More than 311, 000… that’s how many students have experienced gun violence at school since the Columbine High massacre in 1999. “While school shootings remain rare, there were more in 2021 — 42 — than in any year since at least 1999. So far this year, there have been at least 24 acts of gun violence on K-12 campuses during the school day” [washpost.com].

So we start the sad dance all over again. Politicians who claim to be pro-life [who would take away a woman’s right to choose how to deal with her pregnancy] spout the same sanctimonious spiel to all who will listen even as they fight gun control legislation and take millions from the NRA. And nothing changes… We are growing numb as well as impotent.

David Frum points out: “Every other democracy makes some considerable effort to keep guns away from dangerous people, and dangerous people away from guns. For many years—and especially since the massacre at Connecticut’s Sandy Hook Elementary School almost a decade ago—the United States has put more and more guns into more and more hands: 120 guns per 100 people in this country” [atlantic.com]. He reminds us that the most numerous gun sales in our country’s history occurred during the pandemic, “almost 20 million guns sold in 2020; another 18.5 million sold in 2021” followed by a surge of gun violence [Ibid.]. We are the “only country with more civilian-owned firearms than people “ [forbes.com].

The conservative podcaster Allie Beth Stuckey points out that the one common factor in these school shootings is that they are all committed by young males. She argues that we “are doing absolutely everything wrong when it comes to promoting healthy masculinity, purpose, & goodness for these boys and men” [Ibid.]. The gunman who killed 19 students and 2 teachers in Uvalde, Texas, on May 24 had dropped out of school after being bullied for a speech impediment. He had a difficult home life and unsatisfying job, and his behavior and social media posts offered warning signs. Yet no one pursued those signs, and he shot his grandmother in the face before walking into a school, wearing body armor, and randomly shooting victims. We may not understand, but we must act.  

We could know more and better understand situations like these if it weren’t for the 1996 Dickey Amendment that forbade the CDC from using its funding to study gun violence. In 2019 the law was clarified, and research resumed the following year, but now we’re running to catch up [washpost.com 2].

And I fear, as do so many, that once again nothing will be done. Brian Broome argues that nothing will change, that this will be yet another tragedy that will prompt empty speeches and vigils but no action on gun control. “The gun is a holy relic in America. A sacred talisman. More important than life itself [washpost.com3]. We live in a country that loves its guns more than its children. Isn’t that backwards?

Some in the Senate have tried. After 32 people died and many more were injured in the August 2019 El Paso and Dayton shootings, Senator Chris Murphy and others were negotiating with then Attorney General Bill Barr when the Trump/Zelensky call derailed that effort [washpost.com4]. Even the Manchin-Toomey bill, so diluted to appease the NRA that some called it “toothless” couldn’t pass the 60-vote threshold [Ibid.]. Manchin tried again after the May 2022 massacre at a Buffalo, New York, grocery store. Again, no legislation passed.

Those who argue for the sanctity of the Second Amendment to the Constitution would distort its meaning and context. “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” That right did not include private ownership of cannons, and assault rifles didn’t even exist. We require training and licenses to drive a car but not to own a gun.

Our elected officials are failing our nation. “Nearly 60% of registered voters think it’s at least somewhat important for lawmakers to pass stricter gun laws, a new Morning Consult/Politico poll found after a mass shooting in Buffalo, New York—even before another shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas on Tuesday further ramped up calls for Congress to pass gun control legislation” [forbes.com]. Yet once again, nothing changes.

What can we do? Each of us must find out the position of our elected officials on gun controls. Then we need to work to vote for candidates who will support red flags and background checks and mental health efforts. We must vote out the hypocrites who offer sympathy as they block change. Congress and Governors and the President haven’t done it. It’s up to all of us.

The Practice of Religion in Schools?

Image Courtesy of Good Word News

A high school football coach in Bremerton, Washington, wanted to continue to pray on the field after games even after the school district asked him to stop. Joseph A. Kennedy started coaching there in 2008 and initially prayed alone on the 50-yard line after each game. “But students started joining him, and over time he began to deliver a short, inspirational talk with religious references. Kennedy did that for years and also led students in locker room prayers. The school district learned what he was doing in 2015 and asked him to stop” (washingtonpost.com). When he refused, the school district fired him from his coaching job, and Coach Kennedy went to court.

