Never Again Comes to Sonoma

Thompson urges background checks, schools practice security.

Story & Photos David Bolling  

Fifth District Congressman Mike Thompson is a wounded, Vietnam War combat veteran, who owns guns and likes to hunt. But he stood before a mostly sympathetic crowd of some 200 people in the auditorium of Hanna Boys Center March 3 and opened a town hall meeting with the declaration, “Like most of you, I’m fed up with gun violence in America.” There was instant applause.

Thompson, a democrat from St. Helena, has heard a lot of instant applause in the five and a half years since he became chair of the House Gun Violence Prevention Task Force. What he hasn’t heard or seen is any Congressional action.

And as he told the Hanna audience, “It should be government’s responsibility to keep guns out of the hands of people who shouldn’t have them.” More applause. Polls report that more than 97 percent of Americans want universal background checks to purchase any firearm. “That’s more people than believe in capitalism,” said Thompson, who, with GOP New York Rep. Peter King, has had a bi-partisan background check bill on the table since 2015. But, Thompson told the Hanna audience, the GOP-controlled House won’t bring it up. “There has been no hearing and no vote on the background check bill,” he said.

So how can the status quo change? “Right now,” he said, “our bill has 201 sponsors, including 11 Republicans.” Thompson clearly thinks the pendulum is beginning to swing back.

“I particularly want to focus on youth in our community,” he said. Since the Parkland, Florida, shooting, “Kids took a new role; those Florida teenagers are fantastic.” And, he pointed out, “There are 300,000 17-year-olds in Florida who will vote in the next election.”

That fact needs to resonate with the gun-owning public, he argued. “If you’re a responsible gun owner, you better stand up, you better speak up, and you better help us get ahead of this curve. It’s going to happen. You better get on board.”

Thompson believes improved, stronger, universal background checks are the single most important step toward ending gun violence because they have the greatest chance of political support.

A companion bill – H.R. 4240 – the Public Safety and Second Amendment Rights protection Act – would enact prohibitions on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, among other reforms, but is a much tougher sell to gun owners. “I don’t believe military assault weapons should be in the hands of civilians,” Thompson says. “If I were the good fairy I would wave my magic wand and there wouldn’t be any assault weapons in civilian hands.”

But, estimates of the number of AR-15 rifles already in private hands range from 3 million to three times that figure, or more, and it’s hard to imagine putting that horse back in the barn.

Legislation aside, in the wake of the Parkland, Florida, shooting, burning questions remain about how to make schools safe and secure. The two student essays that follow offer one perspective. Another comes from Sonoma Police Chief Bret Sackett.

“School violence can happen anywhere,” he says. “Everybody needs to be keenly aware of perceived threats.” Sackett points out the Sheriff’s Department has had a school resource officer (SRO) at Sonoma Valley High School for the past 15 years. “Those guys,” he says, “have been invaluable for providing on-campus security.” But is one cop enough?

Sackett says that Eric Smith, the current SRO, “happens to also be one of our SWAT team members. He trains every year in the newest and best tactics.”

What constitutes newest and best tactics with an active shooter on a school campus isn’t clear. Sackett says that in the early 2000s a countywide protocol was developed for dealing with active shooters, but there is no stock procedure. “It’s hard to legislate a response,” he says. “We leave a lot to the deputy on scene. It’s more an art than a science.”

And, he points out, each school has it own safety protocols. “There are the active measures – locking doors from the inside, cameras on campus. And the Sheriff’s Office has a new bomb dog, which gives us quicker response for potential explosives.”

Ask about giving teachers guns and you find a certain reticence – from cops to school administrators – to discuss the issue. But Sackett admits that, “conceptually, that’s probably not my favorite option. But there are also some circumstances where it could be helpful. What if a school has fully trained reserve police officers who are teachers? Why not have them armed? There are fulltime deputy sheriffs who coach athletics. Why would you not want them to have that option?”

Eric Smith is reluctant to talk about the issue of arming teachers, but he’s clear about both the steps and the limits to making a school secure. “There are so many different considerations, and part of it is just being aware, knowing the tensions and moods on campus.”

He says while there is no way to make the school buildings totally secure, all campus doors are capable of being locked, visitors are required to check in at the office and wear an ID badge on campus. Adults without badges are asked to leave.

“It’s a good start,” Smith says. “It’s better than nothing. We can’t put 100 cops on campus. But we are prepared, and there are deputies in close proximity. But the limits are so dependent on the situation. We always plan for the worst and hope for the best.

Asked how he would respond to an intruder with an AR-15, Smith is frank. “It’s a force multiplier. It definitely changes the equation.”

SVHS Principal Kathleen Hawing won’t talk about arming teachers either, but she acknowledges that the school actively prepares for emergencies. “We have a school safety plan; we practice drills, duck and cover, evacuation, lock-down drills, an intruder on campus.”

But she also points out SVHS is an “open campus. We have a public trail going through our campus. There are limits to what we can do.”

She adds that social and emotional safety are also important issues to address. And, she concludes, “We are probably never fully prepared, but it’s an ongoing discussion.”

Student Essays:

Living In A Fear-Based Culture
“Never Again” has to become a reality.

Story Eliza Neeley

School shootings have forced my friends and me to live in a fear-based culture with a government that is too focused on incentives to save the lives of students. According to The New York Times, since the Sandy Hook shooting in 2012, at least 239 school shootings have taken place nationwide, with 438 people injured and 138 killed. One hundred and thirty-eight people, most of them students, have died, and our country continues to sell automatic weapons.

