Fixing the Well
By Janet Marshall Watkins
Last June, a month after the mass murder at Uvalde Elementary School in Texas, I saw a post on our local school system’s Facebook page about a meeting that had taken place to enhance school safety. It showed a group of educators and police officers in a posed photo and noted that they’d “reviewed the School Crisis, Emergency Management and Medical Emergency Response Plan” and had also discussed things like security camera upgrades and police access to buildings.
The focus was clearly on how to respond well in a crisis, and obviously we want police to respond well in a crisis — unlike in Uvalde where the 376 law enforcement officers who responded waited an unconscionable 77 minutes before going in. But something about the Facebook post bothered me:
The talk was all about responding to shootings, but nothing about how to prevent them.
If I knew how to prevent every school shooting, I’d probably be testifying before Congress, not writing for Pie & Chai. But as a mom, former journalist, child safety advocate and founding member of our local Moms Demand Action group, I’ve been deep-diving into gun violence research for years, and there are common-sense strategies that deserve — and frankly have — tremendous support. Congress may not ever do enough to curb gun violence in America, but schools have a unique ability to reach families in ways that can keep kids — and all of us — safer. And while we can’t expect schools to solve every societal ill, they should be proactive about trying to keep guns out of kids’ hands.
Children who bring guns to school almost always get them at home, and millions of kids live in homes with unsecured guns. Those guns aren’t just used in school shootings, but also in suicides and accidental shootings. The sad reality is that firearm-related deaths surpassed car accidents as the leading killer of children and teens in 2020, according to the CDC. What has long been clear to me—and should be clear to everyone—is that parents who choose to have guns need to lock them up and store their ammunition separately to keep kids from accessing them. And parents should understand not just the human consequences of failing to do so, but also the legal consequences. In Virginia, it’s illegal for a loaded gun to be accessible to a child under 14. (It’s only a misdemeanor, and I don’t know why it’s fine for a loaded gun to be accessible to a 15-year-old, but at least Virginia has a law related to gun storage. Not all states do.)
All this came to mind when I saw the school system’s Facebook post about school safety. So at 9 that night, on June 29, 2022–a month after an 18-year-old former student gunned down 21 children and teachers in Uvalde–I emailed Fredericksburg Schools Superintendent Marci Catlett and the School Board.
Dear Dr. Catlett and Members of the Board:
I noticed a post on the city schools’ Facebook page about how school and police officials met recently to discuss school safety. I’m writing to request that you send letters home with each student notifying their parents about the importance of storing guns safely. As you surely know, research shows that most school shooters are students or former students; most (when under 18) get their guns at home or from a friend’s or relatives’ home; and millions of kids live in homes with unsecured, loaded guns.
Urging parents to safely secure their guns would be a tremendous public service, especially in the wake of Uvalde. Your efforts could minimize the risk of school shootings, suicides and accidental shootings.
Parents who need help figuring out how to safely store guns could tap into the RACSB’s Lock and Talk program, which provides free gun locks, or consult besmartforkids.org for other ideas. It’d also be good for parents to know that under Virginia law, it is “unlawful for any person to recklessly leave a loaded, unsecured firearm in such a manner as to endanger the life or limb of any child under the age of fourteen.”
I hope you’ll consider this request, and I appreciate all you do for the city’s children.
Dr. Catlett, a longtime educator, wrote back a little after 8 the next morning.
Good morning Ms. Watkins,
I hope you are doing well. Thank you for your timely email regarding this critical issue surrounding the safety of our schools and gun control. We have made this a priority as we plan for the new school year. We are having our second “Safety Summit” next week. We will certainly share your request with our team. Again, thank you so much for your interest and support of our schools. It matters!
I responded later that same day, thanking Dr. Catlett for her email. I also attached a sample letter to parents that I said could easily be modified to fit the city’s needs; the letter is posted on the Students Demand Action website, and it’s been modified and used by many school systems around the country. Click here to read it.
Dr. Catlett responded with a quick note of thanks that evening. And that ended our email thread–for a while. The school safety committee kept meeting and posting updates online about its efforts, which had a lot to do with emergency response. Staff underwent “critical incident training,” and the schools installed “breach kits” to make sure police have the tools they need to break down doors in a crisis.
