Superintendent’s Notebook: A pivotal moment against gun violence in schools

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Students who survived the shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida on Valentine’s Day are telling us they don’t want other students to experience what they did. They created the #NeverAgain movement to advocate for stricter gun control, resulting in the National School Walkout March 14.

Portland’s high school and middle school students decided to join in this peaceful statement against gun violence. Because school was closed March 14 for a snow day, we allowed a brief intermission during school on March 15 to permit students to express their viewpoints in a constructive, non-coercive way. Students with different viewpoints also were allowed to use this time to speak their minds.

We’re proud that our students chose to advocate for their beliefs. As educators, we look for teachable moments to engage students in civic life. This is one of those moments.

I am encouraged that students are leading the way on this issue. These senseless tragedies have become all too familiar to us, but this time – thanks to our young people – we appear to be at a pivotal moment.

Adults need to do their part, and educators must ensure that our schools remain safe learning environments. Unfortunately, in spite of our best efforts, we can’t completely protect our schools from every possible threat. That is something that I lose sleep over. However, we can plan and prepare to minimize the circumstances that lead up to these situations.

Enhanced security measures are a part of this, as are drills and practice. Also a part of this is staying connected to our students and having strong mental health supports in our schools and in the community. Another part is training our staff to recognize signs of disconnectedness and to know where to go for help.

I also believe that educators must take a proactive role in changing the policy climate in which school shootings have become far too commonplace.

Policies that limit access to guns must be part of this. As an educator responsible for the safekeeping of about 6,700 students each day, I am dismayed that our state and federal lawmakers cannot seem to agree on reasonable legislation to reduce the likelihood of such catastrophic events.

I’m distraught that a bill before the Maine Legislature would allow those picking up or dropping off students at schools to have firearms in their cars. LD 1761 has the potential of making schools less safe and is opposed by the Maine School Management Association, the Maine Gun Safety Coalition and many other parties. I urge you to contact your legislators to vote down this bill, which was still pending as of this writing.

I’m dismayed by calls to arm teachers. Make no mistake, teachers and school staff will put themselves in harm’s way for their students, as we witnessed in the recent Florida school shooting. But no teacher or principal, no matter how well trained, should be asked to decide whether to leave the children in their immediate care to become first-responders. It’s time for serious legislative proposals, not red herrings.

I’m encouraged by a proposal before the Legislature, “An Act To Create a Community Protection Order.” The bill would provide an avenue to petition the courts to temporarily remove weapons from a high-risk individual who potentially poses a threat to others or themselves. LR 2943 is still in draft form, but could be finalized for a public hearing soon.

I’m also encouraged by the response from educators. Maine Educators United Against Gun Violence held a rally March 15 on the steps of City Hall, in which I and many of our teachers and staff participated. I look forward to being part of subsequent actions by this coalition.

As a voter, I support laws that limit access to weapons, including bans on certain types of weapons, strong background checks and the elimination of loopholes for obtaining guns. I encourage my colleagues to express their guaranteed right to free speech on this issue.

We need a thoughtful and proactive discussion if we’re going to effect the change our students and schools need.

Xavier Botana is superintendent of the Portland Public Schools. He can be reached at superintendent@portlandschools.org.

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