On Thursday, a police officer was shot and killed on the Virginia Tech campus. The officer’s name was Deriek Crouse, and he was killed during a routine traffic inspection. The gunman ran from the scene to another parking lot, where, after another officer spotted him, the gunman shot and killed himself.
Across the Atlantic, George and I found out about the incident after I read my VT Alerts email. Most details were not yet available. An unfortunately familiar sensation crept into both of our stomachs as we turned the TV to CNN and searched both internet news sites and Facebook for information. After a few phone calls, Google Voice chats and emails, we learned that everyone we know was safe. We were thankful, but the lack of details had us both shaken. Until we could pinpoint and verbalize the real source of our tension, we fell into our usual stress routine: George cooked dinner silently, while I picked a fight with him.
The fact is, this was not the first time that we had been concerned about the safety and lives of our friends, colleagues and neighbors in Blacksburg. Regrettably, it wasn’t even the second time. Since 2006, tragedy has continually befallen Blacksburg/Virginia Tech, the unlikeliest of locations. The uncertainty that has accompanied each of these events seems at first to make them worse. Once investigators and reporters have been able to fill in the holes, however, the new information has always escalated the situation to some previously unimaginable level.
The progression for this event was similar. At first, we learned that everyone on campus was on lockdown and the gunman’s whereabouts remained unknown. Then, a body count came in. Soon after, we heard the first report on BBC International. After hearing the report on BBC, I checked the Roanoke Times for information, where I learned that all of the Montgomery County schools were on lockdown as well. If this event hadn’t felt personal enough already, this piece of information would have tipped the scale for me.
When you think of dangerous careers, teaching probably does not rank among the top 20 for most people. It certainly wouldn’t for me, and yet the events of my very short career have proven otherwise. The victims of the April 16th shooting were involved in the most basic acts of education on the morning a madman took their lives. They were simply teachers and students. The acquaintance I lost that day had often expressed to me how much he enjoyed being part of the educational process. I wonder if he or any of the other victims had ever thought they would be in the middle of that process when they died. I would imagine not.
That was during my first year teaching. During my second year, a teacher found assorted ammunition and a hit list in a girls’ bathroom before school one Friday. The students sat in the cafeteria while school recourse officers searched them one by one. Then, the teachers formed a gauntlet, which led the students to the gym. After everyone had been searched, the kids went home. The faculty, staff, administration and police searched the empty school for weapons. Our search turned up nothing, and the police sent us home. I cancelled the German Club’s Oktoberfest, which was supposed to take place that Saturday, and began to contemplate what else this job might mean.
I was able to escape the horrors of forced professional development while I was instructing at Tech. When I returned to public education for the 2010-2011 school year, though, I was stuck. One of the state-mandated sessions had to do with a lockdown drill. Since 2007, state law has required all public schools in Virginia to have lockdown drills and teacher training for the drills. The drill simulates the protocol at your school in the event of an armed attacker on campus. The teacher training involves watching a mildly terrifying training video and reviewing what you as a teacher need to do and are legally obligated to do. This was the first time I had ever considered if I would be brave enough to take a bullet for my students.
This all brings me to this year. I haven’t written much yet about German schools or teachers because I feel I’m still in the information-gathering phase. My daily experiences, however, consist of the constant comparing and contrasting between what I have seen and done in the US and what I see and do here in Germany. I am not ready to present a balanced point-of-view (though it’s coming soon), but I can tell you that none of my colleagues has mentioned having had a lockdown drill. Based on the knives the 5th graders brought from home to carve pumpkins with at school, I don’t think there is a weapons policy. (They don’t need one.) Every time I teach a lesson on American schools, specifically the dress code, a student asks if there are a lot more criminals in America. As far as I can tell, no one at the Gymnasium Damme fears for his or her safety.
Some of my readers may be chomping at the bit to counter what I’ve written here. Let me be clear: I am not claiming that nothing bad happens here in The Motherland. I can remember hearing about at least two violent episodes in German schools in recent years. However, I am going to point out that the German government is not passing laws after these incidents occur that make college campuses and public areas less safe, as has been the case in Virginia. Furthermore, the shootings occur less frequently here. (See data here.) There must be some reason for this difference.
I want to close this string of anecdotes by mentioning two things I find disturbing in the reports about Virginia Tech’s most recent shooting and school shootings in general. Every report mentioned that the shooter was not a Tech student. Naturally, this is important information for the investigation, but in some of the articles, it comes across as relief. I suggest that it doesn’t matter. First, there are no physical barriers between the Virginia Tech campus and the town of Blacksburg, nor should there be. Schools are important parts of communities. This means, though, that any person who wants to can walk on to campus or into a building and do something awful. Second, the shooter may not have been part of the VT community, but he was most likely part of some other community. Does it somehow make it better that a police officer lost his life to this man? Does randomness make it feel like less of a betrayal? I don’t think so.
Finally, these shootings are awful. Terrible. Tragic. Unsettling. Any of these adjectives, as well as many others, are fitting. Among those that are not appropriate are “unimaginable,” “unbelievable,” and “unlikely.” I had this discussion with some friends after the shooting in New Mexico that wounded Representative Giffords. Shootings of this nature have happened far too often to still be considered unbelievable. We cannot continue to keep the status quo and then be surprised when something befitting that status quo occurs. If Americans are genuinely interested in life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for everyone, and in safety, both at home and in public, we need to do some serious thinking and some serious work, and we need to do it soon.
Gun control is a polarizing topic that many simply avoid, especially those in need of votes. This discussion needs to happen. What I’ve written here are merely some personal anecdotes and thoughts, which may be different from your own. Feel free to comment; let’s discuss this. Better yet, contact someone with actual power. Imaginable and believable are not words any of us should be comfortable using in this context.
Officer Crouse left behind a wife and five children. If you would like to make a donation for Officer Crouse’s family, please contact Hokies for Crouse.
- Article about Students for Gun Free Schools, an organization started by survivors of the events of April 16th.
Banner photo courtesy of Hokie House Facebook page.