Community forum: Schools at a crossroads

By Caroline Pryor

Our students and schools rank high across many standards, and community pride runs strong. Neither the schools nor the students are perfect, and it seems like just about everybody has an idea for improvement, but we have much to be grateful for. Thank you to community members, parents, staff and taxpayers for the strong and steady support you provide each year. And thank you, students, for being who you are.

As my school board service comes to a close, I have more questions than answers. The ideas expressed here are my own.

Our schools and communities are at a crossroads with a number of tough, complex issues, including gun violence, substance abuse in and out of school, a growing population of children with special needs, a high school dropout rate of 1 in 10, flat or declining student enrollment (depending on the town) and annually increasing school budgets in towns working hard to keep property tax increases to a minimum.

These issues don’t start and stop at the school entrance. They reflect larger family and societal factors. But at school, the issues are magnified, have implications for fellow students and are costly in many ways. Administrators, teachers and school board members cannot solve these complex problems on their own. New, different conversations and creative solutions are needed. These must be based on facts, good science and fiscal responsibility. They also must be rooted in compassion and understanding.

I ask myself and I ask you, how can we prevent tragedies like the one in Parkland, Fla.? What will make our schools, churches, movie theaters, concerts, parades, etc., safe from random and planned acts of gun violence?

“My parents chose Parkland to settle in because of Marjory Stoneman Douglas’s stellar reputation, and because we thought that it was a safe place to live,” a student survivor there said. “But that isn’t true anymore. The promise of safety and security failed us.”

The town and school names are interchangeable with ours. Those students are our students. We’d rather not think about this reality. Thankfully, our children are thinking, talking, making signs, demonstrating, taking part in democracy in silence and with new-found voice, standing up for their rights when adults are not. If we haven’t reached a tipping point, have we become callous?

Walkouts, “walk-ups,” random and planned acts of kindness are part of the solution. So is universal health care, including for mental health services.

Among developed nations, the U.S. has far and away the most gun violence, and the majority of Americans want reform of permissive gun laws. Let’s open our hearts and minds, and talk about the Second Amendment, including its limitations, just like our right to free speech. Let’s find common-sense solutions. Why are politicians who work against the needs of children, schools and communities elected and sometimes re-elected?

Does the sale of semiautomatic weapons supersede an individual’s right to safely attend school or participate in a public event? Why are more background checks required to get a job or rent an apartment than buy a gun? Why do we register cars, boats and dogs but not guns? Why can I purchase bullets designed to pierce bulletproof vests? What if gun owners carried insurance, like car, boat, home and business owners? Why are there gun shows where just about anybody can buy anything? What place do military-style, high-capacity weapons have in a civilized society? How can we better protect the lives of people of color and first responders, with disproportionately high rates of death and injury, from gun violence?

Let’s dig deep and find the resolve to change this sad story that keeps repeating itself.

Common-sense solutions include universal background checks and a national database of gun owners. We could increase regulation of gun ownership for those with criminal records, domestic violence, drug and alcohol convictions, and mental illness. We could increase regulation of semiautomatic weapons, the so-called weapons of choice in mass shootings. We could commission research on the effects of gun violence on our society.

School-based solutions include early identification and support for children with learning and behavioral needs. Often called RTI (response to intervention), many schools do this well. Our high school dropout rate is starting to decrease. Students at risk are finding ways and reasons to stay engaged, get that diploma or equivalency, and contribute to society. Standards-based learning is gradually empowering students, including those who don’t get it right the first time. However, we still expel and isolate children. What alternatives might work better?

Staff and students keep a caring eye out for those on the edge, stressed at school or home, kids who feel isolated, lonely, bullied, hungry for attention, explosive, unloved. Staff strives for continuous improvement, modeling the spirit of learning we teach. They deserve our daily thanks and the competitive compensation package in school budgets. What more can be done?

Security doors, gates, cameras, shooter drills and police in the schools have their place, but let’s not live under the illusion that they prevent horrific tragedies. Columbine, Marjory Stoneman Douglas, Virginia Tech and other schools had all these last defenses and more. It’s about the assailant and the weapon.

What lessons can we learn from democracies in Canada, Australia, Finland, Norway, Sweden, the U.K., Japan, France, Portugal, Italy, Germany Spain, South Korea and other countries not plagued with the level of gun violence we live with?

We can’t afford to let our students and communities down on these really big issues. If we don’t speak up and work for change, who will?

Caroline Pryor is the chair of the Mount Desert Elementary School Board and serves on the MDI High School and AOS 91 school boards.

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