Ten Years After Columbine: A Letter to A Principal After Virginia Tech

[Originally sent to my son’s school principal, on April 27, 2007] – In many ways, this letter has been in the making for a long time. Delay in writing has in large measure been the result of my confidence in your leadership, and, as an educator of teachers and education leaders, a profound understanding of the challenges you face as a public school principal. It is as a colleague that I offer the following criticisms and suggestions.

The recent tragedy at Virginia Tech has raised in me a profound desire to act so as to stop things from “going from bad to worse.” For years I have studied school violence, and for years, I have witnessed the same misguided reaction to each violent incident. I have calmly explained to my son my opposition to the growing policing and surveillance of our children and youth (in the name of their security) and explained to him my understanding that such policies only serve to reinforce in the youth a sense of powerlessness, a sense of criminality that they do not deserve. How can the youth be held responsible for a world not of their own making? (I would be amiss if I did not commend you for not overreacting to the recent toy BB gun incident.)

I have, in my years of study, found absolutely no evidence that the typical security measures adopted by our schools have assisted the youth, teachers or administrators in contending with the growing social breakdown that is evidenced in mass killings of youth by youth.

School “lockdowns” are among the commonly adopted measures, and in this way, you can see that the immediate impetus for this letter arises in response to your April 23 notice to parents explaining the measures you have chosen to take … to make our children safe. You outlined the lockdown procedures and assured parents that instruction will continue during the lockdown.

With all due respect, I do not believe that quality instruction will be possible under conditions of lockdown. Such a practice sends a confused message to students and teachers: you are potentially under attack, but you should proceed as normal. How is this helpful? The notorious nuclear drills of the 1960s come to mind, exercises that had a negative impact on the socialization of Americans (not to mention ineffective in the event of a real attack). The young men and women at Virginia Tech were instructed to duck and hide, as they or their friends were picked off one by one. How is training our youth to be passive in the face of attack helpful? Can we do nothing but pull down the blinds? I can’t help but see such procedure as metaphor for how we relate to society.

While I suppose we could have a reasonable argument about what security drills are most useful …, the real issue, I think, is this: the President of the United States has publicly stated that the events of last Monday are impossible to understand. If such events are “impossible to understand,” how is that so many officials move so quickly to propose solutions—such as lockdowns, more surveillance, more ID cards, more police, more restriction of movement, more restrictions on rights—while admitting no understanding of the cause of the violence?

Violent acts of this type have only increased in the last three decades, amidst all the so-called security measures. I say so-called because the reputation of our schools as prisons speaks to the fact that these efforts have not make our youth safe—but they have made them more and more into criminals. This is of the utmost concern to me as a parent and teacher. Our youth are made to silently walk in lines, like inmates. Our youth are denied the right to talk during lunch, like inmates. Our youth are ruled using the means of collective punishment, like inmates. This is unacceptable and I encourage all school administrators to discuss alternatives to these strategies for addressing the issues of violence our youth and teachers face.

There is one thing that is constantly avoided in discussions about Monday’s tragedy: social responsibility. We are to debate the role of technology, the guns, movies and video games. Yet, when the FBI interviewed living perpetrators of school violence, all said the same thing: they were ignored and ostracized (and medicated). It is now evident that officials at Virginia Tech ignored faculty and student efforts to secure assistance for Mr. Cho. This is not a security problem. It is a problem of our social institutions refusing to take up their responsibility. It is a problem that will not be solved by lockdowns, ID tags or cameras.

Why not organize forums … that involve all concerned in discussing how we can help address the problems while avoiding the iron cage that is called security. It is clear that at Virginia Tech, the students and faculty had taken the lead in identifying Cho as in need of help and had begun to organize to provide it. Activating the initiative of students and faculty are key for addressing the current crisis we face. They should be fully involved in efforts to address the situation.

In closing, let me say that I think we should reject the notion that we should get back to “normal”. There is nothing normal about what happened, and there is nothing normal about the conditions that are the genesis of the tragedy. I think we educators have an important role to play in countering the destructive path we are heading. We should be leading an open and honest discussion about how we relate to one another, about our humanity, about our society.

To you I sincerely offer my assistance, as both a professor and parent. I am more than willing to help organize the above-mentioned forums, and work with you, the PFA and other school staff in figuring out how we can best contend with the present situation. I may be reached anytime.


Mark Garrison

[NOTE: The name of the principal and school were removed for this public presentation, along with some identifying comments]

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