WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- My God. How do I protect my baby?
Forgive me for speaking on behalf of the masses. But I'm positive that thought ran through the mind of every parent who, like me, watched frantic mothers and fathers searching for their children in the carnage of a Valentine's Day afternoon, some of whom listened helplessly as their sons and daughters hid from bullets as their classmates and teachers were massacred.
Logically, I knew that my son was safely at his daycare, 40 minutes away from the tragedy at Parkland, Florida's Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, probably trading heart-shaped cards with his buddies and eating too much candy. But logic has nothing whatsoever to do with love, with protectiveness. So I took to Twitter, often a ready outlet for the powerless, and wrote this:
"My child is only four and not in school yet, and watching these parents who were texting their panicked kids inside (hashtag)MarjoryStonemanDouglas hoping to survive makes me want to homeschool. This is an irrational impulse. But it's my immediate one. I just want to get to my baby. And never let him out of my sight."
That desperate moment, from behind my computer too far away from my son to clutch him close, was the very first time I'd ever considered homeschooling. I'm a single mother and primary bread winner with a full-time job, who moved into my current home specifically for the schools. I know a lot of parents successfully do this, but I've always believed my son deserves experienced educators instead of his mother, who can teach him some Civil War history and a lot about 1990s Westerns but nothing that would probably get him into Harvard.
Still, I found myself wide awake at 3 a.m. the morning after the massacre, typing "How do I homeschool?" into Google. And it turns out I'm not the only one.
"Is fear mentioned as a reason for homeschooling? Most definitely. I personally have used it," homeschool parent and author Cheryl Trzasko of Wellington, Florida, says. "Fear isn't my main reason for having homeschooled my own from the beginning, but it plays a role. And I've known others who started solely out of fear."
A spokeswoman for Palm Beach County Schools tells me the district got at least one call about homeschooling the day after a former student killed 14 former classmates and three teachers in Broward County. And Lupita Tucker, a homeschool mother in Brevard County whose business does annual evaluations required for homeschoolers by the state, including many in Palm Beach County, got a frantic call from a mother at Douglas who'd been considering taking her child out but was fiercely determined now.
"She said 'I have to do this now. My son is devastated. His two friends were shot and killed and I have to get him out of there,'" says Tucker, whose husband and business partner Charles is a certified teacher and former Miami-Dade County educator. "She wants him not to go back to public school, back to that trauma. ... You can choose between a situation where your child is traumatized or not. I choose the 'not.'"
It's absolutely true that school violence is a day-to-day factor for our kids. A colleague directed me to the Center for Disease Control's Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS), which found that nearly 8 percent of students had been in a physical fight on school property one or more times during the 12 months before the survey. Nationwide, about 6 percent of students had not gone to school at least one day during the 30 days before the survey because they felt they would be unsafe at school or on their way to or from school.
That's scary, right? But the CDC also found that while homicide is the second leading cause of death among youth aged 5-18 -- and let that stat wash over you like a sickening wave for a moment -- only between 1 percent and 2 percent of these deaths happen on school grounds or on the way to or from school.
That means that our kids are in much more danger everywhere else but school. And as a friend pointed out, are you also going to keep them from the parks, the mall and movie theaters and all restaurants, too? I imagine there are some kids somewhere living in a bunker who live like that, but certainly not me.
Every one of the homeschool parents I spoke to told me that concerns about how and what their kids were learning, not fear of violence, primarily led them to teach their kids themselves. There exists, Tucker acknowledges, a stereotype of homeschool parents as religiously rigid people trying to shield their kids from the outside world, but she says that's changing.
Joy Stincic of Boynton Beach, Florida, had not planned to homeschool son Andrew, now 20 years old, but felt that he'd thrive better in "a specialized environment with regular supervision by a parent. It was really about curriculum and character." Then again, Stincic admits that character education is easier to supervise in a homeschool environment, even as Andrew had social interaction and play dates with other kids.
"Teachers can't monitor every single kid, and there are always (students) who are subtle and smile prettily for the teacher" and then torment fellow students when no one is looking, she says. "Homeschooling isn't perfect, but it has a lower rate of bullying. It does exist, because we're all humans, and humans pull other people down to pull themselves up. But in homeschooling, there's just more supervision."
So what do I do? One of my oldest friends, an experienced educator in Pennsylvania who decided to use her training to homeschool her own kids, cautioned me that "if your reason to homeschool is mainly based on fear it will not be a positive experience. Homeschooling requires a genuine love of teaching and lots of support from the community and other parents."
But for others, increasingly grim headlines and actual incidents have inspired them to take action. A friend from Maryland who has two of her children in a teaching co-op rather than an at-home school says safety wasn't the primary factor in that choice, "but it is motivating us to take out my 17-year-old. There was a knife fight at his school already, and many troubled kids. I am concerned."
I'm concerned, too, and angry that we live in a world where kids have to endure active shooter drills as they're trying to learn algebra. But as my friend says, homeschooling only keeps kids safe while they're physically in your home, and that security ends once they walk out of your front door.
For the moment, I still plan to send my son to school, because at the end of the day, I think he's going to get a better education there, and don't want to keep him from that because of fear. I don't want to live that way.
Which doesn't mean I don't hold my breath whenever he leaves my presence, and really only exhale fully when he's in my arms. I hope I make the right decision. It could be the most important one I make.