By Jeff Woodburn
My large frame is hard to hide, but I do my best. I'm scrunched down in the corner of my classroom, a dozen or so seventh-graders are gathered around me. The lights are off, shades down and door locked, or so I hope. If this were not a safety drill, I'm afraid I'd be an easy target even for a poor sighted armed-intruder. I wonder in the uncomfortable silence, what students in Japan are doing while we prepare for this near-statistical impossibility.
In a moment, the principal's voice pierces the quiet and ushers us back to work. If schools are anything today, they're safe; possibly to the point of paranoia. After all, state law requires all schools to be not only “safe,” but also “secure, and peaceful.” Yet when a rare breach of security does occur, like in December when a seventh-grade English teacher was charged with a spree of bank robberies, the authorities wilt providing little candor or confidence.
After Hollis-Brookline Middle School teacher Gail Rasmussen was arrested, Brookline Police Sergeant Michael Kurland reassured parents. "My biggest concern,” he said, “is the speculation that's out there that these kids weren't safe.” He added "This was a non-violent crime.” She was released on $500 bail and required to remain in a live-in treatment center that caters to gambling addicts until she gets her day in court.
Despite this shocking anomaly, schools, as well as society in general, are safer than ever before. By every statistical measure we are safer today than at any other time in human history. Just over a century ago it was common for immigrant parents to bury a child or two. They lived in a time of vast danger, poverty, and cruelty, yet they didn’t wallow in it. They didn’t have the time; they had a slew of other kids to tend to and countless other tasks just to survive.
These parents modeled how to deal with real adversity and they did it with a steel-like resilience and an optimistic spirit, and apparently their offspring learned something along the way. After all, these kids went on to become “the greatest generation” by surviving the Great Depression and winning the Second World War.
Of course, when events like those at the Hollis-Brookline school occur, the lawyers come in and common sense goes out. Certainly, counselors are helping students as they move from shock to anger and eventually to understanding. But more than what kids are feeling, I’m interested in what they are learning. Rest assured, Ms. Rasmussen’s seventh -grade students are learning from this experience. Hopefully, they’re learning that there are always consequences for poor decisions; one must take responsibility for their own physical and mental well-being and finally that redemption can be earned in time.
I put this question to Dr. Jerry Melvin, who led the North Syracuse, New York, school system, during a similar situation. Last year one of their high school’s math teachers was charged and convicted of bank robbery.
Melvin, who has New Hampshire ties having been a principal in Keene and Superintendent at Exeter in the 1970s, couldn’t say much as it was a personnel issue. He did add, that “Initially it was very difficult on the students and staff. It shocked them.”
That teacher, by the way, received a sentence of only four years in prison in part because he had a gambling addiction and that the 12-gauge shotgun, which he used during the robbery, was not loaded and had a trigger lock. I guess this proves once again that being safe is not only smart, but saves time.
Jeff Woodburn of Dalton is a teacher and writer. He's taught in middle and high school settings. Previously, he owned an award-winning real estate firm and was prominent in state politics. He and his wife and four children live on a small hill farm, where they raise poultry.