We have, it seems, given up.
In our town we squabble over building heights and brick color, bike lanes and traffic calming, chickens and dogs, but we generally commit to doing the things expected in a civil society pretty well. Trash gets collected; broken stuff gets fixed; daily life hums along. But on Monday night while Americans honored those who gave their lives to ensure domestic tranquility, Alexandria declared that our high school students are not safe in their own school building. At one of the most fundamental promises of civil society, we have simply and plainly, given up.
ACPS has never been a leading light. We’ve got crumbling facilities and a seeming inability to fix them. In the last twenty years we’ve had five superintendents, two of whom the school board paid to go away. And our current superintendent would rather be touring around hawking books, teaching a college class, or pontificating on podcasts than doing the job he was hired to do. But despite the physical limitations and the wildly inconsistent leadership, our teachers have generally educated kids well in a relatively safe environment. Until this year.
The year started with what seemed to be a dizzying array of acts of violence in and out of our schools. Videos of fist fights around busses, in bathrooms, and in hallways went viral. School and city leaders sniped at each other over school resource officers engaging in a hugely embarrassing display that was a master class in how not to work collaboratively to solve a problem.
Sitting in the center of the city, Bradlee Shopping Center became a popular but increasingly unsafe destination in the afternoons. Business owners clamored for attention from law enforcement as they witnessed skirmishes and bad behavior. A student was shot there. And as the academic year drew to a close, the misbehavior and disruption at Bradlee built to an unthinkably tragic crescendo – the death of a student in the middle of a melee that police officers on the scene could not quiet. In the aftermath ACPS has essentially thrown in the towel, tacitly admitting it cannot keep teachers and students safe enough to be in person for the last two weeks of class.
It’s a stunning state of affairs. How is it possible that a city flush with the resources and talent of 160,000 people just a stone’s throw from the nation’s capital is not capable of safely sending teenagers to school?
As with many civic problems, it is easy to cast blame–there is plenty to go around–and devolve into relitigating old battles. It is harder to take stock with open minds and work together on a solution. School leaders and city officials must put aside their egos, listen to the community, and come together to create a path forward for the city.
So where do we go from here? If this year has taught us anything, it is that screaming into the void doesn’t solve anything. Nor does screaming at each other. Nor does screaming into a pillow (believe me, if this one worked I would know). If solutions were obvious, we wouldn’t be in this mess.
It is easy to feel lost in the face of indescribable events, when words seem to slide around the sides and margins of understanding without gaining purchase. To feel like any action is small to the point of vanishing against the enormity of the challenge we face. Yet each small individual action builds to collective strength as certain as a sky of stars beats back the dark vastness of space. What we each owe the youth of this city in this moment is our presence. All of us, every one of us, must now show up however we can for every single young person in the city. Volunteer, coach, mentor, instruct, hire, whatever you can do. Hell, start with making eye contact and saying hello. So many things have been taken from the youth of this city—the future of this city—the one thing we cannot do is not be there when they need us most.
The one thing we cannot do, is give up.
– P.C. Publius
May 31, 2022