The three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit Court unanimously ruled against the coach, “saying that school officials were entitled to forbid his public prayers to avoid a potential violation of the First Amendment’s prohibition of government establishment of religion” (nytimes.com). On April 25, 2022, Kennedy’s case reached the Supreme Court. Conservative justices questioned the attorney for the school district about other scenarios that might impinge on the coach’s right to free speech. They responded, “by proposing lines the justices could draw. Mr. Clement said it mattered whether a coach’s speech had “an instructional component” and whether a religious exercise was fleeting” (Ibid.). Although Judge Kavanaugh acknowledged the possibility of players feeling coerced to participate, “Members of the court’s conservative majority indicated that the coach, Joseph A. Kennedy, had a constitutional right to kneel and pray at the 50-yard line after games” (Ibid.).

The issue involves two potentially conflicting sets of rights: the coach’s right to freedom of expression and the separation of church and state in schools, including protecting students from feeling coerced to participate. I find it interesting that some of the same social forces that support the coach’s public prayer in front of the community as one of his inalienable rights don’t support the same free speech protections for classroom teachers who, in many states, no longer can choose their curriculum nor tackle tough issues deemed untouchable.

As a teacher, I felt my freedom of speech had to bend when it might offer undue influence on students. I sought to encourage dialogue and discussion without being didactic about my own beliefs. Teachers and coaches often have a significant impact on their charges, and they need to be thoughtful so as not to abuse that impact.  Kennedy argued that his religious expression is constitutionally protected. Others disagreed. “’When a coach uses the power of his job to be in a place and have access to students at a time when they’re expected to encircle him and come to him, that’s an abuse of that power and a violation of the Constitution,’ Rachel Laser, president and CEO of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, told CBS News’ Jan Crawford. ‘Religious freedom is not the right to impose your religion on others. We all need to have it, so that’s why the free exercise and establishment clause work together to protect religious freedom for all of us’” (cbsnews.com).

The Washington Post offeredacompilation of reader responses to this issue. On April 30, 2022, in “A Coach Who Prays Is Not the Issue,” (washingtonpost.com2). Ryan Miller of Monroe, Georgia, played three sports in school and was aware of the impact his actions had on his coach’s perception of him and his subsequent playing time. He writes, “A coach expressing his right to pray personally should not be unconstitutional in and of itself; however, when a coach’s expression compromises the free exercise of his players and encroaches upon the role of a parent, the courts should intervene” (Ibid.). Clayton Childers, a retired United Methodist Minister in Manassas, Virginia, says that the doctrine of separation of church and state has served religion well by allowing citizens to choose and practice their faith as they see fit with no government interference. He argues that “true faith is grounded in voluntary choice and spiritual vitality; neither is fully present where government becomes faith’s promoter and overseer. That is why it is critical for agents of the state, including public high school coaches, to refrain from leading public prayers while on duty. As soon as they do, the neutrality of the state toward faith is compromised. The government moves from faith neutrality to faith promotion” (Ibid.). And Maureen O’Leary, Director of field and organizing for Interfaith Alliance, refers to the sway coaches have with student athletes, which might make those athletes feel pressured to participate.  She fears that a ruling “ allowing educators to push their religious practices on students would erode the long-standing wall of separation between religion and government, and foster an environment that is less — not more — tolerant of different beliefs” (Ibid.).

As a well-educated teacher, I would fight for the right to shape curriculum [though I would always be willing to talk with parents about concerns about content and approaches] and I would not want to be muzzled the way many seek to muzzle teachers these days. As an educator aware of the dynamics between students and their teachers, as well as students and their coaches, however, I think my responsibility to protect students from feeling coerced into following my path trumps my freedom of speech. A coach is welcome to pray privately. Praying on the 50-yard line in front of his students creates an unacceptable pressure. There’s a fine line here, and I fear the Supreme Court will throw it away.