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Jay Paterno: A Future Filled with Tough Questions

by on December 20, 2012 6:26 AM

In December, every writer contemplates the “end of the year column.” Sunday night, I watched the Interfaith Memorial Service in Newtown, Conn., and my topic became obvious. Our nation exits a violent year, and our future faces tough questions with no easy answers.

Since my first recruiting trip for the University of Connecticut in 1993, my travels took me to schools as far west as Washington and California, as far south as Texas, Louisiana and Florida and across the Midwest and Northeast.

The most noticeable national change in education is school security. In the mid-1990s, inner-city schools began to use metal detectors. Schools that could not afford them resorted to periodic surprise searches of lockers and students.

At a Youngstown school I saw a lockdown that turned up knives and an unloaded gun. I had to go through metal detectors at a Detroit school; one of the few structures standing amid many burned out homes. Sadly, the security was state of the art, but the textbooks were outdated.

Inner-city schools were to be weapon-free islands amid streets awash in near-daily violence destroying the lives of people; collateral damage in gang-related shootings. There was a huge difference in the security state of the inner-city schools and the suburban schools untouched by violence.

Then came Columbine in April 1999.

In recruiting a few weeks later, we found rural and suburban schools where doors once unlocked now had people there to let you in. Within months every school had lockdown systems to buzz visitors in.

Over the next decade it became rare to walk into a school without a police car or officer near the door. A high school outside Chicago built a small police station right in the building.

What does it say about a nation forced to secure schools like fortresses?

Alas, high school shootings that were shocking a decade ago barely register. The patterns of the past have been similar; public outrage, mourning, then a few days of arguing and then nothing, except more school security.

It’s taken something this horrific, this evil to shock our sensibilities.

We may have finally witnessed something that stuns us into meaningful action. I am thankful courageous parents of the victims allow us to see their precious children and hear their stories. Maybe we won’t forget the terrible costs.

Sunday night, President Barack Obama mentioned that we have to change. Many in the media took that immediately to mean “gun control,” buzz words for people at both ends of the spectrum.

But the media missed the full scope. Obama said, “I will use whatever power this office holds to engage my fellow citizens — from law enforcement to mental health professionals to parents and educators — in an effort aimed at preventing more tragedies like this. Because what choice do we have? We can’t accept events like this as routine. Are we really prepared to say that we’re powerless in the face of such carnage, that the politics are too hard? Are we prepared to say that such violence visited on our children year after year after year is somehow the price of our freedom?”

It wasn’t just about guns. With hundreds of millions of guns already in this country, the concept of “gun control” is passed. We need to talk “gun safety.” This is a public health issue and epidemic.

It is about enforcement of laws. It is about seeing if our mental health system can be better. It is about seeing if parents, communities and schools can re-think the ways we work together. Everyone from the N.R.A. to Mayors Against Illegal Guns should join hands at the same table talking to each other and not past each other.

We must discuss preventing people with malice in their hearts from expressing themselves through the trigger and limiting the carnage they can inflict.

Our children, yours and mine, require us to work together no matter how hard the task.

We can fortify our schools as much as we want. As we look in this community at the future of our high school, what kind of fortress will we have to build?

Sunday night a Sandy Hook Elementary teacher explained she had done what they’d learned in a school intruder drill. It saved lives. But I thought about that concept. In the 1950s there were nuclear bomb drills. I grew up with fire drills, and in the Midwest and Great Plains there are school tornado drills.

Now we have intruder drills.

What does it say about us that our nation needs to train our children for an armed intruder looking to slaughter innocents?

That is a tragic, ugly question.  

Have we done enough? As the President said on Sunday night, “I’ve been reflecting on this the past few days, and if we’re honest with ourselves, the answer is no. We’re not doing enough. And we will have to change.”

There are tough questions that we have to answer correctly. Our children, the very soul of our great nation, demand it. From a city street corner to a rural elementary school, we can’t lose more children whose life’s poetry has so much left unwritten.

If we don’t act now, then when?

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State College native and Penn State graduate Jay Paterno is a father, husband and political volunteer. He’s a frequent guest lecturer on campus and at Penn State events and was the longtime quarterbacks coach for the Nittany Lions. His column appears every other Thursday. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/JayPaterno
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