During a fit of frustration with me, my ninth-grade algebra teacher let it slip that my name was on a list of students who could “commit a Columbine.” It was less than a week after what was then the deadliest school shooting in America.
Since then, this country has endured Sandy Hook and dozens of other horrific shooting incidents, the most recent being this week at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.
Because I grew up and attended Chicago Public Schools, there was an expectation that a school shooting of this magnitude could occur at an inner-city high school. Yet it never happened at my high school and one reason is we had metal detectors.
Contrast this expectation of the inner city with the fact that many of the mass shootings across the country occur at suburban schools where the shooter is a white male.
Decades of benign neglect and biased expected outcomes – based on race and socioeconomic status – led to the assumption that inner-city kids are more prone to violence, thus justifying the expense of metal detectors. While stories of shots fired after the final bell at urban schools happen with some regularity, mass shootings during the school day on the grounds of the school are not.
I remember friends who would not bring weapons – knives, brass knuckles, nunchakus mainly – and certainly never guns to school because they knew we had metal detectors. The metal detectors as a deterrent worked.
As the product of white flight, many of these suburban and rural school districts have deluded themselves into thinking they escaped the violence of the inner cities. The most recent shooting in Parkland, Florida, is a reminder they have not.
The disconnect that I experienced from my algebra teacher is the same disconnect that far too many white suburban and rural parts of this country experience. As a black male, it is expected that I am more prone to violence, even a mass shooting. It was easier for the teacher to admit out loud that my name came up in an emergency meeting than to “slip” and mention the names of my white classmates.
While my teacher thought he had provided a snarky one-liner, he instead uncovered the implicit bias that this country has toward inner-city kids, often a code word for black and Hispanic youth. While the country focused on making sure students like me were warehoused in public schools run like jails and prisons, complete with metal detectors, the newly built and technologically modern schools built in suburban and rural districts were beginning to experience the mass shootings my teacher alleged I was capable of.
According to the Pew Research Center, guns can be found in 41 percent of households in the suburbs and a whopping 58 percent in rural areas. Compared with 29 percent of households in urban areas, it’s hard to understand why suburban and rural communities haven’t invested in those fixes that don’t infringe on Second Amendment rights, but provide the basic public safety that all citizens deserve.
Both Adam Lanza, the Sandy Hook shooter, and now Nikolas Cruz obtained guns legally. They both had a higher chance of gun access than I did given that both of them were raised in non-urban settings. Yet metal detectors were present in my urban school.
Gun control legislation by Congress would be helpful, but in the meantime individual communities and municipalities need to find the money to install metal detectors staffed by security guards. Or again, like in many urban public schools, require parents to purchase see-through book bags for students. This reduces the chances of sneaking a gun or a weapon of any sort into the school.
My teacher was flat wrong about me. But his bias is still representative of the country’s bias against persons of color and how it privileges white lives. Something as simple as placing metal detectors in all schools will demystify the narrative that inner cities are a singular place of violence while suburban and rural communities are bastions of safety.
The Rev. Joshua L. Lazard is the C. Eric Lincoln Minister for Student Engagement at Duke University Chapel.