"Safety Message" was the subject of the email. If you have school-age kids, you've undoubtedly received an email like this. It might not be titled "Safety Message" — it might have some other heavily workshopped title engineered to minimize panic — but all of these emails serve the same purpose: to inform you that someone has threatened to shoot up your child's school.
Whenever these emails pop up in your inbox (as they have two or three times a year since my daughter entered junior high school), you're always stuck doing the same thing: playing school shooter bingo. You can choose to send your kid to school the next day so they can keep up academically...but with a small chance they'll be killed; or you can choose to keep them home, where they'll be safe...but fall behind in their studies.
Whenever we get one of these emails, we reach out to our network of parent friends to see what they know; to vent, commiserate, and ask what they're going to do:
I lay awake that night, unsure what to do. I couldn't ask my mom for advice — she died the year before — but I know what she'd say. She'd say to keep the kid home. By morning, I was leaning that way too.
But my daughter — since word of the potential shooting had spread like wildfire among her peers, whether the adults wanted it to or not — had her own thoughts too. She'd also talked it over with her own networks of friends:
Normally, either my wife or I drive our daughter to school, but today both of us went. On the way, we started discussing escape routes: where the ideal spot was to leap over the fence, which hill was best to run up to reach the street the fastest.
As we neared the school, I got a little teary and had to blink back tears. Years earlier, my wife and I lost our first child (a daughter), and the thought of losing another one gets to me pretty easily.
In the rearview mirror, I saw my daughter's eyes searching mine, and I wanted to explain that I was teary because these things are hard on her mom and me after all we went through, but damn, that would be a lot to put on a 13-year-old, you know? So instead, I forced a smile and laughed.
Upon reaching the school, we spotted a police car out front. That was good, I guess. But why weren't there, like, 50 police cars? The lives of 700 children were at stake. Shouldn't there have been more? If a shooting did happen and there were dozens of patrol cars trolling the city for speeding tickets, how sad would that be?
We pulled up to the curb, and our daughter threw open her car door. As we said goodbye, my wife and I were careful to say just how much we love her without making it obvious that we were aware these might be our last words to her.
We also told her to use her phone if she needed to (a phone the school technically forbids, but in a world like this, how can we not let her bring it?).
I didn't immediately pull away from the curb as she walked away. Instead, we sat watching her disappear around the corner before finally driving on. It occurred to me that normally the car behind me at drop-off would've honked if I'd stayed in place this long, but not today.
Since we were both in the car, my wife and I decided to go get Starbucks. On the way there, we laughed over how we dealt with this: "We overreacted, huh?" But then, after a few moments of silence, we wondered...did we? After all, a few years earlier, there was a mass shooting only a couple of miles from our home.
Thankfully, the day went by uneventfully, and as I got lost in work, I even forgot from time to time about what might be soon to happen down the road.
At school, it turned out, the kids chatted endlessly about what might happen. There was freaking out, gallows humor, and kids — likely due to a real-life game of telephone — who claimed to have heard it was going to be a bombing and not a shooting. As the day crept closer to lunch — the appointed hour — my suddenly spooked daughter texted me asking if I could pick her up as soon as possible.
Normally, I'm not one to pick my kid up with a fake excuse, but I used one that day: the old chestnut "a dentist's appointment." The secretary didn't give me any trouble; there seemed to be an unspoken understanding between us.
In the school parking lot, waiting to pick up my daughter half an hour before lunch, I saw two police officers enter the grounds carrying packed duffel bags ahead of...whatever might be.
Finally, I saw my daughter approaching, and relief poured over me. I took her home and scooped her a bowl of some midday ice cream ("Just don't tell your brother," etc.). She missed her second test of the day, but really, so what?
Three o'clock came and went that day without incident (just as it had the six or seven times we'd received "School Safety" emails before). But soon, likely very soon, a school shooting will happen again somewhere in America. And whether it happens at your kid's school or someone else's, we will all have to carry the emotional burden of that reality. It's just part of being a parent in the United States.
Note: The texts in this post are re-creations capturing the spirit of the real conversations.