Friday, February 29, 2008

What can we learn from a gun?

by Hakim Bellamy (Op-Ed)

I never wonder if those fatally labeled by the school district as “bad” kids are being hurt by the label, as much as I worry about them being hurt by the actions that accompany those labels. For the few of those that accurately belong under the umbrella labeled “bad”, before self fulfilling the prophecy, I reserve very little wonder or pity. However unfair the labeling is, it is nothing compared to the open umbrella which is symbolic of a Pandora’s Box…open. Guns don’t protect people, umbrellas protect people. Guns don’t shield, don’t play defense, guns play offense. Their defense lies in who “plays” offense first, who is quicker to be offensive. Looks like Albuquerque Public Schools is the winner. So, I suppose through reasonable deduction measures, that makes the other team, “the losers”. Let’s have a look at the other team.

I do, however, typically wonder about those who dress the part, look the part and act the part of “good” kid. Those that get aptly labeled by the school district as “inside-the-box-fitters”, “inside-the-line-colorers”, the well behaved. Sometimes the geniuses are all the above, many times the geniuses are none of the above. I say this as an impending father. One who hopes his kid is called genius once the label of “critical thinker” is added, even if it is at the expense of the label “well behaved”. I digress, I do wonder about the “good” kids because they are the ones who are being guilty until proven innocent by the decision to welcome armed police officers into schools. They are the ones who are now profiled by association, guilty by Gestapo. You just met the “other” team.

El Cajon, California. March 22, 2001. Granite Hills High School – Three students and two teachers were wounded as gunfire erupted at a high school less than three weeks after two students were killed at a nearby school. Yes, seventeen days earlier, four miles north, in the same school district at Santana High School, a 15-year-old student killed two classmates and injured 13 others. The Santana High School tragedy was followed by the placement of full-time armed police officers at each of the Grossmont Union High School District Schools, which included Granite Hills. According to Mike Nelson, Director of Keys to Safer Schools, “Administrators and teachers reviewed crisis plans, and students were encouraged to report the slightest threat or rumor.” Times of crisis or post-tragedy are a perfect time to fear-monger and systematically eliminate civil liberties, as though it prevents future deviance rather than just make certain sub-groups feel safer. It is a prerequisite to fascism, but what ubiquitous contemporary authoritarian model would these school districts be following in the footsteps of? Does “Uncle Sam, I learned it by watching you,” ring familiar? Sort of like anti-drug campaign commercials in the ‘90s, and perhaps just as effective. Anyway, all innuendo and poetic license aside, Nelson went on to write, “In the aftermath of Thursday’s attack, school and city officials wonder if there is anything they can do to prevent campus violence.”

Let us not use this as an excuse to do nothing, as I am sure the supporters of armed police in schools would attempt to argue. We certainly cannot use the futility of arming officers in schools as a loophole to activism, when episodic research and statistical research do not support the idea that schools are safer because of the presence of guns. That is not what is being said here. Though, we could argue the point that children mimic what they see, and if they see guns in school, then…show and tell. In just the same way our school districts learn how to use a tragic event to create more opportunities for surveillance and intrusion. They didn’t make that up, they learned it by observation.

I think some observations from the “other” team are in order here. Sean Connacher from Granite Hills, an 18-year-old senior at the time of the shooting, said, “I don’t think the administration is to blame. He was an angry kid. What are they going to do?” Ronald D. Stephens, executive Director of the National School Safety Center said, “You don’t want to turn the teachers into the Gestapo. And yet at the same time, it’s difficult for a student to focus on decimal placement in math class if he or she is worried about being shot before the day is out. So it’s a question of how do you strike a balance.” Maybe not a “strike” at all Mr. Stephens, perhaps some defensive tactics or preventative tactics are in order. You don’t have to apply pressure to a wound if you avoid getting cut altogether. We must go back to the idea that there are “good” and “bad” kids as classified by their teachers, counselors, culturally insensitive standardized tests and our society as a whole. Believe it or not, some of these “good” kids just go to school in “bad” districts, “bad” areas where schools are more likely to have armed police officers or security guards. These same areas are more likely to have a higher police officer-to-people ratio. These same areas have more liquor stores and check cashing spots. These same areas have more bi-lingual signage and less urban beautification money from city and state agencies.

