DOVER — The national gun violence debate has reached Delaware’s classrooms, too.
School officials here are formulating a response to upcoming walkouts following the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people on Feb. 14.
To a far lesser degree, the experience of threats has already arrived in the First State.
At least three recent potential dangers to Kent County schools following the Florida massacre proved unfounded:
• Last week in Woodside, a 19-year-old James H. Groves Adult High School student was allegedly overheard threatening to “shoot up the school” before being arrested on a felony charge.
• This week, the Smyrna School District addressed a social media post referencing an active shooter threat at a school identified only as “SHS” that drew concerns at campuses nationally.
In a publicly posted message online, Smyrna Superintendent Dr. Patrik Williams said police “have determined that this is a nationwide post designed to prey upon the fears of our country at a very fragile time.
“Specifically, law enforcement has determined that there is no threat to the Smyrna School District. We will remain vigilant and continue to work with law-enforcement.”
• Capital School District was also thrust into concerns. Superintendent Dr. Dan Shelton said, “a picture that the police believe was a bathroom in a school out west that had written on a stall there would be another shooting, was shared locally and many drew conclusions that Dover was in danger.”
That prompted an investigation by Dover Police.
“We looked into it and it was learned that it did not happen at a Dover school, but was something being spread through social media,” spokesman Master Cpl. Mark Hoffman said.
Currently, Dr. Shelton said, “In these situations, everyone is feeling the loss and sadness of an unthinkable tragedy. They are also on heightened alert.”
The discussion on gun laws, mental health resources and treatment and school security is far reaching and inclusive to students and adults.
According to Dr. Shelton, school community discussion has covered “how that the media and social media are politicizing an issue that needs people to come together, not be polarized to find true solutions.”
Plans to participate
The Cape Henlopen School District plans to allow students to participate in a National Walk Out on March 14, For 17 minutes spent acknowledging each of the shooting victims, staff and administrators will stand with the students.
“We are looking at this as an opportunity for our students to participate in the democratic process of peaceful protest,” Cape Henlopen Supt. Robert Fulton said.
According to a online schedule posted at womensmarch.com, a walkout is scheduled for 10 a.m. on March 14 at MOT Charter School at 1275 Cedar Lane Road in Middletown.
The Associated Press reported organizers are calling for the walkout to “protest Congress’ inaction” in response to gun violence.
The Polytech School District is committed to allowing students to express themselves but “would like to do it in a way that’s appropriate and not disruptive to the educational process,” Supt. Dr. Mark Dufendach said.
Earlier this week, Dr. Dufendach said that there weren’t any events currently planned but administrators were open to discussions with students on how to proceed if interest builds.
Noting his background as a social studies teacher and saluting students for having “paid attention in class” Caesar Rodney School District Supt. Dr. Kevin Fitzgerald issued a statement acknowledging “that they have a voice that needs to be heard.
“However, I cannot support allowing students to disrupt the educational setting by leaving their classrooms to ‘walk out.’ Instead, I believe that they should write or call their legislators to let their opinions be known and most importantly to vote when they come of age.”
Also, Dr. Fitzgerald said, “Teachers do not have the option to walk out during the work day. They are responsible for the other children in their class. Also, teachers are not permitted to ‘walk out’ during their planning period.
“However, they do have a duty free lunch and may sign out during that time.”
The “responsibility to make sure that the children sent to us each day receive the best possible education and to do all in my power to keep them safe,” remains, Dr. Fitzgerald said.
Discussing action plans
The Delaware State Education Association teachers’ union urged members to speak with local- and district-level administrators to discuss any plans for action, President Mike Matthews lauded protesting students “for doing the work that perhaps adults should have been doing” since the Colorado-based, Columbine High School shooting in 1999.
“The Association supports banning assault weapons, limiting the capacity of ammunition magazines, requiring background checks and a waiting period for all gun purchases, creating a national database of gun sales, and preventing people with mental illness and/or a documented history of domestic violence from purchasing firearms,” Mr. Matthews wrote in a blog post.
“The Association believes that minors shall not be allowed to buy, own, or sell firearms.”
The thought of arming teachers is “absurd,” Mr. Matthews said. He did detect a “rising tide of concern regarding assault-style weapons” while noting that some members “want to make sure the Second Amendment is protected without question.” Keeping weapons from those with mental health issues that could endanger society is also a core concern, he said.
The Capital School’s District’s partnership with the Middle Atlantic Equity Consortium began last month and “a series of focus groups and public meetings are being planned for the community to express their concerns around what goes on in and around our schools and to help to strengthen the strategies developed as part of our Strategic Intent 3 – Senator Pride,” Dr. Fulton said.
“Those opportunities will be in the very near future, planning is well under way.”
On Friday, Delaware Gov. John Carney called on all Delaware lawmakers to ban the sale of assault-style rifles, the Associated Press reported.
Gov. Carney said in a statement that his administration will work with lawmakers to craft legislation prohibiting the sale of such firearms.
Gov. Carney says military-style weapons can be used to carry out catastrophic acts of violence and have no place in the hands of civilians, according to the AP.
While calling for state legislation to enact a ban, Carney also said a national approach is needed to what he calls a “mortal threat” to public safety, the AP said.
Spokesman Jonathan Starkey said Gov. Carney, “understands the concerns of students who are calling for additional gun safety laws – and he agrees with them. He appreciates their leadership and their voice on this issue. Adults should be listening.
“The Governor shares their sense of urgency, and believes we should take additional action to keep guns out of the hands of those who should not have access to deadly weapons.
“To your specific question about the walkouts, Delaware has well established local control of districts and charter schools. We trust that school and district leaders will manage this issue in a way that is in the best interests of their students, educators and staff.
Several other gun-control measures already are pending in the legislature, including a ban on bump stocks and legislation allowing authorities to seize firearms from anyone deemed by a mental health professional to pose a potential threat to others.
Delaware Department of Education Spokeswoman Alison May said, “Delaware has well established local control of districts and charter schools.
“DOE trusts that school and district leaders will address this in a way that is in the best interests of their students, educators and staff.”
Delegations responds At the federal level, U.S. Sen Tom Carper, D-Del., wants to preserve Second Amendment rights while reducing gun violence, and supports “common sense proposals” including legislatively “strengthening background checks to unlicensed sellers, renewing the ban on military-style assault weapons, large-capacity ammunition magazines and bump stocks, denying a gun sale to likely terrorists, funding a study to end gun violence, ending the gun industry’s liability shield, and opposing weakening rules restricting gun sales to the mentally ill.
“None of these things impede our ability to buy and own weapons, but as my dad would say, they use common sense.”
This is coming from a congressman who grew up in a family of gun owners.
“My sister and I were born in West Virginia to a family of hunters and my dad taught me to hunt when I was a kid,” Sen. Carper said.
“My dad was a gun collector and would buy and sell guns to people he knew. He would always tell me to use some common sense in everything I do.”
According to U.S. Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester, D-Del, ”In the wake of the Parkland shooting, students, parents, and administrators across the country are taking a stand and saying ‘enough is enough.’ I am proud of the Delaware students who have protested, written letters, and are planning to join the National School Walkout.
“All too often, the voices of our youth are simply dismissed, but serving on the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, I spend time with Delaware students and know that their perspectives are critical to our ability to make meaningful advances in reducing gun violence. I’m thrilled that students in Delaware and across the country are stepping up and leading a peaceful movement for positive change today.
“I hope we all hear and empower them to continue engaging in the democratic process and in decisions that will have lasting impacts on their present and future.”
Staff writer Matt Bittle contributed to this story.