My Family’s Experience of School Violence

school violence, school bullying, guns in school, school to homeschool,
It’s supposed to be safe. Image CC by 2.0 frankjuarez

No, no, no. Not again.

A middle school shooting in Sparks, Nevada has left two dead and two wounded. Students and families in that community are traumatized. I can’t imagine what they’re feeling. I can only share how the threat of school violence changed my family in ways we never anticipated.

One morning my oldest son, a freshman in an award-winning suburban high school, called home before the first class of the day. He’d been shown a gun by a student who had been harassing him. He was told he wouldn’t live through the school day.

I was home, babysitting an infant. Without the baby’s car seat I couldn’t even drive there to get him.

“Get out now,” I said. “Run home.”

I phoned the principal to tell him about the gun. I insisted that he not call the teen to the office on the intercom but physically escort him from the classroom. “Please,” I begged. “I’m worried about every other child still in the building.”

Throughout the school year, my son told us what he’d heard about this youth and a few other kids. They’d sexually assaulted a girl in the school bathroom, broken the arm of a student’s father when he tried to reason with them, fought a gang-style skirmish near the football field with the assistance of older relatives. When I asked school officials about these allegations they scoffed, telling me the stories were untrue.

My child’s situation was pretty standard. Honors student versus tough kids. My son had been hurled against lockers, mocked, and threatened. He defended himself with sarcasm. A few days earlier he’d retorted back to taunting with, “Bad mood? Drug dealer not giving you credit?”

That morning the principal seemed only mildly perturbed by my frantic call. I insisted other students said these kids stashed weapons in their cars. He seemed more interested in containing what he called a “rumor.” When the principal didn’t get back to me, my husband and I called the police. Detectives sat at our table and confirmed every story. The girl assaulted, the father’s arm broken, the gang fight. In fact, area businesses had been warned to notify police immediately if teens assembled in groups, in case another gang fight was brewing. Parents were not informed about these concerns.

I’d assumed that police had been called to the school after my report of a student with a gun. They weren’t. Instead, the student in question was summoned to the office on the intercom. Other students said he went outside to the trunk of his car before heading to the office.

Afraid to send my son back to school, I met with the superintendent the next day. In my work life I taught non-violence to community groups, including school systems. I told him I’d teach this program free of charge to staff and students in our district. The superintendent turned me down. I was floored when he said it might be safer if we homeschooled.

That was it, my son never returned to school.

I’d always been committed to the idea of public schools. I believed it was not only right but necessary to work within systems to improve them. And I had plenty of misconceptions about homeschooling. Yet I realized that school had never really “worked” for my kids. Our 4-year-old already knew how to read, but had to practice sight words in pre-school anyway. Our sweet but inattentive second-grader was deemed a good candidate for Ritalin by his teacher. Our fifth-grader could do college level work, but due to cuts in the gifted program she had to follow grade level curriculum along with the rest of her class. And our freshman detested the rote tasks that filled his days and the hours of homework each night.

Overnight, I faced kids who were eager to learn on their own terms. I learned right along with them. I learned how profoundly they are motivated by their own interests, and how those interests translate into advanced comprehension across a range of subjects. I learned how they sought out challenges and insisted on meaningful involvement. I saw what they gained from daily activities at home and how easily they could learn directly from people of all ages right in our community.

The ADD symptoms my third child exhibited at school were no longer present once we began homeschooling. The hurry-up days that roped my kids in from morning bus to evening homework were gratefully left behind. Instead we read books for hours, indulged in long-term science projects, went on adventures with friends, found role models in all sorts of fields, and let real learning unfold.

The crisis that hurled my children out of school created a way of being far richer life than any of us could have imagined.

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Laura is the author of a poetry collection titled Tending and Free Range Learning, a handbook of natural learning. She lives on a small farm notable only for its lovestruck goose.