Tom Eblen

I listened to teenagers talk about school safety. Here’s what worries them most.

March for Our Lives

Short time-lapse showing crowd at March for Our Lives in Lexington. Video by Matt Goins
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Short time-lapse showing crowd at March for Our Lives in Lexington. Video by Matt Goins

How do we make schools safe in this age of anxiety and easy access to weapons of mass murder? That’s a question that sent more than a million people into America’s streets last Saturday.

I was at the March for Our Lives rally in Lexington, which attracted hundreds of people of all ages despite a downpour of freezing rain. But on Monday, I attended a very different event on the same subject.

George Rogers Clark High School invited students to meet in small groups to talk openly and honestly about their perceptions of the school’s atmosphere and safety. I listened in on a couple of these groups, and it was fascinating. So much has changed since I was a teenager — and so much more has not.

The conversations were sponsored by the Clark County Community Foundation as part of the Blue Grass Community Foundation’s second annual On The Table event. This week, mostly on Wednesday, about 13,000 people in Fayette, Clark, Woodford and Franklin counties will meet in small groups to talk about community issues they care about. (More info: Bgcf.org.)

Over a lunch of fast-food chicken tenders, small groups of students met with a faculty or staff member who was taking notes. The young people’s comments were frank, insightful and often poignant.

The ones I listened to said they felt safe on their modern campus of 1,650 students. There is a manned guard shack at the vehicle entrance, locked doors and strict procedures for people checking in and out during the day.

Still, the possibility of a shooting seemed always in the back of their minds.

“There’s a lot teachers don’t know,” said freshman Landon Dempster, who thought metal detectors and random backpack searches might be a good idea.

But as important as security measures, several students said, is creating a school atmosphere where students are encouraged to respect each other, and where they have trusting relationships with teachers and counselors in whom they can confide.

Most of the discussion was about the human relations issues that can trigger violence — insecurity, immaturity and cruel behavior that teenagers of every generation have faced. They are just more amplified and dangerous now, they thought, because of social media and a weaponized culture.

Students talked about the stress they feel to prepare for college and careers, to waste no time getting ahead in life. They worry that focus keeps them from learning important life skills and getting to know people different from themselves. Once they get on an academic or career track or in a special program, they tend to only interact and socialize with those classmates.

“It puts you with like-minded people, but you don’t get to see how other people are,” said Rebecca Eaves, a senior who has been able to take college classes that will give her a head start when she enters Eastern Kentucky University next year. “We don’t really understand each other, and there’s not a lot of empathy.”

They talked about age-old sources of teenage angst: social grouping, peer pressure and not yet knowing who they are as people.

Many said they felt guilty because there had been times they did not stand up to the crowd when another student was being bullied or excluded. They talked about how hard it is to be positive when cynicism is cool. How important respect is. And how all of this was hard for them to talk about.

A lot of bullying takes place on social media, they said. It can be more subtle than face-to-face confrontation, but it also can have a wider audience. Words can hurt more than punches, Dempster said, because they stick with you.

“Because we’re so young, we’re easily influenced by what people think of us,” freshman Olivia Craycraft said. “You wake up and look at your phone and see something and it can ruin your whole day.”

These students also worry about classmates who are falling through the cracks of society — the kind of kids who might bring a gun into their school. “You never think it could be you, until the time comes,” Craycraft said.

How do we make schools safer? It’s more than gun control, guards and metal detectors. It’s teachers, counselors, parents and conversations. Young people have a lot to say, if adults will only listen.

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