“I couldn’t sleep,” Larry Schall said. He and his wife had watched the memorial service from Newtown the Sunday after the massacre and had heard President Obama talking about the young children who had been murdered.
He lay awake for hours, he told me. “At about 2 in the morning I gave up on sleep and went downstairs and wrote a letter,” he said. The next day he shared it with a good friend, and later in the day their edited version became an open letter to other college and university presidents.
Larry is Lawrence Schall, the president of Oglethorpe University in Georgia, and his co-author is Elizabeth Kiss, the president of Agnes Scott College, also in Georgia, two leaders and two institutions that you may not have heard of before Newtown.
The letter specifies the following measures:
• Ensuring the safety of our communities by opposing legislation allowing guns on our campuses and in our classrooms
• Ending the gun show loophole, which allows for the purchase of guns from unlicensed sellers without a criminal background check
• Reinstating the ban on military-style semi-automatic assault weapons along with high-capacity ammunition magazines
• Requiring consumer safety standards for all guns, such as safety locks, access prevention laws, and regulations to identify, prevent and correct manufacturing defects
“I thought if we got 50 presidents to sign it would be a homerun,” President Schall said, but their powerful message resonated, and within a few days more than 200 presidents had signed it. The group acquired a name, “College Presidents for Gun Safety.”
Today over 330 presidents have signed, almost all of them the leaders of private institutions (perhaps because they don’t have to answer to governors and legislatures).
Is that a homerun? Depends on how you count, it seems to me. America has about 4,150 colleges and universities, which means that just under 8 percent have signed the letter. However, given that it’s tough for the presidents of public institutions to step out on this limb, we ought to consider the universe of private institutions, some 2450 in all. That brings the number to just over 13%.
I urge you to read the names of the 330 or so institutions and see which institutions are NOT there. You will find Cornell College (IA) but not Cornell University; Teachers College, Columbia University but not Columbia University itself; and three Notre Dames (Notre Dame College (OH), Notre Dame de Namur University (CA) and Notre Dame of Maryland University (MD) but not THE Notre Dame, the one in Indiana with the Golden Dome.
You will find Macalester, Colby, Mount Holyoke, Spelman, Middlebury, Colorado College, Davidson, Hamilton, Amherst, Bates, Bowdoin and Centre College and a number of other outstanding institutions, but where is Duke? Why no MIT? You will look in vain for members of the Ivy League, UC Berkeley, Stanford, and other household names.
Perhaps the most glaring omission is Virginia Tech, the scene of the worst gun massacre in our history. I asked Virginia Tech about that, but so far no one has responded.
The Association of American Universities, representing 60 of the top institutions, issued its own statement (pdf) on January 2. While that letter lacks the power of the Schall/Kiss letter, it does call for Congressional action.
On Monday, February 4, College Presidents for Gun Safety will join with Mayors Against Illegal Guns (representing 800+ mayors) for an event on Capitol Hill, an effort to put pressure on Congress to pass meaningful gun laws.
Getting just 8% of higher education to sign on may not seem like a homerun, but–compared to the rest of public education–Presidents Schall and Kiss have hit a grand slam, maybe even an 8-run homer.
Here’s why I say that. Not long after Newtown, I got in touch with most of the leading K-12 groups. I believe that their generally ineffectual response to the mass slaughter of those 6- and 7-year olds allowed the National Rifle Association to frame the debate. And so, instead of debating whether we should ban the sale and possession of weapons of mass murder from our society, until just recently we have been arguing whether arming school principals and teachers makes sense.
Here are a few concrete examples:
The National Association of Elementary School Principals, which lost a member when Sandy Hook principal’s, Dawn Hochsprung, was gunned down, issued a statement expressing condolences that said nothing about restricting access to assault weapons. Instead, NAESP pledged to “do everything we can to strengthen laws and policies aimed at keeping our children safe and secure in our nation’s schools and communities.”
The 578-word statement on the website of the National Association of Secondary School Principals was devoted largely to opposing the NRA’s call for arming of educators. Only after 540 words did NASSP allude to the murder weapons, and then somewhat obliquely–and in just seven words: “And yes, it’s a matter of gun access.”
The National School Boards Association “does not take positions on social issues” like the availability of assault weapons, according to its General Counsel. “After Columbine, we turned our attention to identifying troubled students,” Francisco M. Negron said, “But now we will have to look at safety more broadly because schools are just another multiplex.”
