Nebraska Politics

Call it by its name Pt 1: The problem is guns

Last Thursday, a couple hundred Lincolnites filled the Lincoln High School auditorium for a panel advertised as covering a wide range of topics related to school security, including: hiring more school resource officers or installing metal detectors; improving mental health services, threat assessment techniques and coordination among law enforcement; balancing Second Amendment rights with calls for gun control; impacts of violent video games and bullying; the role of faith organizations; and providing safe after-school activities through community learning centers. The panel was advertised as including school leaders, the chief of police, leaders of a mental health agency, a pastor, a high school student, and a concerned parent. On its face, a group of stakeholders deeply invested in the issue of gun violence in schools. However, there were some unusual choices and some obvious omissions. The concerned parent represented the johnny-come-lately Parents United for Greater School Security, a group of parents recently mobilized after Parkland “to promote and encourage schools to increase security to provide a safe place for our children.” This small group of parents, with all of 225 Facebook followers to date, is the group that proposed putting armed school resource officers (sworn members of the police force) in Lincoln’s twelve middle schools to the City Council and LPS in the first place. Missing from the panel were parents and community members with long-standing interest in schools and gun safety, such as members of the Lincoln Public Schools Parent-Teacher Organization or Nebraskans Against Gun Violence (NAGV). (If you were unable to attend or didn’t catch it live streaming, you can watch it here.)

Lincoln High School

At the start, we were promised a night of democracy by the moderator, Joe Starita, a journalism professor at UNL. Notably, Starita is not a professor of public policy, education, criminal justice, juvenile justice, school psychology or any of the many relevant fields to this discussion, thus adding to the list of curious choices for the panel. Due to his inability to control the event, it ended with dozens of people waiting for their turn to speak, including the youngest commenter– a middle school student who would be directly impacted by the plan on the table to place armed school resource officers in her school and middle schools across Lincoln.

In between, we were treated to rambling speeches, displays of white male privilege, religious proselytizing, outrageous outbursts from the panelist representing Parents United for Greater School Security, and wildly ineffectual moderation. However, there were also flashes of brilliance in the words of a brave few who stood up and called the problem by its name: guns.

Among the most moving of these statements was given by a young man who stated strongly, “I am white, male, mentally ill, I am autistic, I am a shut-in and I love my violent video games…What I have to say is we have a problem. We have a problem with guns.” He went on to say, “We need to put a frickin stop to this — nobody needs a f****** semi-automatic rifle.”

The meeting ended fittingly, if not prematurely, with strong statements from an NAGV member about what concerned citizens could do that very evening to improve the safety of children in schools and in homes across the city: lock up your guns. Locking up firearms not only prevents guns in schools, it prevents accidental shootings and suicides, which have contributed to 78 deaths and 169 injuries to children across the country since January 1st, 2018 (not including the Parkland shooting). That number could potentially rise to 1,300 by year’s end. These calls for personal responsibility in locking up firearms separately from ammunition was paired with calls for our community to create common sense gun laws through the city council that would hold individuals accountable when their guns are left unsecured and find their way into the hands of children or are stolen from unlocked cars.

The hard work of NAGV has preserved the right of the Lincoln City Council to create and enforce such gun ordinances by blocking preemption legislation at the state level. Rather than debate the Joint Public Agency’s (JPA) devil’s bargain of raising taxes for more support staff at Lincoln’s Community Learning Centers (which have been recognized by the national Coalition of Community Schools  for the amazing work they do for kids and families AND for armed student resource officers (SROs) in our middle schools (a move which has attracted national attention for criminalizing youth, especially children of color, despite a lack of rigorous research on the issue), we can act directly on the problem through commonsense city ordinances and a continued push to turn off the spigot of guns flooding into our communities and schools in the US.

If you were at the town hall on Thursday and didn’t get a chance to speak, you can participate in democracy every second and fourth Tuesday at the LPS school board meetings. The next one is April 10th at the LPS District Office located at 5905 O Street. We invite you to join other concerned community members to ask about (1) funding to support the expansion of the Community Learning Centers to the Title I schools that currently do not provide before and aftercare and other supports; (2) the research on school research officers nationally and on LPS’s own data on SROs, and school discipline referrals by gender and racial group, and (3) why many community members were left unheard at the mismanaged town hall, including a middle school student who would be directly impacted by armed SROs in their schools.