As the mother of school-aged kids in Denver, I could almost hear the pre-dawn groans from the other parents waking up Wednesday to automated calls notifying us that schools were closed.
The experience has become familiar. We have faced so many unscheduled school closings this academic year that the disorientation of reorganizing a day at a moment’s notice has become a sad norm. First there was the teacher’s strike, which presented us with tough decisions about sending our kids to schools with picket lines and substitutes. Then there was the bomb cyclone and the subsequent loss of power in areas that closed schools for additional days. Throw in another random snow storm here and there and the students in Denver-area schools have had so many unexpected days off that I’ve lost count.
But this time was different: The closure was because of a safety threat. It appeared a young woman inspired by the 20th anniversary of the Columbine shooting had traveled to Denver, purchased a gun, and was a threat to students in school.
On Tuesday night, having heard the news of the possible threat, I and many other parents tried to reassure our anxious kids and teens. We told them that the odds of this troubled woman finding her way to their particular school were very low, especially given all the steps that school staff were taking to keep them safe. We told them that the teachers, administrators, and police would be vigilant about security so that they could go to class safely.
Then, Wednesday morning, we had to say, “Well, actually no, the schools don’t think they can keep you safe, so you can’t go.”
My Facebook feed was filled with frustrated, angry Denver-area parents outraged that they had to explain to their 6- or 16-year-old why they could not go to school. And then, after the woman was found dead, we had to explain to our children that, in fact, you do have to return to your school that wasn’t so sure it could keep you safe a short time ago.
These were tough conversations based on real fears, even for those without kids. I work at a local university where my graduate students worried that the potentially violent woman with a gun would just look up the list of closed schools, see that the university was not on it, and come find us. We sat discussing this in a classroom with a glass door that we locked to make ourselves feel better.
And although school closures have become common this year, Wednesday’s was unique.
The weather-related closings are part of living in this climate. The teacher’s strike was an opportunity for local activism and an important civics lesson for students. But this one was something we should have been able to prevent. This is about our failure as a society to enact common-sense gun control laws and to take care of the most emotionally vulnerable among us.
A young woman with her own demons can fly across the country, buy a gun, and shut down about 500,000 students’ access to education. While the decision to close multiple school districts must have been a difficult one for officials to make, and I appreciate the steps taken to keep students safe, what does the response communicate to other potentially violent individuals? Why are we as a country more willing to close schools, to tell teachers they should put themselves between their students and a threat, and to build memorials, than we are willing to enact common-sense gun laws?
Canceled school days have upended parents’ plans for many days this year, but this week’s closures reminded me that it is our priorities as a society that are seriously upside-down.
I try to explore the range of beliefs regarding gun control with my kids. My teens try to help me understand what it is like to have been born after Columbine and to grow up in an era when school shootings and lockdown drills are an expected part of life. We are all figuring out what it feels like to return to school after so many districts decided the only way to keep students safe was to close down.
We know this one sad ending does not mean they are safe from future gun violence, in school or out. Schools have often been expected to cope with and to fix social ills — poverty, inequality, the impact of trauma — and this is no different. It’s difficult not to feel angry when they don’t protect us from gun violence and angry when they admit that they can’t.
For my family, returning to school today brought the sound of very early alarms and parental nagging to get out of bed. For now, I hope our routines will provide a sense of safety, even though we know they offer no guarantees.
Orah Fireman is a parent of two Denver Public Schools students.