Fresh Eyes: A gun in the elementary school auditorium

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Atiba Berkleyby Atiba Berkley

As parents we face many milestones with our kids: first steps, first words, first day of school. Then time comes when the school has performances for your children. We study the lines they have to memorize. We make sure they have on the correct attire. Make sure they are standing properly. We tell ourselves: “My kid won’t be the one who messes up!”

We were right.

Thursday, May 8, there was excitement in the air as all of us proudly attended what was, for us and many other parents, our first student performance at Irving Park Elementary School. We meet other kindergarten parents. We see how our kids behave among their classmates. At 6 p.m. with cell-phone cameras poised and ready we watch our children perform with heads held high, share their talents, pride in their school and pride in themselves. Quite a powerful moment.

In that moment we have a 2-year-old wiggling towards her brother on stage. She bounces between daddy’s lap and the floor. She yells, “You see Matthew?! Hey brother!” Happily bouncing to and fro, dancing and pointing, she lunges forward. I attempt to restrict her, lovingly of course, and am confronted with this image.

Can you tell that this is a Greensboro police officer from behind? (Photo by Atiba Berkley)
Can you tell that this is a Greensboro police officer from behind? (Photo by Atiba Berkley)

I freeze. My daughter’s brown hair is in the bottom right corner of the image. And that is a gun within her reach just over the side of the folding chair in front of us. A gun is in the auditorium of Irving Park Elementary. In a tenth of a second my mind switches from Parenting in School Assemblies 101 to a Confronting Deadly Weapons Master Class. No choice. This mountain came to Mohamed.

I scoop her up in my arms and quietly alert my wife. She clutches our 10-week-old son closer. At that moment, I could tell she would crack her chest open and hide him inside it if she could. This is fear.

How does one confront this? Do we change seats? Kids are performing. We don’t want to be those parents. Damn. Could we tap her on the shoulder and ask her about it? Might she have a bad or violent reaction? Damn. We could stand up and yell “Gun!” Mass hysteria, people trampled, chaos… no.

We’ll just sit here. We attempt to smile and let the singing of our student distract us. We keep our 2-year-old away from the weapon. We smile and congratulate the young performers and their parents who have no idea of the shock and awe we are suffering. We even let the kids play on the playground with them before we leave. We hug his teacher… all normal.

We leave the school and have a bit of conversation about “the incident” but don’t want to discuss it in front of the kids. We’re also exhausted. The next day I get home late and I slump into the couch. With time to think, it rises up again. The fear and the frustration. I take to Facebook. I post the picture of the gun. I wait.

Perspectives and opinions pour out onto the screen. A lively, passionate, and eye-opening discussion ensues. My community is scared and wants answers. People feel strongly about our rights, our responsibilities, our school policies. Outrage, contempt, fear, questions and suggestions take over my evening. A friend in Texas tells me a principal from Guilford County reposted my photo. My inbox dings. A friend has emailed the principal of Irving Park Elementary, Cynthia McKee. My heart skips a beat. Was I was potentially responsible for people blindsiding a public school with an issue they had no knowledge of?

I now email Principal McKee. It is part urgent notification and part apology. I also update my Facebook post to that effect, encouraging people not to lash out until the school and I have the chance to address it properly and report back. As of this writing, there are 138 comments in that post and that doesn’t include the comment replies Facebook recently enabled. The school’s response was swift.

Principal McKee was understanding, encouraging and informative. It was a police officer with a relative performing in the show. The officer checked in with school and was dressed in the appropriate Greensboro Police Department dress-down uniform, which consists of a GPD logo polo shirt and a separate badge prominently displayed in plain view. School staff are advised not to call attention to officers as a matter of policy.

Whew! That was a close one, but not really.

We are left with all these feelings and questions. Was the weapon secured properly? Should the officer have been seated among families and children? Was the officer in a strategic position to assist in case of a violent incident? Why couldn’t we tell it was an officer from behind? I feel official dress-down uniforms for every police department should be identifiable from behind. I know one thing. I now will attend school events and look for guns. In addition to “How are you doing?” and “Excuse me,” I guess now I have to turn to my fellow parents and ask, “You packing heat?”

Atiba Berkley is a husband, father and professional audio engineer with a background in business management. His interests include conversation, live and recorded performance, event production, photography, cuisine and community.