"A lot of children know absolutely nothing about guns other than what they see on T.V., and those are the wrong things." –Marion Hammer

What a lot of the children where I grew up know police officers as, is not the same thing as someone who grew up in the North East Heights of Albuquerque. When you say “police officer” in South Jersey and South West Philadelphia, “protect and serve” don’t necessarily come to mind. Not to label all cops as “bad” cops, though this is the posture that we are adopting towards our “good” kids by arming officers in schools, but two wrongs don’t make a right or a very productive discussion for that matter. The “good” kids in these bad situations are now being punished, in a sense, psychologically bullied into a code of conduct, which sometimes gets perverted by a few bad apples at the expense of the bunch. But for the sake of a rare tragic few, should we rot the brain of our healthy, well-adjusted “good” kid majority by surrounding them with symbols that they may associate with death, suffering, pain, guilt and sometimes, injustice? Should we jade them, make them insecure, make them feel guilty until proven innocent, “bad” until proven “good” by arming the officers in the schools. Many of us already know that there is no difference between those that get government contracts to build schools and those that get contracts to build prisons. Why don’t we just merge them and cut our losses, we are already carrying ourselves as though there’s really no difference now anyway.

Billy Ditzler, a 16-year-old at Granite Hills at the time, said “I’m supposed to feel safe at school. If I come to school thinking I’m going to be shot, what’s that going to do? I’m just afraid it’s going to happen again.” Is he a “good” apple or a “bad” one? It’s hard to tell, I guess it depends on where he goes to school. A parent in the district, Mike Cook said, “Brick-and-mortar schools will cease to exist if this continues. If we can’t stop it, home-schooling will start and Internet education will take over.” Some parents in the hood have adopted this same opinion when their respective districts decided to arm its officers. It’s not just children who distrust the guns, regardless of who has them, in the schools.

At a $2 million price tag just to get a stand alone police force up to code, Albuquerque Public Schools could be more proactive than reactive. Perhaps we should arm students in self-defense? Charles “Andy” Williams is now 21-years-old and currently serving 44 more years to life in prison for his fatal rampage at Santana High School. He was tried as an adult. Aren’t we just trying our “good” kids as adults? After his arrest he told investigators “he was tired of being bullied”. His mother was in the US Army and deployed in the Middle East when he was 3. His dad raised him, first in Maryland, then in 29 Palms, CA. Just before his 15th birthday, he found out his best friend was killed in a bus accident. Before stealing his father’s Arminius .22-caliber revolver and killing two people, he had two skateboards stolen from him that day. Did he get therapy after his friend was killed? How much would that have cost? Perhaps we’re not securing anything, or protecting anything by arming officers, just throwing salt in open schoolyard wounds?

Jason Hoffman offered little emotion and no explanation for his non-fatal rampage at Granite Hills, neither before nor during his hearing. In all fairness, he was wounded mid-rampage by school resource officer, Rich Agundez. One shot to the face of Hoffman shattering his jaw, and one to his buttocks. The officer was not hurt, just teachers and students. Who are the guns protecting again? Anyway, the “other” team has some bad apples that don’t fall far from the tree. According to Union-Tribune staff writers Karen Kucher, Joe Hughes and Alex Roth, Hoffman lived with his father after his mother moved out of the house in 1983 shortly after his birth. The mother accused the father of tossing 1-year-old Jason into the deep end of a pool and urinating on him in the shower when Jason was 7. According to court records Ralph Hoffman was a parent who struggled with alcohol and once spent time in jail on a child-endangerment charge. With $2 million, how many endangered youth can we arm against negligent parents? Hoffman took a shotgun and a semiautomatic pistol to school the day he wounded five people. It was a day after he was rejected for Navy enlistment. He was disqualified for being overweight, a skin condition and having been convicted of assault and battery for hitting another student in the head with a racquetball racket in gym class three years prior. He said he was sorry. On October 29th, 2001, a week before his sentencing, he hung himself in a downtown jail cell after being taken off of suicide watch.

I don’ feel sorry for the “bad” kids who might be deterred by the presence of an armed officer in the school. They’ll find other ways to create havoc, mayhem, tragedy and change other people’s lives for the worse. Schools are no safer than the homes these children come from, they will be a product of their environment. What kind of environment are we creating in our militarized-prison-industrial-“we gotta gun”-complex school systems? I worry about the “good” kids, who will be demoralized, dehumanized and depressed by the presence of guns, where books should be…for about the same price. The presence of punishment where encouragement should be. The presence of fear where comfort should be. So yeah, I worry about the “other” team. Maybe they aught to have a say in the matter

© Hakim Bellamy September 12, 2007.

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