameras linked to their security systems and their personal laptops/iPads.  Adults attain a look of blissful contentment as they remotely arm their security systems, knowing that they’re keeping the have-nots out of their “have” communities.

Sorry, I don’t think lockdowns are the answer to danger.  And I don’t think turning your home into a prison with gates and perimeter lights and alarms and cameras is the answer to our worries about security.

We don’t need to lockdown our communities and our homes.  We need to lockdown our fear.  For as Master Po said in Kung Fu, “Fear is the only darkness.”