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Fear and locked doors

Dear Ms. School District Superintendant
I’m writing to express my distaste for the recent board-level changes in school security policy. 
I chose to raise my children in this area in large part because I wanted them to grow up in an environment free of pervasive media-drive fear. Not free of risk, of course: none of us can ever live entirely free of risk. But I wanted them to grow up in an environment uncontaminated by the sort of fear and distrust that is rampant in larger centres and other countries. I wanted my children to believe that the world is by and large a good place filled with good people. I wanted them to learn to keep risk in perspective. 
[Our community] and [our K-12 public school] seemed to provide that kind of environment. The school and the community are friendly, open and trusting. Not to the point of stupidity, but they provide a balanced openness and acceptance. We have not fallen prey here to a paranoid distrust of each other or of strangers. Children in our area who are asked for directions by tourists respond helpfully rather than cowering in fear. The school has had an atmosphere of welcome acceptance. School staff have worked hard to build connections between school and community, between living and learning, between the natural world and the people living within it. Children attending school have felt part of a school community that encompasses the larger world, rather than held in an institutional community turned inwards, insulated and protected from the larger world. 
The new security policy strikes at the heart of this openness. It creates an atmosphere that draws a firm line between the scary outside world and the supposed safety of school. It is also a terribly unscientific interpretation of risk. Considering that schools are supposed to be helping children learn to critically examine and interpret information, this sets a very poor example. The risk of a Canadian school student dying in a motor vehicle accident on the way to or from school is hundreds of times higher than the risk of dying in a school shooting. Why are we letting a media frenzy relating to an incident in a different country with a radically different health care system and firearms law dictate which doors we can walk through?
If the school district is truly concerned about reducing the risk of school shootings from negligible to even-more-negligible, they should consider the factors that are commonly cited by experts as motivating such gunmen. School shooters tend to be isolated loners who are fearful and disempowered, and they tend to take out their anger on institutions where they perceive their isolation and disempowerment to have begun. Surely it is no stretch to see that a school lockdown policy — which inhibits the free interaction between school and community, which symbolizes the isolation of students from the wider world and which restricts student movement and location — will tend over the long run to increase the likelihood of disturbed individuals choosing that school as a target. It is no mystery why US rates of school shootings continue to rise as schools get more and more controlling and “secure.” Such policies are dehumanizing. They put up barriers. They isolate. All factors that play into the disturbed thought patterns of future potential mass-murderers.
For goodness sake, let’s keep risk in perspective. The risk of a school shooting here in our corner of rural BC is virtually nil. The risk of choking on a piece of food at a school lunch or dropping dead of cardiac arrest on the soccer field is higher. We’re not rushing around banning team sports or grapes. Why is the school district buying into media-driven fear, and in doing so eroding healthy attitudes towards community and the wider world, the sort of healthy attitudes that are protective against violence? I hope that the recent directive was a misguided attempt to comfort families by being seen to be doing something in light of the media hype surrounding a shooting in a nation very different from ours, and that upon realizing that parents do not need or want this sort of “comfort” the administration will revise the policy.
I urge you to rescind the current directive so that the wonderful healthy openness between students, families, school staff and communities can be preserved. Barriers build fear and resentment and reduce student security both real and perceived. A policy of openness serves our students, and their security, best.



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19 responses to “Fear and locked doors”

  1. Mrs. A Avatar

    So sorry you had to write this. Honestly, I'm shocked. I do hope people come to their senses quickly. Very well said though.

  2. Elaine Avatar

    Yes. It's such a shame that we've done this to ourselves and our kids.

  3. Anonymous Avatar

    Its not that we have done this to our kids, its soceity as a whole. It isn't just locking the doors of a school. How many times do you see kids playing on the streets after school, hanging out with their friends at the park etc. We have become a paranoid society where danger is lurking around every corner for our kids. I feel this generation of kids is going to have a hard time being an adult. Universities spend more time counselling kids today with anxieties then they ever did in the past. Not only do we “helicopter” parent but we have become a “helicopter” society.
    Its very sad what happened in the States. But we as Canadians can't be naive that it would never happen here. Its just too bad that its come to this,

