Liberty in the crosshairs
It's been a tough few weeks for students in western Washington County.
The looming winter break brings with it a slew of seasonal challenges, from final exams and project deadlines to end-of-semester grades, but piled on top of all of that this month has been the seemingly ever-present threat of school violence.
In just the past eight weeks, several schools in the Hillsboro and Beaverton school districts have had to tackle threats. A bullet was found at Poynter Middle School last week, days after a young man was shot at a home a few blocks away. Threats brought investigators to South Meadows Middle School in early November. Last Friday, Nov. 30, it was a threatening email sent to school administrators that prompted an hours-long lockdown at Stoller Middle School in Bethany; nearby Jacob Wismer Elementary School locked its doors as a precautionary measure. Officers swept the school classroom by classroom and found nothing to substantiate the threat; meanwhile, middle-schoolers huddled in the gymnasium and anxious parents paced outside for hours waiting for their children to be released. All the while, wild rumors flew about what was happening, contributing to the sense of deep unease.
Then, on Monday, police were called to Liberty High School.
Authorities had received word of an student on campus armed with a gun and fighting with others. Believing they were walking into a potential school shooter situation, officers drew their guns and marched into the classroom to engage the threat.
Thankfully, no weapon was found and the situation quickly de-escalated, but video of police entering the classroom armed with rifles quickly spread on social media.
Welcome to America in the 21st century.
See video of the moment Hillsboro police officers entered a Liberty High School classroom Monday, Dec. 3.
Some online have criticized police storming into a classroom with rifles drawn, aiming them around the room as they searched for a nonexistent threat to neutralize, but authorities followed their training. In active shooter situations, they have seconds to take down a threat before students are killed. The days of being cautious are over, police with the Forest Grove police told us a few months ago, after a shooting at a newspaper office in Maryland left five dead.
Every second police hesitate means more people could be killed.
Law enforcement officers have protocols to follow during "active shooter" situations. By all accounts, when officers entered that Liberty classroom — a video circulating online appears to show students with their hands in the air as police scan the room — they were operating on information that there was an armed and dangerous person who needed to be stopped.
What we know now is that two students got into an argument during class. What the argument was about, authorities haven't said, but school officials say it never turned violent. A bystander in the class texted a parent to tell her about it, and the parent called 9-1-1, telling emergency dispatchers she believed one of the students was armed.
Like a game of "telephone," the message may have been distorted as it moved from student to parent to 9-1-1 dispatchers. We can't blame the parents in this situation, either, who were trying to protect their children from what they believed to be a legitimate threat.The telephone game can have deadly serious consequences, and we are all fortunate this story didn't end in tragedy.
No, the most heartbreaking part of the Liberty incident isn't that officers responded the way they did. It's that threats of school violence are so commonplace that it barely registers anymore.
It seems like ages ago that a former student pulled a fire alarm at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., and started shooting until 17 people were dead or dying. In fact, it was less than 10 months ago. Since then, four people were mowed down with an assault rifle at a Nashville Waffle House in April. Ten people were killed, allegedly by another student, at Santa Fe High School near Houston in May. Two people were killed and 10 others injured by a shooter who subsequently committed suicide at a video game tournament in Jacksonville, Fla., in August. Eleven people were shot dead at a Pittsburgh synagogue in October. Twelve people, plus the perpetrator, died in a mass shooting at a bar in Thousand Oaks, Calif., in November. Hundreds more have died in other, less high-profile shootings that don't necessarily grab national headlines but nonetheless leave families devastated and lives shattered.
We've written about gun violence on this page before. We have called on policy-makers at the state and federal levels to have a serious and comprehensive conversation about ways to prevent gun violence. Nothing changes.
But when we think of middle-schoolers being herded out of classrooms and bivouacked in a gym for hours; when we see high-schoolers, hands in the air, trade bemused looks as a rifle is pointed in their general direction; when we consider the emotional and psychological distance many of us have already placed between the present day and the most recent plethora of mass shootings — we have to wonder how long the status quo can hold.
By failing to address these acts of violence, the U.S. has created a world where parents can plausibly conclude that their children are in danger from an armed classmate at school, and where police officers, following their training, enter classrooms with long guns while trying to save lives.
This is the world we've made for our children. We don't fault police for doing their jobs, but we do fault a society that makes these responses from police necessary in a place where children are supposed to be safe.
We fear the damage being done to the psyche of those children and teens who go through active-shooter drills in their classrooms, learning how their place of learning can become a place of terror in an instant. We fear for the soul of a society that has learned to consider these awful things, then shrug and move on to the next headline, saying, "Nothing can be done."
As we've written before: We're just a community newspaper editorial board. We don't have the answers. We haven't done the studies. We haven't collated the data.
But we know that there is something rotten in the state of our country when we see videos like the one from Liberty High.
There is a better way.
There has to be.
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