Saturday, October 14, 2006

Texas kids trained to swarm

I read the article quoted at the end of this post in this morning's paper. Inexplicably, it elicited a kind of primal emotional response from me, much stronger even than the stories of the Amish school or any of the seemingly endless tide of stories of sociopaths/terrorists victimizing innocents.

I think this story in particular caused a notable emotional reaction in me because it underscores how numerous almost imperceptible shifts in reality have combined over time to the point where people are now beginning to train children in our civil society how to fight a gunman.

Whether the idea that our neighborhoods in the U.S. are more dangerous is real or imagined (aside: I am skeptical), there seems to be a shift in society's acknowledgement of (dare I say, obsession with) the fact that the world is a dangerous place. What I have always found irritating about typical media hype and irrational fear is the implication that innocence equals weakness, which this article does not. Somehow we generally think of an adult, and generally a man, when we think of the stereotype of "hero". So this story hits me from two sides. I feel righteous pride at the thought of innocents pooling their power to overcome evil, even as I balk at the thought of them having to be concerned with such things, which, while frightening, are unlikely to an extreme.

The conventional wisdom is that a child, especially a girl, is helpless, and must wait for a hero to save her. As the father of two daughters, there is no way I can buy into that. Reading the AP article below somehow validates my intuition and sense of righteousness. If faced with a threat, I want my girls to know how to keep a level head, and use all of their resources to protect themselves and others who cannot. One of the most heart wrenching facts I learned about the Amish school was that the oldest girl asked to be first... and then the next oldest asked to be second... my God! If those girls are not heroes, I don't know who is.

Rather than letting fear get the best of us, it is important to talk about the kind of threats we might actually face, and focus on preparation for dealing with such a threat should we actually find our selves faced with one. Where we live, the most likely threats are not generally the ones we see in the headlines. Most likely, is the "mundane" car accident. This is so much more likely a threat that we are almost numb to how dangerous it is to walk across a street, or ride in a car. We all teach our children rigorously about looking both ways and wearing seat belts. This is how we maintain the upper hand on fear. We identify the threat, practice prevention, figure out to do if faced with it, and go on with our lives. Doing so allows us to not be immobilized by the most likely mortal threat we all face on a daily basis.

Taking a look at CDC mortality statistics (pg 28 of CDC pdf), a 5 to 14 year old child is three times as likely to die of "malignant neoplasm", and eight times as likely to die in an accident than they are to be murdered. And yet a school gunman is so much more fearsome, probably because of the unpredictable randomness of it. We train our children how to stay out of the road and to buckle up, but we don't want to believe we need to train them how to take down a gunman. In fact we probably don't.

Statistically, they only stand a 5% chance of facing any kind of homicide when compared to the chance they will face a mortal accident. Put another way, in a given year, a 5 to 14 year old child in the U.S. stands a .0063% chance of death in an accident, and a .0008% chance of being murdered. These kinds of risks are so trivial that it is almost completely irrational to worry about them in any significant way. It is almost irrational to even think about them. And yet we are parents. We are genetically predisposed to invest ourselves in protecting our offspring.

So what to do? We don't want to lock our children in a bunker. We don't want to make our children nervous and paranoid. We want our children to believe that they are safe, which is a fact born out by the statistics. There is close to no chance that they will meet an untimely demise. I believe we need to train them to be pragmatic, self-confident and resourceful. We need to teach them that they are not helpless victims, and that they have a hero inside them. I am almost 36, and the conventional wisdom I was raised on, with regard to a gunman, is "don't be a hero". The idea behind this folk wisdom is based on the assumption that for the most part, gunmen are generally not bent on killing, but rather have another primary motivation such as robbery, etc. The idea was that it was much less risky to comply, and potentially lose your wallet rather than your life. This is still sound reasoning when it comes to a stickup.

But terrorism and this other incomprehensible kind of evil of killing innocents for no apparent reason beyond the killing itself seem to change the rules of engagement. The article below is the first sign I have seen that this new way of thinking is being implemented in the training of children. Somehow, it makes an awful kind of sense to teach kids how to respond to that kind of thing. Then on the other hand, one has to pause and think about what that means for us as a society. The fact is, I want my daughters to always know that they have a hero inside them, but I try to rest easy knowing that they probably will never have to summon that hero in a life-or-death situation.

Where we live, earthquake and wildfire are fairly likely threats. An encounter with a bear or mountain lion would not be inconceivable. I know that the likelihood of one of my daughters ever having to deal with a gunman in her school is so close to zero that I should not even be thinking about it. Clearly it is in the realm of extremely remote, but still, something about the image of five or six seventh graders swarming and immobilizing a gunman gives me a rush of righteousness, even as I remain unconvinced that training them to do so is the right thing to do. In the meantime, while I struggle with my feelings on that, I will continue to talk with my own daughters about making themselves big and loud if they ever find themselves face-to-face with a mountain lion, God forbid.