  4. Deborah Avatar

    I'm sorry for everyone who is having to deal with this. You are quite correct that it is extremely unlikely for that sort of horror to happen in your corner of the world. I think the school is choosing to err on the side of caution…to make ensure that “unlikely” becomes “impossible”. The rate of gun violence in the US is slightly more than twice that of Canada (the homicide rate almost 3x)…the rate of gun violence in the US is five times that of Norway…yet Norway was the scene of a horrific massacre of dozens of young people less than two years ago. And Canada has had school shootings…14 people killed in one incident, which isn't that far off the worst of the US school shootings. I agree with you in that I do not want our small town school community to be tainted and transformed by security measures, and the odds seem low: of the average 16 crimes per year in my county, 4 are some sort of assault, usually by family/friends. So do we really need to make the school secure against a person with an assault rifle? I'd have to say…yes. Granted, these incidents are rare…but I've decided I cannot leave the safety of our children up to the good will of the neighborhood sociopath or someone who needs a few hostages. The school needs to be secure enough so that it isn't attractive to such types…I don't think that all schools need to be secured with razor wire and armed guards, but “situational awareness” is probably appropriate for everywhere…jmho.

  5. Miranda Hughes Avatar

    Sorry, Deborah, I totally disagree. Locking the doors does nothing “to make the secure against a person with an assault rifle.” Admitting only people who are signed in through the secretary at the front door does nothing to prevent the other sorts of risks either. Our principal cites irate parents as one of the risks, but those people would be signed in through the front door in a heartbeat.

    (As for school shootings in Canada, yes, they have happened. In the past hundred years there have been six people murdered in Canadian [pre-college-level] schools. Six in a hundred years. Two in the last twenty-five years. It's incredibly rare.)

    These measures do nothing to increase real safety; they only serve to promote institutional alienation of school from community, something which plays right into the culture of fear which is at the root of violence in North America.

  6. Mrs. A Avatar

    I was thinking of you a lot today as I was mentally composing a letter of my own. It seems Ontario is going to lock ALL school doors next year…it's another nail in the coffin of my opinion of our government.

  7. Miranda Hughes Avatar

    Yeah, I saw McGuinty's statement today. Sigh. I'm about to watch Bowling for Columbine again. I suppose it'll just make me feel more frustrated.

  8. Anonymous Avatar


    I have followed your blog for a few years, but never felt the urge to comment on a post until today. I'm very surprised that the school district in your community has chosen to make this policy change. Through reading your blog I have viewed your town as somewhat of a place that I only thought existed in storybooks. It certainly doesn't seem like a town that has any significant risk of crime. I hope that your school district chooses to reverse this new policy, as I would hate to see a place like that begin to give in to the fear that danger is lurking around every corner.

    I believe it is also worth pointing out that the school in the most recent US shooting had a locked door policy as well, and the gunman still managed to get in.

    As someone who currently lives in the US, it scares me that in the wake of this tragedy there are many people who believe that the solution to the problem is to have armed guards in all schools.

    I applaud your efforts to convince the school district to reverse their new policy and I hope it works.


  9. fancypotato Avatar

    Miranda, is this a reaction to your schoolboard locking the doors to your local school? It is just common sense to do so. I agree with most of your sentiments, except that I think a school shooting can happen anywhere. Small dramas play out in schools everywhere, most of which the general public is not made aware of, due to confidentiality concerns. No community is immune to such things and to think so is naiive.

  10. Miranda Hughes Avatar

    Common sense certainly is common. Please examine the sense aspect, though. Locking doors doesn't seem to protect schools from mass shootings. Because I work in a hospital setting, I'm more than aware of the potential for “small dramas” in public institutions. But I know that open-ness and compassion work far better than creating fortresses. And I also know that in schools the “small dramas” are almost universally initiated by people who would be admitted through locked doors without a second thought: parents of children and teenaged students.

    Please read again: I'm not saying my community is immune, and I'm not naive. I'm not saying school shootings can't happen. I'm saying the risk is so miniscule that it is dwarfed by many other risks we accept in our lives, and that the changes being made, while they give some people a satisfying sense of “doing everything possible,” are only likely to increase the risk of school violence over the long term.

  11. Matt, Kara, Hunter and Cavan Avatar

    I am a long time follower, but I don't believe I have ever commented.