What I didn’t see was a letter urging parents to lock up their guns.
Six months later, on January 6, 2023, a 6-year-old in Newport News took his mother’s gun to school and shot his teacher, a young James Madison University grad, in the hand and chest.
Any place in America can be the scene of the next shooting, but this one hit close to home. On the morning of Sunday, January 8, 2023, I emailed Dr. Catlett and the Board again.
I’m writing to see if you’ve sent letters to students’ parents urging them to store their guns safely. This seems particularly urgent in light of the shooting of a teacher by a 6-year-old in Newport News a few days ago. The thread of our previous correspondence about this issue is below, and I’m reattaching a sample letter you could send to parents, in case that’s helpful. My youngest child graduated last year, so I realize it’s possible you’ve already sent letters to parents about the vital importance of storing guns safely; if that’s the case, thank you! If not, I hope you’ll do it soon. I’ve read and heard a lot about how schools/police plan to respond to school shootings, but far less about school-based efforts to keep guns out of kids’ hands in the first place.
Later that same Sunday morning, Dr. Catlett wrote back:
Good morning Ms. Watkins,
I hope you are well. Like everyone, the horrific and unbelievable tragedy that occurred Friday has consumed my thoughts the entire weekend. Thank you for the timely email and for resending the sample letter. I will share the information with the Communications & Safety Team as soon as possible. Again, thank you and we appreciate your unwavering support and concern for our school division and community!
The next day, the School Board met. The deputy superintendent talked about school safety — specifically about the breach kits, but also about how the school system would now be sending letters to parents encouraging them to keep their guns and ammunition locked up.
The letter went out the next day– a modified version of the Students Demand Action sample letter I’d sent Dr. Catlett. The city’s letter, which you can read here, encouraged parents to lock their guns. It said, among other things, that schools have gotten free gun locks from the local Community Services Board, and parents can get one by calling the school.
Fredericksburg City Schools have now joined with dozens of districts around the country in trying to prevent shootings, rather than just respond to them, by notifying parents about the need to safely store guns. Will the letter be read? Will a careless parent become careful? Who knows. But as Dr. Catlett and I agreed in a follow-up email exchange, if even one life is saved, the prevention effort will have been worthwhile.
I’m grateful to city school leaders for embracing a multifaceted approach to safety that includes urging parents to secure their guns. For years, we’ve forced children to prepare for the worst by making then endure school shooter drills. But adults should be shouldering this burden, and that means urging them to lock their guns–and holding them accountable when they don’t. I’m weary of reading headlines about “accidental” shootings involving young children who got their parents’ guns and shot a sibling or friend or parent. Those shootings aren’t accidents; they’re the result of parental negligence.
Meanwhile, in Newport News, the school district has announced that dozens of metal detectors will be installed at area schools, starting with the elementary school where the child, who had brought the gun from home, shot and critically wounded his first-grade teacher.
It’s entirely possible that one of those detectors will spot a gun at some point. It’s also possible that whoever’s manning the detector will disarm the person who brought the gun before anything awful happens. “See? Metal detectors work,” people will likely say. But work at what?
Metal detectors exist because even 6-year-olds can get their hands on guns and fire them. (Disturbingly, children “as young as 3 may be strong enough to pull the trigger of a handgun,” according to Nationwide Children’s Hospital’s webpage on gun safety.)
You can’t blame schools for wanting to do something tangible, something to insulate them from being the scene of the next crisis. But the whole situation reminds me of a TedTalk by trauma expert Dr. Nadine Burke-Harris. In it, Burke-Harris describes the difference between responding to a problem and trying to eradicate it. If a whole bunch of people get sick, Burke-Harris says, and they’re all drinking the same well water, you can prescribe antibiotics all day every day. But if you want people to stop getting sick, you have to fix the well.
Installing metal detectors is like prescribing antibiotics. We have to fix the well.
Janet Marshall Watkins, the co-founder of Pie & Chai, is a non-profit director, mom and former journalist. She walks her dog a lot and volunteers as often as she can at The Table at St. George’s, a market-style pantry that provides fresh, free produce for people in need.