Instructional Leadership in Action

Some Thoughts on Ebola and Gun Violence

by Stephen Fink on Oct 29, 2014

Stephen_FinkLast week in the span of 36 hours I was confronted with the oddest juxtaposition of visual images; in total, a poignant manifestation of powerful events gripping our country.

The first event was another in a long series of school shootings. This time a high school in Washington state fell victim to gun violence. However this one was more than just close to home. I have been to Marysville-Pilchuck High School in Marysville, Washington. Our faculty and consultants at the University of Washington Center for Educational Leadership have worked extensively with the high school as well as the school district at large. In short, the faculty and staff in Marysville are our friends and colleagues. This is our home! Yes, gun violence can strike at anyone’s home.

I was in Milwaukee at the time of the shooting, attending the Council of the Great City Schools’ fall conference. Needless to say, the Great City school districts have seen their own share of gun violence over the years. I was struck with how difficult it was to get extended television news coverage of the school shooting on the late evening national news feeds. Of course there was competition that day. A doctor returning from West Africa tested positive for Ebola. 

But apparently, another school shooting – unless it rises to the scale of Columbine or Sandy Hook – is no longer the kind of news story that seizes our national airwaves. At the time, two students were dead and four others wounded in the shooting at Marysville-Pilchuck High School. Yet a scan of the late night national news seemed to convey, “Ho hum; another shooting; only two students killed.” In fact this was the 87th school shooting since Sandy Hook. Have school shootings become so frequent that it has become our new normal?

Eric Liu wrote a compelling opinion piece about this very topic, posted during that 36-hour period on CNN.com. In the context of this new normal, Liu stated, “It should not be. It cannot be. It’s not normal, in a civilized society to have over 30,000 gun deaths a year.” In light of this violence, Liu rightly challenged the grand notion of American exceptionalism. 

I left Milwaukee and flew to my next destination to work with a group of school superintendents in the rural southeast. On my drive from the airport to my motel I spoke with a close colleague of mine who is a deputy superintendent in another Washington state school district. He had just met with the city police chief who was emphatic that it is not a matter of “if you will be faced with an active shooter, but when.” Imagine that, the new normal plays out once again where police are imploring all school district officials to prepare for the inevitable. When I was in school we practiced drop, cover and hold in the event of a nuclear attack. The cold war is long over but now we must practice lock downs and other defensive techniques for the inevitability that someone will open fire in one of our schools.

I arrived at my motel in the late afternoon. I had to dodge a group of pre-teen girls who were playing tag in the parking lot. Even though it’s been 50 years, I remember the game of tag like it was yesterday. When you tag someone, you shout out, “you’re it!” The girls were playing by the same rules, however when they tagged one another they didn’t shout “you’re it.” Instead they shouted out, “you’re Ebola.” Back and forth it went with girls shouting, “I don’t have Ebola,” “you’re Ebola,” “you have Ebola, ha-ha,” and so forth.

What a curious and disturbing juxtaposition. For one, I suspect the odds of any one of those girls in the rural southeast contracting Ebola is much less than the odds of getting struck by lightning. Yet somehow they have been inculcated with the fear of Ebola, rampant in a media that understands more than anything that fear sells ratings; not to mention the shameless politicizing that is alive and well in our current election cycle.

A recent poll shared on CNN showed that 81% of Americans are following the news on Ebola closely. How many are following the news on school shootings? In another poll, approximately 65% of Americans were concerned that they or someone close to them may contract Ebola. How many of those same Americans are worried that they or someone close to them will be killed by gun violence?

While I love to see our youth playing outside in a healthy game of tag, I would prefer that they simply say, “tag, you’re it” rather than “tag, you’re Ebola.” But in the context of the new normal of school shootings, I suppose I should feel relief that they aren’t saying, “tag, you’re shot, now you’re dead.” For the odds of these innocent children getting shot in school are exponentially higher than contracting Ebola.

I would argue that the problem of eradicating gun violence in our schools is far more complex than that of Ebola. It doesn’t lend itself to a single, simple solution. We cannot quarantine our way out of this. Given this complexity, it is even more important that we maintain a vigorous national conversation aimed at identifying and enacting policies and strategies that will keep our children safe at schools. It’s time that gun violence receives the same kind of national attention and response as Ebola. Our schools will all be safer as a result.

About the author: Stephen Fink

Dr. Stephen Fink is the executive director of the University of Washington Center for Educational Leadership (CEL), and affiliate professor of educational leadership and policy studies in the University of Washington College of Education. Dr. Fink is co-author of Leading for Instructional Improvement: How Successful Leaders Develop Teaching and Learning Expertise.

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