Aaron Anderson, Sonoma Valley High School (SVHS) art teacher recalls, “The day after the Parkland shooting, I had a bunch of kids working on art outside under the sun, and I was struck with a fear for their vulnerability. I don’t want to let the fear change the way I teach, but I care about my students’ safety. This cannot keep happening.”

As a high school student, it is ignorant for me to believe this will not happen at my school. After watching the strength of the Parkland survivors, who lost their friends and classmates less than a week from the time I write this, and then took action against gun violence, I was impassioned by their loss but simultaneously empowered by their voices. President Trump proved useless by tweeting his “thoughts and prayers,” claiming he would have run into the midst of the shooting, unarmed, to save the day.

Meanwhile, the teen victims themselves had already begun proposing gun restrictions and solutions to end gun violence. They are the true heroes. They are not hiding behind a screen; they are not making false promises; they are raising their fists and keeping them there.

Though older generations tend to ridicule us “lazy screenagers,” I disagree with this stereotype. We are angry at this broken world we live in; we are angry that change has taken this long, but we are willing to make that change. We are more politically aware and active, compared to how politically active and aware previous generations were at our age. After the 2016 presidential election, hundreds of SVHS students participated in a walkout, marching downtown to give speeches, read poems and share ideas. Since then, we’ve attended marches, rallies and protests in Sonoma, San Francisco, and even Washington, D.C. Time and time again, it has been students voicing their beliefs; teenagers have been the ones demanding change.

Miles away from Parkland, Florida, students in Sonoma, California, are already taking steps toward change. Students Ellie Bon and Lauren Worona started a Students Demand Action club, part of a national movement in which students advocate for other students affected by gun violence. Jonathan Beard, SVHS culinary teacher, comments, “I’ve seen students at SVHS respond in a grassroots sort of way to the Florida shooting. Teens have made their voices heard through the rest of the country. They have a resistance to being co-opted by adults. I think they don’t have complete trust in government officials to fix issues, so they are taking it into their own hands, and it is inspiring.”

A few of Trump’s solutions include arming 20 percent of teachers, posting armed veterans on campus, adding metal detectors to campus and increasing mental health resources. Trump explained that, “A teacher would have a concealed gun on them. They’d go for special training and they would be there and you would no longer be a gun-free zone.”

It’s true that I do not feel safe from shootings at Sonoma Valley High School. There is not a more direct way to state this; If a shooter were to come on campus, we would not be safe. This is not the fault of SVHS. No high school is safe from a person with semi-automatic or automatic weapons. But, increasing the number of weapons around students doesn’t seem like the solution.

Personally I would prefer to attend a high school that didn’t resemble a prison, with numerous armed guards and metal detectors. I would rather not be scanned or patted down every time I walked onto campus. And I definitely would not like there to be a gun in every classroom. I cannot imagine why a sweet math teacher, or a temperamental English teacher, should have a gun. Even if they were trained in shooting, they could not possibly protect their students from an attacker with a machine gun. A trained police officer is only 20 percent accurate with a pistol. The idea that handing teachers weapons to protect their students from other weapons is absurd and barbaric, to say the least.

SVHS senior Ellie Bon, explains, “Teachers are meant to teach. Arming teachers would only cause a greater threat to students. Many of the solutions proposed assume that school shootings will continue. I think instead, our approach should be to prevent the shootings in the first place.”

Though gun ownership is justified for self-defense, after people buy guns, their insurance rates go up because they are more likely to injure themselves or a family member instead of actually protecting themselves. Statistically speaking, keeping a gun does not make you more safe.

The debate on gun restrictions should not be a partisan issue; it should be a commonsense issue. It should not politically divide citizens to admit that no ordinary person needs an automatic military weapon, especially someone with mental illness and a history of red flags. The Florida shooter obtained his weapons legally, meaning the lack of gun restrictions is partly responsible for the deaths of 17 innocent people.

After Australia’s last mass shooting in 1996, during which 35 people were killed, the country banned semi-automatic and other military-style weapons, and in the 22 years since then there has not been another mass shooting.

I believe the solution to mass shootings is not to attack every hunter and gun owner, but to restrict distribution of military-style weapons; ban semi-automatic and automatic guns, silencers, and bump stocks; increase background checks; and take the entire gun-obtaining process more seriously.

I hope that the Florida school shooting will be the last, and I believe that through the power of the people, especially the passion of my generation, “never again” will be a reality.

Eliza Neeley is a senior at Sonoma Valley High School and is co-editor of the Dragon’s Tale, the SVHS school newspaper.



I Want to Feel Safe When I Go to School
Kids my age are very aware of the frightening things going on in the world.

Story Genevieve Smith

I only recently received my first phone, but kids are exposed to many opinions and news outlets by an early age. The Internet has become a “go-to” source of information for students with access. So, when the shooting in Florida occurred, many of us knew about it right away.

It was scary to hear that 17 students and teachers were killed by a former student. I want to feel that I am safe when I go to school; I don’t want to be scared that someone could walk through the door at any moment and hurt me or my friends.

Parents are afraid, too. This weekend, I went to the beach with my friend, and we went on a walk with her brother. Everyone accuses kids of being on their phones too much, but none of us brought phones with us. We ended up at a lake, skipping rocks and having a fun time. As we were on our way back, my friend’s mom came driving to look for us because we had been gone longer than she expected. Because we didn’t have our phones, she couldn’t get ahold of us, and she was worried.

And now I know I need to bring my phone with me everywhere, so that if anything happens, I will be in contact. I may only be a middle schooler, but kids my age are very aware of the frightening things going on in the world. We don’t have a choice.

Genevieve Smith is in the 6th grade at Adele Harrison Middle School.

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