As the news of the Virginia shootings filtered through, many of us will have experienced the same emotions. First, a sense of deep shock, which the Bishop of Southwark, Tom Butler, likened to the emotion expressed in Edvard Munch’s painting The Scream. Then the simple question: “Why?” as we search for something hidden in the perpetrator’s past or psyche that might explain the carnage. Then, lastly, an anxiety as to whether such an event could ever happen here.
There are always echoes of past horrors that are relived at such times, in this case Columbine and Dunblane. Comparisons are made and some have suggested an element of competitiveness in the event itself. With massive, almost instant, media coverage, we are spared no detail, and a reassessment of our own protective measures kick starts.
Could a high-school shooting happen here? Without being complacent, it seems unlikely. First, though recent tragic events suggest that guns are becoming more readily available in Britain, we are still far from the US norm of buying weapons across the counter, or winning them in a competition. Perhaps more importantly we still do not as a nation automatically consider the option of shooting someone by whom we feel threatened. US students interviewed in the immediate aftermath decried the fact that they were not themselves armed so as to be able to retaliate. In the UK we still cling to the rather quaint notion that it just might be possible to mediate and resolve the problem peaceably.
Following the Dunblane tragedy, schools in the UK were given money to improve security. Entry phones and CCTV were installed, high fences erected and “sterile” zones introduced to stop intruders. While closed sites can be secured however, there will always be problems in protecting a sprawling campus. In fact, the main concern in schools here is the use of all-too-easily obtainable knives – and the interschool rivalry that can turn nasty outside the gates. Even in the face of such a combustible mix, there remains a distinct ambivalence among head teachers as to the wisdom of installing metal detectors at school entrances. Instead the response is to go for targeted but sensitive searching of individual students rather than wholesale screening.
We must make sure that any response befits our situation, and is not founded on a fear of some other place.
Helen Bonnick is a supervisor of school-home support workers and a social worker