    Your letter expresses my sentiments exactly! So far there hasn't been a movement to do the same here in our small community in the Yukon. I am hoping we don't head down that same path.

  12. Anonymous Avatar

    “The risk of a school shooting here in our corner of rural BC is virtually nil.”

    Not really, severe mental illness, etc exists everywhere. Violent video games, whatever the reason is .. .

    I actually agree with your comment that locking the doors does little to provide security from a mass shooting. However, it might slow down the person intent on doing damage.

    It can also prevent “minor dramas” from becoming major dramas which may humiliate a student. Think, mom, dad having a major meltdown outside the classroom door. Been there, done that several times. (If they sign in at the office then at least teacher can be made aware they are both in the building.)

    I am a teacher and I have trouble with locked doors too. We implemented a strict policy this year and it really bothered me. I felt it took out the welcoming atmosphere.

    When I look at Conn. I am so sad because I look at those kid's faces and I feel like I know them. That is why I have come to the acceptance of the locked doors at my school. It gives nervous parents a bit of peace of mind.

    I do think it could happen anywhere.

    Most hospitals that I know of have security attached to them and only one main entrance that is accessible to the public. The other doors are locked, in my experience.

    Yes, most situations handled with compassion can be managed but there are some that can't. Emotions escalate and rage incurs.

    Thanks for the respectful dialogue and I do have sympathy for your view. It makes me sad too.

  13. Miranda Hughes Avatar

    I guess it depends on your definition of “virtually nil.” With two school shooting murders in the past 25 years, and approximately 6 million school-aged children, that's a statistical risk of far less than one in a million per year. In fact it's 1.3 per hundred million per year. That's 1/145th the risk of drowning in the bathtub. Why are we not banning bathtubs? Of course school shootings *could* happen anywhere. But we cannot possibly banish all risk. We need to put risk in perspective and sensibly evaluate the cost/benefit equation when considering changes. In the case of our school in our community, the statistical risk is so miniscule as to be dwarfed many times over by the positive benefits of school open-ness.

    Our hospital has some alternate doors locked to prevent theft. When you've got a nursing station stocked with oxycodone and morphine, and only one nurse on duty most of the time, the theft risk is significant. But anyone is free to walk in the front door, and there's no signing in required. And the secondary door has a security code required, but it's to prevent nursing home residents with dementia from leaving, and there's a sign above the keypad saying “Code #: the year.” Anyone who knows it's 2012 can get in.

    This is a community where people don't lock their doors. Not when they're home. Not when they're not home. It's a community where vehicles are usually left unlocked, but the keys are often in the ignition. Locking doors here is so outside our day-to-day experience that it sends a very strong message. You can't brush it away as “just common sense” around here; it's very much outside our culture. Locked doors don't strike parents and kids here as no big deal. They're outside our daily experience.

    I don't buy the argument that alerting a teacher, busy in her classroom, that there are two potentially argumentative parents in the school at the same time will somehow slow down or defuse conflict between those parents.

    I agree with your comment that locked doors can give nervous parents a bit of peace of mind. That's all they really do, IMO. But in the case of our school in our community, it seems that most parents and staff are troubled by the locked door policy, rather than relieved. My letter to the superintendant has been widely circulated by people who feel exactly the same as I do. Even the PAC executive, who are vehemently opposed to the hypothetical risks of cellphones and wifi, are incensed about the shutting and locking of school doors. It's not working to give people peace of mind.

  14. MsJess Avatar

    For what it's worth the communities of Sandy Hook, Columbine and Virginia Tech or Dawson didn't think they were at risk for being attacked either.

  15. Miranda Hughes Avatar

    MsJess, I'm not saying (how often need I repeat this?) that there is no risk of a school shooting here. I'm saying that the risk is extremely low. One point three in a hundred million per year as I said in my comment above. By saying it's astronomically low, I'm not saying that it could never happen here. That would constitute a 0 in a hundred million chance, which isn't what we're talking about.

    I'm just saying that the likelihood of it happening here is so low that it does not justify the measures being understaken. And I say that because I believe that those measures will likely over the long run contribute to the sort of gun-toting, personal-protection-obsessed alienating-institution culture of fear that seems to have taken root in the US. These cultural differences are contributing to the tragic frequency of such shootings south of the border. I don't want the culture of fear creeping north into Canada.

