By Errol Castens/NEMS Daily Journal
In 1958, not long before Christmas, 92 elementary students and three teachers lost their lives and another 100 were injured in a fire as a result of apparent arson at Our Lady of the Angels Grade School in Chicago.
A fifth-grader confessed to setting the fire. He later recanted and was not prosecuted, even though investigators said he knew details of the fire that he could not have known without being the arsonist.
It was a horrifying tragedy that mobilized the nation to focus on school safety. Every caring person in this country at the end of 1958 wanted to make sure the tragedy of Our Lady of the Angels was never repeated.
At the end of 2012, we all want to make sure Sandy Hook’s school massacre is the last one.
It’s inevitable that emotions run high after such a tragedy. Anyone who isn’t angry, hurt and scared probably isn’t paying attention.
We want answers, we want solutions and we want them now. If we have to affix blame to certain people or groups of people, maybe that’s the price we have to pay – or at least that’s what our emotions tell us.
In the wake of Our Lady of the Angels, we can imagine some terrified parents of survivors declaring they would never send their children to school again.
No doubt some people called for the heads of school officials and even lawmakers for not foreseeing the possibility of that fire and protecting children against it. There were definitely calls to prosecute the janitor, despite that investigators did not even implicate him.
Eventually, logic superseded raw emotion. In the years since, building codes and safety laws have been upgraded to correct what now seem obvious flaws in design and procedure.
We now require schools to have smoke detectors, closed stairwells, multiple escape routes, automatic sprinklers, alarms directly connected to the fire department and non-flammable structural materials, none of which Our Lady of the Angels had had. Now we don’t allow storing flammables under a stairwell or in a hallway, as was done at that school.
Despite the risk of false alarms and other prankish misdeeds, every school in America today has fire alarms and fire extinguishers in easy reach.
When emotion was acknowledged but not allowed to dominate the conversation, safety was advanced. As a result, no American child has died in a school fire since the tragedy at Our Lady of the Angels.
In the wake of the massacre at Sandy Hook, emotions are raw, and people are understandably eager – even desperate – to do something. But if we react out of emotion before we take time to think logically, we’re likely to end up with “solutions” from both sides of the spectrum that waste money and divide us further while failing to protect children.
Contact Daily Journal Oxford Bureau reporter Errol Castens at firstname.lastname@example.org.