Local Private Schools Urge Bipartisan Gun Reform in Letter

Several Pasadena private schools weighed in on a national debate surrounding gun control reform this month, joining more than 200 schools throughout California that signed an open letter that ran in the Los Angeles Times, imploring regional and national leaders to work together on a bipartisan effort to pass safeguards related to guns and help keep students safe.
About 20 local heads of schools signed the statement from the California Association of Independent Schools, which ran as a full-page advertisement in the L.A. Times and the San Francisco Chronicle. There were similar displays by private schools across the country, including the New York State Association of Independent Schools, which took out an advertisement in the New York Times.
The California schools’ statement on gun violence and school safety read, in part: “As educators and as citizens, we are proud Republicans, Democrats and Independents who believe that our country need not choose between the rightful protection of responsible gun ownership and the necessary prevention of gun violence. We believe that the epidemic of gun violence in schools is an issue of non-partisan urgency, one that demands a higher duty of care.”
The local advertisement was published March 11, just before many students participated in school walkouts on March 14, part of a solidarity movement nationwide to commemorate the one-month anniversary of a shooting in Parkland, Florida, that left 17 dead.
The walkouts, which took place at 10 a.m. and lasted for 17 minutes, were largely supported by local school administrators.
CAIS Executive Director Jim McManus, who lives in Altadena, said the organization felt compelled to take action after consulting many heads of schools. The association represents about 228 schools throughout California, of which more than 200 co-signed the statement. While not all schools had time to sign the print advertisement, more schools have come on board to sign the online version, he said.
The statement was mindful of planned student walkouts that coming week, he said.
“It wasn’t a synchronized placement, but we knew it was something very much on people’s minds, and as educators, we learn from our students, and they are trying to tell us something here [with the walkouts],” said McManus, who was headmaster at Mayfield Senior School in the 1980s. “In this case with Parkland, it was just one more episode of totally innocent kids being mowed down without a second’s notice at school. It is just so tragic and horrible. We had to ask, ‘What can we do to stop this?’ We simply felt we must do something … we had to speak out.”
McManus, the CAIS and its board of directors gathered input from heads of schools over several days and went through 22 drafts before agreeing on the final statement.
“We truly wanted a statement that seemed reasoned and thoughtful and not designed to irritate people with incendiary points of view, and student safety is one of those issues we care most about, and one we can all agree on,” he said, noting that the association’s goal is to reach anyone with decision-making power, not just legislators.
“There are leaders in many different contexts and positions who can help take steps to make our children safer in schools,” he said, nodding to the sporting goods companies that decided to stop selling assault weapons.
In calling on leaders to rise above politics and take action for responsible gun ownership, the independent schools in their statement called back to a time when two former presidents, Democrat Jimmy Carter and Republican Ronald Reagan, both of whom owned guns, rose above partisanship to endorse legislation to ban the manufacture, sale and possession of combat-style assault weapons.
The letter read: “Today, assault weapons in particular are used in a disproportionate number of mass shootings, many of which have targeted schools. As educators who work tirelessly to nurture and educate the next generation of Americans, we believe this is tragic.”
Meanwhile, as demonstrations flooded local streets and campuses last week, the walkouts varied among schools, with some students carrying signs reading “Never Again” and “Enough,” while others gave speeches, read poems, read the names of those killed in Florida or simply lay down for 17 minutes to recognize those felled.
Polytechnic Head of School John Bracker was one of the schools to co-sign the independent schools’ statement. He said Poly’s board of trustees was unanimous in supporting it.
“It’s been a pretty remarkable galvanization of heads coming together to say we’ve got to reduce gun violence,” said Bracker, noting that as a bystander, he found the March 14 walkout “very powerful, very moving.”
“Part of what’s exciting about this movement is it’s the student’s voices. I think it felt good for the kids to do something, more than just be on Twitter, to actually do something. I hope that it gives them hope… even for us adults, it was very hopeful to see our students standing in unison.”
Part of what Bracker liked most about the letter’s wording, he said, was the call for bipartisan collaboration to reduce gun violence. He compared it to his students who organized the school walkout, respectful of others who didn’t want to participate.
“When the students were announcing they were going to do this, they made it very clear there was no judgment on those who didn’t want to participate. If you’re going to encourage dialogue, you can’t vilify people,” Bracker added.
As a nonprofit, CAIS strives to bring a compelling and compassionate voice to dialog about education, and considers itself an advocate for positive learning environments. However, the issue of school safety has changed drastically in recent years, McManus said, noting that the association now has a whole chapter in its accreditation program on school safety.
Westridge Head of School Elizabeth McGregor, who also signed the statement, said school safety has become a priority over the past decade.
“My No. 1 concern is to make my students safe,” she said. “I’m kind of hyper-aware of it — I do everything in my power to make sure they are safe, without turning our school into a fortress.”
McGregor, who is on the CAIS board of directors, said as soon as the shooting in Florida happened, there was a “very powerful, palpable sense among heads of schools in California that we needed to support our students and support our schools against gun violence.”
As part of the academia at Westridge, students are encouraged to be agents of change, she noted, so it wasn’t surprising many students participated in the walkout on campus. Many of the girls have written to their congressional representatives. The discussion of how to pre-register to vote also has been pretty commonplace, she said.
“This millennial generation is going to be bigger than the baby-boomer generation, and they are becoming very aware that they can make changes on a national level on issues that are very important,” she said.
Flintridge Prep Headmaster Peter Bachmann, who at one time was president of the CAIS board, said it is unclear if his students will continue to participate in walkouts after doing so on March 14, but he said he’s heard about kids teaching other students how to pre-register to vote, which he finds positive.
“I am wondering if we are not on the cusp of a major movement of a young generation that is fed up with their parents’ generation’s inability to collaborate and get things done,” Bachmann said. “I’m heartened by this movement pushing the older generation to stop being dysfunctional and fix the problems that need fixing. I have deep respect and optimism about these young people.”
Read the statement in full: caisca.org/page/224164_Statement_on_Gun_Violence.asp.

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