Journal of the San Juan Islands


Lessons learned in ‘Sandy’ tragedy | Guest Column

December 31, 2012 · 5:21 PM

Bill Evans, superintendent, Lopez Island School District. / Contributed photo

By Bill Evans

My heart is broken as I reflect upon the tragic school shooting events of Dec. 14 at Sandy Hook Elementary.

That such innocent lives could so brutally be ripped from the tight fabric of that community and school, is unimaginable. In my career I have taught elementary and was an elementary principal.

I feel a heightened sense of grief as I remember the close relationships I shared with the young children and  staff in the schools in which I served. To imagine such a horrific event happening in any of those schools, literally drops me to my knees.

It was likely every administrator’s first reaction, to want to build an impenetrable wall around our schools to seal our children and staff from all real or imagined threats to their safety. Any of us would do anything to protect our students and staff.

We will all be looking carefully at our school security procedures and renewing our commitment to lock-down drills and the like. As we should, we will take a much needed look at everything from emergency communications to door locks, and everything in between, to best insure student and staff safety.

However, if there is anything we can learn from the horror of that December day at Sandy Hook Elementary, it is that even the best security systems will not guarantee protection from danger. Building thicker walls and higher fences, or arming the gatekeepers, will not fully address the real issues and dangers that pervade our society and threaten the innocent.

It is in the embrace of strangers that we will find our greatest protection and deterrent to danger. Strangers are the disenfranchised among us — those who are intentionally or unintentionally disenfranchised from the embrace of others, be it community, school, family, social services, or politics.

The stranger may look and be very much like us, and actually be daily among us, but anyone estranged by real or imagined differences imposed by self or others, may be a stranger to us.

In address of Sandy Hook Elementary and other tragedies, I challenge us to find ways to embrace the stranger within our communities, and our schools. Let us reach out to the bully, the mentally ill, the poor, the victims, the abusers.

A look at recent tragic shootings at schools and communities, by and large reveals the transgressors to be strangers in their communities, estranged by illness, anger, frustration, bullying, loneliness, or other manifestations of exclusion.

At what point did our schools or other communities fail to embrace these strangers within and fail to wrap our figurative or literal arms around the strangers among us? At what point did we fail to reach out to the disenfranchised with an offer of help, solace, or invitation?

What more can we do to build communities and schools of hope and compassion, to take in the strangers among us?  Let us be as pro-active in our efforts to build caring communities as we are re-active in building walls and arming the gatekeepers.

I believe it starts at school.

I urge our schools to become even better at developing compassionate environments and instruction that nurtures the skills, and the will, in each of our students to recognize and embrace the strangers within. Let us renew our commitment to do what we do best — teach... for compassion and tolerance.

Let us spend as much time teaching social skills and community-building as we do other basic skills. Let our high-stakes assessments also assess caring, kindness, and community-building skills to better inform our instruction. Let us add tolerance and inclusivity to our common core curriculums.

Let us create a generation that will model for the rest of us, a true democracy of caring.

In the embrace of strangers, and a conversion to membership in caring community, lies our long-term salvation from desperate acts of horror. Such an embrace will be infinitely more powerful and protective than the strongest gates, highest walls, or most heavily armed gatekeepers.

So, while we are reviewing our security measures, let us also review our curriculums and programs that promote care and compassion. Won’t you join me?

— Editor’s note: Bill Evans is superintendent of Lopez Island School District


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