When I was in middle school we had occasional fire drills. In a one-level, brick building with cinderblock walls, where every room was equipped with a water-sprinkler system and a door to the outside, we had fire drills. These drills consisted of 30 kids slowly standing up and calmly walking out the door. The threat of fire was so remote and nonthreatening that we slumped through the drills thinking they were nothing more than a meaningless ritual performed to satisfy the Lords of Bureaucracy.
Today’s kids aren’t so lucky. Fire drills have been replaced by—or supplemented with—lockdown drills. A lockdown drill is not meaningless, and it’s not for the sake of bureaucracy. It’s a drill in which kids and teachers barricade themselves inside a classroom in case of an armed intruder. They wait, in a huddle, for the “all clear” signal. If the room were to become suddenly unsafe, they all practice running for their lives. This is not a lazy fire drill—this is something more immediate, real, and terrifying.
I can’t imagine a kid in the country who feels safe sitting in the classroom anymore. I wouldn’t. I’d be running for the woods across the soccer fields—detention be damned! Our nation’s schools are, apparently, the new target for cowardly madmen. And our kids know it.
The need to make our schools safe again cannot be overstated. We need to provide our children with, not only a sense of security, but actual security. Washington has exploded in a furious debate about school safety—with both sides of the political divide screaming about the absolute and immediate need for half-reasoned half measures. In the end, we cannot—and should not—look to a squawking gaggle of politicians, pundits, lobbyists, and special interest bozos to heal our wounded schools. We must.
Happily, according to a report released last month by the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS), we are. The report is the result of a comprehensive investigation into the state of volunteering and civic life in all 50 states and in 51 U.S. cities. The investigation looked at the trends in young people, old people, parents, non-parents, churches, organizations, and everywhere else.
Community is on the rise in America, and that’s great news. But the strongest story told in the report's data is clear: America’s parents are flooding into America’s schools.
Volunteering among Americans is at a five-year high. Some 64 million Americans (more than one in four adults) volunteered through a formal organization last year, an increase of 1.5 million from 2010. Most of that volunteering happened in our schools—the top activities included fundraising or selling items to raise money (26.2 percent); collecting, preparing, distributing, or serving food (23.6 percent); engaging in general labor or transportation (20.3 percent); or tutoring or teaching (18.2 percent).
Here are some quick—and telling—stats from the report:
- Nearly 34 percent of American parents volunteered, in some capacity, in 2012 for a total of over 2.5 billion hours.
- Nearly three out of five volunteers aged 25 to 54 are parents to children who are under 18. These parents volunteered well above the national average.
- Among working mothers, the volunteer rate was nearly 40 percent.
- Over 26 percent of all volunteering hours in 2012 happened in a school.
- Over 43 percent of hours parents spent volunteering in 2012 happened in a school.
Both the CNCS’s report and the U.S. Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, make the point that America’s schools are a vital hub of civic activity. “CNCS’s report crystallizes that our schools are essential hubs for volunteering and civic activity,” said Secretary Duncan. “In America, education must be the great equalizer—and robust engagement from communities, families, mentors, tutors, and other volunteers is absolutely vital to achieving that core American ideal. As a nation, we are so much stronger working together collaboratively to advance student learning than working in isolation.”
In most of our nation's schools, tragedy will not strike. But in every one of our schools, the fear of tragedy is real. Fighting the civic “isolation” Duncan calls out is the key to restoring and protecting our nation’s terrified school communities. We need to stuff our schools with the friendly and familiar faces of mothers, fathers, aunts, uncles, neighbors, mentors, friends, and siblings—not as a deterant for madmen, but to assuage the fear in our kids, teachers, and administrators. All fear, and all tragedies, are easier to endure among a strong and supportive group of people. (This may be an idea we're forgetting in the age of digital communities.)
We must do—and, I’m proud to say, it looks like we are doing—everything we can to make sure our nation’s kids don’t have to face the terror of these deadly attacks alone. By making our schools into (more) active community centers—instead of locked-down militaristic compunds—maybe we can crowd out some of the fear and violence and give our kids a safe and vibrant community in which to spend their days.
In the coming year, let’s continue the trend of volunteering at record levels in general, and at record levels within our schools. Let’s continue to rally around our school children. Let’s work every day to make sure our kids, once again, find school safety drills boring and unnecessary.
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