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For Safer Schools, We Need Safer Communities

Judy Belk

With the President proposing to arm the nation’s teachers and with students and schools organizing walkouts to protest gun violence, I find myself thinking about a kindergarten class in West Oakland, California. It’s a class of 22 students, mostly African American kids. It’s in a neighborhood in transition, a place where rising home prices coexist with a legacy of crime, violence and trauma that just won’t quit.

Last year, in the middle of a January afternoon, the entire school went into lockdown because of a homicide down the block. It’s a sad sign of our times: children and teachers huddled under desks, dutifully waiting for the all-clear from administrators and police.

I think about the kids in that kindergarten class because their teacher is my daughter. It’s Casey’s second teaching job since graduating from college. In a tour of the first school she worked at in St. Louis, she showed me bullet holes in the walls. Casey loves teaching, but she gets frustrated with the debate about violence and guns in this country. She says it doesn’t come close to reflecting the reality of the world her students live in every day.

“The idea that 5-year-olds can get numb and accustomed to violence and trauma is a national tragedy,” she told me. On the notion of arming teachers, she said she would do anything for her students – but packing heat doesn’t make sense. She added, “My classroom is a nut-free zone so that I can keep my students with nut allergies safe. It's absurd to think guns would be allowed but trail mix will not.”

The high school shooting in Parkland, Florida, last month has galvanized a movement. The protests this week, and the advocacy of the brave young students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, are reminding all of us what it looks like to speak truth to power.

The upsurge in youth activism and organizing already is changing the national dialogue not just about guns but about civil rights and education, among other issues. As the debate continues on how to stop gun violence, I hope we can make room in the conversation for those precious kids in Casey’s class.

We need to do everything in our power to prevent mass shootings, whether they happen in schools or offices, at country music concerts or nightclubs, or anywhere else. At the same time, we need to recognize that gun violence is an everyday affliction in communities across the country, particularly communities of color. And there are concrete steps we can take to reduce domestic violence, community violence and suicide, which is the number-one cause of gun deaths in the United States.

The state of California shows the path forward. In 2014, we became the first state to enact a gun violence restraining order law, which allows concerned family members and law enforcement to work with the courts to temporarily remove firearms from individuals who are judged to be a danger to themselves or others. California law also requires all gun sales to be processed through a licensed dealer with background checks, bans assault weapons, prohibits the sale of large-capacity ammunition magazines, and requires a 10-day waiting (or “cooling-off”) period before taking possession of a gun.

But in California and across the nation, we must do more to address everyday violence. That’s why it’s so inspiring to see young people around the country speaking out for change. It gives me hope for Casey’s kindergarteners, and for the millions whose lives have been touched by gun violence.

Sadly, I am one of those millions. In 1980, my sister, Vickie, was murdered with a gun. She went off to work at her government job in DC one day and never came home. She was 28 years old, the mother of an 8-year-old boy, and a leader in the family church in Alexandria that our great-grandfather founded in the 1800s.

I think about Vickie every day. Thirty-eight years after her death, I wonder when our nation will finally get serious about addressing the gun violence crisis, which claims more than 30,000 lives every year. That’s the equivalent of the entire undergraduate population at UCLA or Iowa State University — gone.

Is the mass shooting in Parkland going to be the wake-up call that finally stirs us to action? I hope so. Let’s not lose this moment to achieve real progress in making our schools — and our communities — safer from violence and trauma. The next generation is calling for real action. It’s time for adults to stand up and listen.

For more about youth activism and gun violence prevention efforts, connect with these organizations and resources:

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