  16. Deborah Avatar

    I think the unlocked doors & keys in the ignition is a small town thing…unrelated to the “culture of fear” people in the US are supposedly living under. I've lived in four low population areas in my life, and one big metropolitan area…and people in the small towns didn't lock their doors and people in the big town did. Period. (One of the houses we considered buying didn't even have locks on the doors.) Despite the fact that in our last town a deranged man had walked into an unlocked convent one night and fatally stabbed a couple of nuns, and despite the fact that a couple of thrill seeking kids had stolen a friend's car out of his driveway in the dead of night in the middle of the boonies and crashed it …the doors remain unlocked and the keys in the ignition. (Not everything you read about the “culture of fear” in the US is correct. Even in our area where people supposedly sit with in their living rooms with their shotguns on their knees, trigger fingers itching to enforce our state's “castle” laws, people walk into their neighbor's houses when their neighbors aren't home to borrow an egg or drop off a package or take care of pets or whatever. In fact, the US has enormous cultural diversity although it isn't apparent from the news.) But…I was raised by parents who locked their houses and locked their cars, and I've followed suit in most of the places I've lived because it doesn't seem like a bad idea…there's a difference between being “fear driven” and taking reasonable steps to secure something that's valuable. I think it's a mistake to think that crime is a matter of chance, of statistics. The fact that the incidence of crime is low is not necessarily predictive. Before it happened, the “chance” that a particular school in Connecticut would be the site of a deadly shooting was…virtually nil. Since 2000, there had been fewer than 60 (not including university) school shootings in the US…at this time there are about 55 million students, so the chance that a child would be shot and killed at school in 1 year was roughly 1 in 50 million. A lot less than the probability that a kid would drown in a bathtub. (The family “culture” has something to do with that “probability”: some of us didn't leave little kids alone in the tub.) Somehow that virtually nil “probability” of a school shooting translated into 26 deaths in CT. (Make no mistake: I think the root problem is that weapons that have no purpose other than warfare (possibly no legitimate purpose at all) are legal to own. Sadly, those weapons can be obtained, in my country at least, to those who would use them to commit heinous crimes.) I don't think that locked doors on schools are necessarily the answer. I don't know what should be done to make schools so clearly out of bounds that the criminally insane would never think of targeting them.
    However, it is clear (to me at least) that the present system is not working…in the US or elsewhere. The probability of replacing my kids is less than infinitesimal…it is indeed absolutely completely 100% nil.

  17. Deborah Avatar

    Checking back in to say I made math mistake in previous comment: 50 in 55 million is roughly 1 in 10 million, not 1 in 50 million. My bad.

  18. Miranda Hughes Avatar

    Obviously if your child is the 1 in 10 million killed in a school shooting, his probability of dying in a school shooting has become 100%. But it's really a misunderstanding of risk to use that information to assess the risk to others. It's an emotionally gut-wrenching way of looking at it, to view the risk through the eyes of parents whose children have been killed and say “their risk was 1 in 10 million too, and their kids are now dead. What does that tell me about a 1 in ten million risk? It tells me I could end up like that parent.” Well yes, but the likelihood is 1 in 10 million.

    The thing is, I agree with you that if there is something simple that you can do which will decrease even an astronomically low risk of a devastating event, why not do it? But I disagree that locking school doors will decrease that risk. Not only will it not decrease the risk of a sociopathic gunman shooting up the school tomorrow (because locked doors are really no deterrent to that sort of attack as Sandy Hook has so clearly shown) but I believe it will increase the likelihood of mass violence in schools in the future. Why? Because it promotes the alienation of schools from society, and creates a control-based environment around those they serve. Both those effects will make schools a more likely target for a sociopathic gunman in the future. Rather than trying to make schools “out of bounds” to the criminally insane, which really is going to be impossible without turning them into fortresses, I think we should make schools into friendly welcoming places that are integrated with communities. That will make them less likely to be selected as targets by the next generation of mass shooters. IMO.

  19. Aly Avatar

    Thanks for writing this. I agree with your opinions nearly 100%, and appreciate the couple of paragraphs in which you nailed things that I've still had trouble articulating well.

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