There was a time when the biggest school safety worries were someone falling off the playground equipment or a high schooler injured in shop or home economics classes.
Parents sent their kids off in the morning concerned mostly about lunches, homework and paper machier science projects, not whether the school could be the target of a random attack by a gun-wielding thug.
Then came Columbine, when two deranged students killed 13 of their classmates and teachers in a 1999 shooting spree at a Colorado high school. That incident was followed over the years by a handful of less deadly copycat incidents that raised anxiety levels even higher.
Then came Sandy Hook, a year ago this Saturday, when a madman’s shooting spree killed 26 at a Newtown, Conn., school.
It was not surprising, then, that Gainesville High and local law enforcement officials responded seriously to last week’s hand-scrawled threat in the boys bathroom that there “would not be a Gainesville High School after Thursday,” with references to weapons and explosives. Though it was believed to be a prank, security efforts were ramped up, police presence increased and backpacks searched. It was enough of a scare that the absentee rate was higher than usual that day.
In the end, two GHS students were arrested for a threat that was never carried out. School and law officials handled the situation well, raising the alert without going too far. They were open and transparent, making parents aware while taking necessary precautions. Yet they did not cancel classes, which may have been the pranksters’ intent.
Through it all, city and school officials worked together effectively without causing a panic. That’s the fine line they have to walk in such a case, and they did it well.
Gainesville leaders had to weigh what so many school and safety authorities have to consider when such incidents occur: How much precaution is just right? The answers are not easy.
We all tend to scoff at reports of zero tolerance measures that cross the line into ridicule: Kids sent home for pointing their fingers like a gun, or for bringing harmless implements to school that someone deemed to be a weapon. When we hear of such, we roll our eyes and wonder if school administrators have lost their minds and become scared of their own shadows.
But such skittishness, while silly at times, is also understandable. It’s easy to get complacent and brush off minor scares. Yet with Columbine and Sandy Hook in the back of their minds, no principal wants to be the one who fails to react properly to a real threat. Thus, they err on the side of caution. Put yourself in their shoes and you likely would do the same.
This is why visits to public schools aren’t like they once were. You no longer walk in freely through open doors toward a classroom unescorted to deliver a book, have lunch or pick up a sick child. Doors are locked, resource officers patrol campuses, cameras and security checkposts are in place and visitors are required to sign in and wear badges.
It’s also why Gainesville school board members are considering keeping high-powered rifles safely secured on school properties to give officers the firepower to defend against a potential shooter. A majority of residents seem to favor the idea — including more than two-thirds who responded to an unscientific online Times poll — though it wouldn’t have been on anyone’s radar a generation ago.
And every school incident rekindles the debate about gun control laws, which are turning up again as the Sandy Hook anniversary is noted. But the weapons used there, as in similar shootings, were acquired legally, and the shootings occurred in a state with gun laws ranking among the nation’s most strict.
As said many times, attempts to limit legal sales of weapons would have little effect on those with sick minds and troubled souls who are determined to carry out violent acts.
The true solution lies in how we deal with such people, a complex puzzle to solve. Until we find such answers, it’s reasonable for schools to take whatever precautions are necessary to keep students and teachers safe.
If the long and ongoing war against terrorism has taught us anything, it is that there is no guarantee of safety, anywhere, for anyone. That said, vigilance by all concerned is the best safeguard. Those who became aware of the threat at GHS did the right thing by reporting it; those to whom it was reported did the right thing by involving law enforcement. Working together, cool heads produced the correct, measured response.
Maybe one day we can again worry only about kids banging their heads on the playground or getting burned in a cooking class. Until then, incidents like those of last week demand thoughtful action, professionally executed, which is what we witnessed at Gainesville High.