A Year after Newtown 

... and very little has changed

It's been a year since the initial reports began. There was a shooting at an elementary school in an idyllic Connecticut town. Events were reported in real-time via social media networks, and those events were nothing short of horrific. Twenty children, ages five and six years, shot and killed as a disturbed young man stalked the halls of their school less than two weeks before Christmas. Six teachers and administrators killed while trying to protect the children in their care. Twenty-six lives, ended in an instant. We'll never know what those children would have become had they survived. We'll never know how they might have changed the world.

I was home that day, off from my day-job and hacking away at a novel I was writing. As the first reports appeared on Twitter, I turned on CNN. Not normally one to stay glued to the news, I was too shocked to move. When the time came to attend an office Christmas party later that night, I couldn't do it. I couldn't face a party having seen the massacre in Newtown.

You see, I'm a mother to a small child. She was four at the time, in preschool. A year younger than the children killed at Sandy Hook Elementary, she was slated to start kindergarten in what suddenly felt like a few very short months. In a flash of gunfire on a blood-drenched afternoon, kindergarten began to feel like a dangerous place indeed. When Adam Lanza massacred those children and teachers in Sandy Hook Elementary School, he changed our nation and the way we look at our schools.

Or did he?

At first, of course, the talking heads on both sides of the political aisle went mad. "We need more gun control to keep our children safe!" shouted one side. "We need more guns to keep our children safe!" shouted the other.

It seemed like, despite the angry rhetoric and the political quagmire in which our government has wallowed for the past decade, perhaps this event — this terrible, unspeakable event — would be the catalyst for true change. It seemed there would be progress made, in some way, towards making our country a safer one for our children.

Alas, it was not meant to be. The Congressional stalemate meant even the passage of reasonable laws were stalled and eventually swept under the rug of the Capitol building. No substantive legislative changes were passed, and the school shootings have continued. No single event has been as horrific as the massacre in Newtown, but children die from gunshot wounds almost daily, all around the country. It's a terrifying state of affairs for mothers like me.

When my husband and I began touring local elementary schools in the spring after Newtown, I surprised even myself by caring almost as much about fences and locks as I did about nurturing environments and cool teachers. As we walked the halls, I found myself wondering, would these teachers risk their lives to protect my child? I shouldn't have to wonder about that, should I?

But the plight of our schools isn't entirely grim, at least not here in Charleston. In the absence of national legislative changes, our local government and schools have partnered to keep our children safe. At Drayton Hall Elementary, Principal John Cobb seems eager to talk security. He's proud of the changes they've made in recent years to ensure their students' safety. A security task force convened in the weeks after Sandy Hook last year, and they took steps toward making the school safer and more secure.

In the first place, due to changes coming down from Mayor Joe Riley and the Charleston City Council, there's a city police officer on location every day in Drayton Hall and other local schools. They walk the halls, know the teachers and administrators, and though their presence might seem, at times, a bit informal — I've seen them hanging out, chatting and laughing in the front office — there's no question that they're ready for business.

Additionally, even for teachers with security cards, there are only three doors that will open into or out of the school at any given time. This limits ways for a criminal to get in and also the ways to escape.

All visitors to the school must check in at the front office, and all visitors must wear a badge as they walk the halls. In every wing of the school, there's a staff member designated to drop everything and help in the event of an emergency. And the school drills for evacuation — and for lockdowns.

One day about a week into the new school year, as I sat outside with a group of parents waiting to pick up our little ones, the school instituted a lockdown. A voice, garbled by the school's brick walls and windows, came over the loudspeaker: "We are under administrative lockdown. This is not a drill."

I sat beside a stranger, and we exchanged a look. "Did they just say it's not a drill?" she said, her voice hushed and tight.

I could only shrug, an icy knot wedged against my vocal chords. Was my child in danger? There, maybe a hundred yards away from me? Would I be able to burst through the doors and take her to safety? Around us, other parents were wondering the same hideous questions.

It ended quickly and without further drama. The lockdown occurred when a parent misunderstood school policy and forgot to check in. Our children were never in danger, but it took a long time for my heart to beat at a normal rhythm again.

Last week, another school lockdown had a much different outcome. One student at a Colorado high school was critically injured when a lone gunman entered her school and began shooting. She was shot at point blank range. The gunman then turned his weapon on himself.

My heart breaks for the parents of children in that school. Their lockdown was real. Their fears were realized, and even if they were able to hug their children that night, their lives are forever changed.

This is the world in which we live, and it's a terrifying one. And until our country can come together as one and agree on substantive, gun-culture-changing new rules, the reality is our children are not as safe as we'd all love to believe they are.

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