Texas School Tells Classes to Fight Back

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By JEFF CARLTON Associated Press Writer

October 13,2006 | BURLESON, Texas -- Youngsters in a suburban Fort Worth school district are being taught not to sit there like good boys and girls with their hands folded if a gunman invades the classroom, but to rush him and hit him with everything they got -- books, pencils, legs and arms.

"Getting under desks and praying for rescue from professionals is not a recipe for success," said Robin Browne, a major in the British Army reserve and an instructor for Response Options, the company providing the training to the Burleson schools.

That kind of fight-back advice is all but unheard of among schools, and some fear it will get children killed.

But school officials in Burleson said they are drawing on the lessons learned from a string of disasters such as Columbine in 1999 and the Amish schoolhouse attack in Pennsylvania last week.

The school system in this working-class suburb of about 26,000 is believed to be the first in the nation to train all its teachers and students to fight back, Browne said.

At Burleson -- which has 10 schools and about 8,500 students -- the training covers various emergencies, such as tornadoes, fires and situations where first aid is required. Among the lessons: Use a belt as a sling for broken bones, and shoelaces make good tourniquets.

Students are also instructed not to comply with a gunman's orders, and to take him down.

Browne recommends students and teachers "react immediately to the sight of a gun by picking up anything and everything and throwing it at the head and body of the attacker and making as much noise as possible. Go toward him as fast as we can and bring them down."

Response Options trains students and teachers to "lock onto the attacker's limbs and use their body weight," Browne said. Everyday classroom objects, such as paperbacks and pencils, can become weapons.

"We show them they can win," he said. "The fact that someone walks into a classroom with a gun does not make them a god. Five or six seventh-grade kids and a 95-pound art teacher can basically challenge, bring down and immobilize a 200-pound man with a gun."

The fight-back training parallels the change in thinking that has occurred since Sept. 11, when United Flight 93 made it clear that the usual advice during a hijacking -- Don't try to be a hero, and no one will get hurt -- no longer holds. Flight attendants and passengers are now encouraged to rush the cockpit.

Similarly, women and youngsters are often told by safety experts to kick, scream and claw they way out during a rape attempt or a child-snatching.

In 1998 in Oregon, a 17-year-old high school wrestling star with a bullet in his chest stopped a rampage by tackling a teenager who had opened fire in the cafeteria. The gunman killed two students, as well as his parents, and 22 other were wounded.

Hilda Quiroz of the National School Safety Center, a nonprofit advocacy group in California, said she knows of no other school system in the country that is offering fight-back training, and found the strategy at Burleson troubling.

"If kids are saved, then this is the most wonderful thing in the world. If kids are killed, people are going to wonder who's to blame," she said. "How much common sense will a student have in a time of panic?"

Terry Grisham, spokesman for the Tarrant County Sheriff's Department, said he, too, had concerns, though he had not seen details of the program.

"You're telling kids to do what a tactical officer is trained to do, and they have a lot of guns and ballistic shields," he said. "If my school was teaching that, I'd be upset, frankly."

Some students said they appreciate the training.

"It's harder to hit a moving target than a target that is standing still," said 14-year-old Jessica Justice, who received the training over the summer during freshman orientation at Burleson High.

William Lassiter, manager of the North Carolina-based Center for Prevention of School Violence, said past attacks indicate that fighting back, at least by teachers and staff, has its merits.

"At Columbine, teachers told students to get down and get on the floors, and gunmen went around and shot people on the floors," Lassiter said. "I know this sounds chaotic and I know it doesn't sound like a great solution, but it's better than leaving them there to get shot."

Lassiter questioned, however, whether students should be included in the fight-back training: "That's going to scare the you-know-what out of them."

Most of the freshman class at Burleson's high school underwent instruction during orientation, and eventually all Burleson students will receive some training, even the elementary school children.

"We want them to know if Miss Valley says to run out of the room screaming, that is exactly what they need to do," said Jeanie Gilbert, district director of emergency management. She said students and teachers should have "a fighting chance in every situation."

"It's terribly sad that when I get up in the morning that I have to wonder what may happen today either in our area or in the nation," Gilbert said. "Something that happens in Pennsylvania has that ripple effect across the country."

Burleson High Principal Paul Cash said he has received no complaints from parents about the training. Stacy Vaughn, the president of the Parent-Teacher Organization at Norwood Elementary in Burleson, supports the program.

"I feel like our kids should be armed with the information that these types of possibilities exist," Vaughn said.

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