Debate begins again, but schools remain a safe place

Robeson County, like all of this nation, remains understandably jittery following a school shooting last week that killed 17 people in Parkland, Fla., reigniting the tired debates that always end with nothing new — the need for stricter gun laws vs. identifying and treating people who are obviously mentally ill.

It isn’t either/or. Tighter gun laws aimed a making it more difficult to get weapons that kill a lot of people quickly combined with a system of better identifying troubled young people who signal their intentions on social media might result in less carnage on our campuses.

Two things prevent progress: The NRA owns the lawmakers in Washington, D.C., and not only those with R beside their names, and this nation doesn’t care about its mentally ill, not even enough to warehouse them.

That nervousness was apparent on Monday when a bogus threat on social media that was not even cleverly disguised induced enough worry locally that more 65 percent of the students at Lumberton and St. Pauls high schools remained at home that day. Parents fretted, we are sure, while their children probably enjoyed the day off.

A deeper dig revealed that what appears to be a single social media threat was essentially used to target a number of schools not only locally, but across the state and nation, where the responses were similar — a lot of children staying home.

School officials waded into tricky territory when they asked parents to scrutinize these threats before pushing the panic button. Memo to all: Everything you read on social media isn’t true.

Locally the lack of fortification at our 42 public schools has been exposed recently without a shot being fired.

At Piney Grove Elementary, a 10-year-old fourth-grader went on a stabbing spree when he or she was able to slip into school armed with needles used by a diabetic, and about the same time a 14-year-old assaulted another 14-year-old at Lumberton High with a box cutter, causing injuries that could easily have been catastrophic.

School officials did what they can only do, and that was to react in each instance as there is very little in place to prevent violence when there are almost 24,000 students in a system, including a great many coming from homes void of guidance and discipline.

That is just one of the reasons this newspaper in 2016 fought so hard for a consolidation plan that would have padlocked 30 schools and provided for the construction of 14 new ones. We have visited these new schools, and of the many things that they boast that would enhance learning, an underappreciated benefit is that they are incredibly secure. With luck we will be getting one soon.

Our public schools are terrifyingly vulnerable. This newspaper recently dispatched a reporter to find out if a certain school had metal detectors — we thought not, but were told yes — and she didn’t ask anyone, but simply entered through the front door and roamed the halls without causing alarm. No metal detectors were sighted.

If you are tempted to blame school officials, we would advise you to redirect your anger inward. We get what we pay for — and, as we have underlined lately, there is no momentum locally to better fund our local schools, and absent that, our county commissioners are not going to provide substantially more than $525 per child, which ranks 99th out of 100 counties, or provide money to put a school resource officer in every school, and not just here and there.

There is some good news here: The reality is that study after study has shown that there really isn’t a safer place for any child in this country than at school. Incidents like the one in Florida last week are still incredibly rare despite the torrent of headlines that they produce.

But in the wake of that tragedy, we know that schools right now don’t seem like the safe place that they are.