Guest columnist: Meaningful response to Newtown requires common sense

Dec. 29, 2012 @ 03:47 PM

Much is being said and written in response to the tragic shootings in Newtown. Will this quickly fizzle away from the headlines and from the mainstream lead topic of conversation throughout the country? That seems to be the pattern we have established in recent years.

My perspective is that of a longtime educator. I know that many people in and out of the field of education have been spending time reflecting on the horrific incident in Newtown. It has played over and over in my head as I try to imagine how those children, teachers and administrators at Sandy Hook Elementary School felt in the moment of facing the unimaginable. As school staff members, we are trained and try to be prepared for all types of emergencies and know that we will do the best that we can to take care of children and each other when we are in the face of danger. Never would I have imagined having to face what happened in Newtown.

Since Dec. 14, I have been contemplating, mourning and listening. I have been contemplating why our nation cannot grasp the importance of early childhood intervention and family support. I have been listening to ideas about what our nation should be doing in response to this tragedy. I would like to offer some suggestions. They may seem naïve or simple to some, but to me they are just common sense. They come from living and working “in the trenches” and from caring deeply about children and families for more than 30 years.

If policy makers would have the courage to listen to the needs of teachers and parents, they could learn much more than they would in any meetings or reports. Teachers spend their days with children, and their nights worrying about them. They often feel helpless. They spend a lot of time wondering and wishing that elected officials, policy makers, and other community leaders would just use some common sense.

There is no one answer to this dilemma; however, here are some common-sense suggestions from an educator and parent:

Support parents: A parent who has a child who seems to be unstable, disturbed and angry needs lots of support and they need it for a sustained period of time. One appointment or one medication will not “fix” the problem. Support must begin when children are under the age of 5 if we want to identify those in need before it is too late. The lengthy approval processes to get help are huge barriers to families who need services.

Support teachers: Teachers know who troubled children and families are, but the resources and support available are limited. These families need to be surrounded by support and love every day. As an educator I could easily tell you which child or family I knew would end up living a life that involved crime, violence and mental instability. Teachers carry these burdens with them daily and are given very little support to help themselves or families. Budget cuts and access to mental health services will increase violent, senseless crimes.

Stop encouraging violence: Marketing and selling violence has become the norm in our society. Young children love “Angry Birds” and adults buy them toys, stuffed animals, clothes, etc., to reinforce that something called “angry” is a positive thing to have in their lives. Children are exposed to violent video games; a constant stream of violence on television and in movies, and songs on the radio. People or cartoon characters being shot at, blown up, or cussing is accepted as the norm now. Vulgar and hurtful language is accepted as the norm. You may not be causing it, but standing by in silence is condoning it.

Take time to care: Look a child, parent or neighbor in the eyes and ask them how they are doing. Be courageous enough to tell someone to take the violent video games and toys away from their children or to tell someone to stop using vulgar language in front of children. Have the sense to turn off violence and sexual content on your screens, especially in front of children. Find a school and support a child or a teacher on a regular basis.

Gun laws: Firearms are designed to kill. In the wrong hands they kill innocent children and adults. In such a supposedly educated country, we should be smarter than what our current gun laws allow.

My challenge to policy makers, parents, churches, teachers, community organizers and anyone else who felt helpless when they learned that young, innocent children and teachers were killed in their own school, is this: Do more than shake your heads and talk about how horrible this recent tragedy was. Make one small change in your life or the life of those around you to stop the violence and increase being a community of caring. Dare to model, in policies and actions, what we tell school-aged children to do all the time: Think before you speak and do not hurt others with your body or your words. Use some common sense.

Paula Januzzi-Godfrey is the parent of two children. She is a longtime educator and currently the assistant director at Central Park School for Children, a public charter school in downtown Durham.