Thoughts on Newtown
by John Muldoon
While our world’s population continues to grow, safe havens for our youngest and most vulnerable shrink. We see images of dead or dying children in war torn or famine stricken countries and somehow we can deal with that. We protest, collect money and clothing and send aid. We can even live with the odd domestic child homicide.
Tragic but we move on.
We entered a new era on December 14, 2012. A gunman killing 20 young school children (12 girls, six boys) in the picturesque little town of Newtown, Connecticut ripped the emotional “guts” out of many.
There are no words to describe the sorrow, shock, anguish, sense of loss and total hopelessness when parents found out their children would never come home again. They are no more.
There was no safer place for these parents to send their children than the local elementary school. They faced mental challenges, new life experiences and made new friends. There were concerts, pageants and fundraising events and sporting activities. Soon there would be class dances and then graduation. Parents would bring their parents to see their child take the next step to higher learning and the next phase of their life.
This world suddenly stopped for these families the morning of December 14 – in a town where this kind of thing just doesn’t happen.
As a former civilian director of public affairs for a large Ontario police service and then communications manager for one of this country’s largest school boards, I was exposed both directly and indirectly to numerous situations involving young children. Most were unpleasant and in many cases the end result was quite tragic. The one difference was that there was usually only one victim.
I can assure you that any incident involving a child had an emotional toll on all of us and caused trauma and anguish. Multiply that 20 times and you start to appreciate the immensity of Newtown.
I am sure the first responders were not expecting to see what awaited them – the bodies of numerous young children and adults, frozen in time.
Surviving children were lead to a nearby fire station, where anxious parents would eventually meet up and reconnect with their child – but for some parents, there would be no reconnection.
The (state and local) police, volunteer firefighters and EMS kept their professional faces on, dealing with the injured and doing what all professionals are expected to do.
It could not have been easy. No amount of training could prepare them for the most emotionally depleting scene most would ever see. In the end, there were 26 dead – 20 children and six adults.
It has been my experience in both policing and education that the cooperation between teaching and senior staff, school administration and the police is excellent – and that’s the way it has to be.
As a young child, I knew I was safe when with my parents, grandparents, aunt and uncle or sometimes even an older sibling. I also knew I was safe at school. It embraced, nurtured and, at times, disciplined you but you knew you were safe. That day now appears to have passed. What are we going to do about it?
There seems to be complete government paralysis in the United States when it comes to moving the country forward. Strong lobbying groups for most every imaginable issue draw national media attention and support to stall or stop new legislation. Lobby groups pull out the constitution and point to the right to bear arms when gun control is raised. It is a no-win situation – so what can be done to prevent incidents like Newtown or Dawson College?
We could express sympathy, offer condolences and wait for the issue to fade away. That’s what happens when lobbies block any room for movement. Total frustration.
We need to review the legislation that allow us to purchase and carry guns. I know there are hunters and hobbyists who use their guns responsibly and keep them locked up as required. I don’t have a problem with that.
Where I do have a problem is with illegal weapons, especially handguns and semi automatic weapons. There are too many on our streets. We need stronger legislation and stiffer penalties for people who possess and use illegal firearms.
In response to a media question about this issue, Toronto police chief Bill Blair countered with a question of his own: “Do you want to protect your children or do we want to protect your gun collection?”
As ridiculous as the question sounds, that’s how basic the discussion has to be.
The federal and provincial governments should work together to develop joint school safety protocols. The prime minister should ask for an all-party committee made up of senators, MPs and senior bureaucrats from all the pertinent ministries. Senior police leaders, first nations and public health should support the committee as both resources and advocates.
This committee would have one objective – keep our young people safe.
Local boards of education and police departments need to set up formal protocols with well thought out strategic plans that cover major incidents and have real time mandatory testing – four times a year for Kindergarten to grade four and twice a year for grade five to eight.
Other changes we need to make:
Universities and colleges must work with local police departments to put an emergency plan in place and test it regularly. Institutions must also develop a formal method of contacting students.
Laws and penalties must reflect the seriousness of possessing an unregistered firearm, including doubling the sentence for using it in the commission of a crime.
All school districts must hold a parent/school district/local police joint safety meeting annually. Districts and police will explain terms (i.e. lock down), detail precautions they are taking to protect children and review possible scenarios so parents will better understand what is happening during an emergency.
Require by law all schools lock outside doors while school is in session.
All major school events, either on or off campus, must have at least one police officer in attendance.
School boards must develop a daily register of major events and send it to local police at least three days in advance.
Where funding and resources allow, increase the school liaison program in both elementary and high schools.
We may never know why the Newtown shooting occurred but law enforcement must remain vigilant. If a massacre can happen once, it can happen again – when we least expect it.
Protect all children but especially our most vulnerable – the young children.
Take a moment to shed a tear before carrying on – and never forget a tragedy in a small town where this kind of thing was never supposed to happen.
John Muldoon, APR, FCPRS, LM, was director of public affairs at Peel Regional Police through the ’90s and manager of communications and public affairs at the Toronto District School Board until March 2006. He has served on committees for the OACP and OMRON. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org .
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