No-Bad-DaysBy Don Nelson

There are many things one could say about the recent pellet gun incident at Methow Valley Elementary School — and most of them are being said, if local reaction is an indicator.

A sixth-grade student brought an airsoft pellet gun into the school inside his backpack. After a student alerted Principal Bob Winters about the gun, Winters quickly and quietly removed the student from the classroom. The student was expelled and sent home, along with the gun. No one was harmed, order was maintained and the student said it was a mistake.

The outcome was of course a huge relief to everyone, and as a community we are thankful. But in the aftermath, questions have been raised about how school officials responded and how adequately parents were informed. That’s a natural and desirable response, assuming that the ensuing discussions remain rational, civil, reflective and ultimately helpful.

Going by social media commentary and other feedback we’ve heard, community opinions about actions by the principal and district officials range from overreaction to a relatively minor event, to under-responsiveness in a potentially serious situation. Winters said he was “comfortable” dealing with the student because he knew the child. That’s reassuring up to a point — that point being when expected, predictable behavior turns into something else. “What if?” is the question that still hangs in the air.

Well, you might say, everything turned out OK (unless you think the student’s punishment was too harsh). But things always turn out OK until they don’t, and then they often turn out badly. Second-guessing is inevitable, even when things turn out well — but especially when they don’t. Better that we have a productive community discussion now, no matter how unsettling it might become, than after a scarier or more harmful event.

Most of the concerns that have been raised are about how the district proceeded in notifying parents and the police, and how it handled the initial incident. I don’t think this needs to turn into a discussion about guns. This community is familiar with guns. Many families own them, and members of those households are likely trained in how to use, store and transport guns safely. Everyone knows that school is not the place for them.

At the same time, I don’t have much use for the “it was only” argument. Yes, it was “only” a pellet gun, but similar guns have been mis-identified as the real thing in many widely reported incidents — some of them lethal. What follows? It was “only” a .38 and just had six bullets, so no big deal? Most people are not going to know what something “only” is at a quick glance. A gun, or anything that appears to be a gun, has to be considered a dangerous weapon in any classroom setting. There’s no room for equivocating.

The community focus going forward is likely to be on further defining (or at least clarifying) procedures to be followed in similar future incidents — and how rigidly that protocol must be adhered to when human, in-the-moment judgment is involved or circumstances don’t fit a theoretical scenario. To evoke Captain Jack Sparrow (Pirates of the Caribbean, and sequels), are they to be rules — or more like guidelines?

Whatever the protocols are, they need to be universally known (staff, students, parents, police and other community members), clearly spelled out and periodically revisited. Like any other smart precautions in our lives, we must be fully aware of the school procedures — in hopes that we never need them.

 

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