Two young leaders seemed determined to offend no one with their public statements. Jonah Edelman and his organization, Stand for Children, declared after Newtown that “Real actions must be taken” but failed to say what those actions might be. His high-sounding statement (with an accompanying “Open Letter to the President”) demanded to know, “Has the moment arrived, at last, when decent people across our great nation have finally decided we’ve had enough? Will those of us who’ve consented to so much loss with our silence finally speak up and demand our leaders pass laws that decrease the prevalence of mass shootings?”
When I was in high school, stuff like that won the “Talks most, says least” category.
Michelle Rhee of Students First (the former Chancellor of the Washington public schools) appeared to be walking a tightrope. Fresh from helping Michigan Republicans pass anti-union legislation, she declined to take a position on another law passed by the the GOP-controlled legislature that would have allowed guns in schools. Her silence was seen as tacit support for the measure. Rhee couched her neutrality thusly: “As an education reform organization, we try hard to remain singularly focused on those issues that directly affect student achievement.”
After Newtown, however, Rhee apparently felt compelled to enter the debate–although not the one about assault weapons in society. Instead she weighed in on the NRA’s question: “Schools must be safe havens for teaching and learning — that is a basic obligation to children that comes before anything else,” she said. And so Students First is now against guns in schools but has no position on assault weapons in the larger society.
In sharp contrast to both Michelle Rhee and Jonah Edelman, Randi Weingarten of the American Federation of Teachers did not mince words. “The AFT supports common sense gun control legislation, including banning assault weapons and large ammunition magazines, requiring thorough background checks and making sure that gun owners keep their weapons secure.”
The Council of the Great City Schools, which represents more than 60 urban districts, also took a firm stand, albeit quietly: “The nation’s Great City Schools join with their mayors in urging tighter restrictions on the sale, possession, and use of assault weapons and other weapons designed to harm people.”
The National Education Association reacted to the NRA position: “Greater access to mental health services, bullying prevention, and meaningful action on gun control—this is where we need to focus our efforts, not on staggeringly misguided ideas about filling our schools with firearms. Lawmakers at every level of government should dismiss this dangerous idea and instead focus on measures that will create the safe and supportive learning environments our children deserve.”
The leaders of private schools took a strong stand. Calling themselves “Heads of School Against Gun Violence,” about 70 school leaders in New York City took out a full-page ad in the New York Times, formed a national organization, and began agitating for Congressional action. (Full disclosure: my wife, Joan Lonergan, is an active participant in the group.) As of this morning, 197 school heads have signed the the petition, and an additional 3063 teachers and other school personnel have signed an accompanying letter of support.
I applaud Marian Wright Edelman of the Children’s Defense Fund, who spoke first. On the day of the mass murder, the veteran civil rights leader issued a powerful statement, excerpted below:
“… How young do the victims have to be and how many children need to die before we stop the proliferation of guns in our nation and the killing of innocents? …
“This slaughter of innocents happens because we protect guns, before children and other human beings. …
“Each and all of us must do more to stop this intolerable and wanton epidemic of gun violence and demand that our political leaders do more. We can’t just talk about it after every mass shooting and then do nothing until the next mass shooting when we profess shock and talk about it again. …
“We have so much work to do to build safe communities for our children and need leaders at all levels of government who will stand up against the NRA and for every child’s right to live and learn free of gun violence. … Our laws and not the NRA must control who can obtain firearms. …
“Why in the world do we regulate teddy bears and toy guns and not real guns that have snuffed out tens of thousands of child lives?”
Many years ago Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., noted, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Some 40 years later Illinois senator Barack Obama assumed that history does bend towards justice but said, “It bends because each of us in our own ways put our hand on that arc and we bend it in the direction of justice…”
Unfortunately, most K-12 educators have not put their hands on that arc. By failing to seize the opportunity to lead on what is arguably the critical issue of our time–the health and safety of our children–too many public educators are providing a disappointing role model for the children in their charge.
As Oglethorpe University President Schall told me, “Every graduation we tell our graduates to go boldly into the world and stand up for what they believe, but we weren’t doing it ourselves. It’s time we did.” Kudos to him, to Elizabeth Kiss of Agnes Scott College and to all the educators who are demanding action.