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Jewish World Review Sept. 28, 1999 /18 Tishrei, 5760

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Children face tough choice of fight or flight -- LAST WEEK I saw a news program that made me so sad. Remember when many of us were young and we had fire drills in school? Well, today the schools have shooting drills.

And this was what the program was about -- what your child should do if there is gunfire at school. The professional advice was that kids should run like hell. They should scatter, running in all different directions, because it's harder to hit people who are on the move.

The experts further advised that kids should not slow down or stop to tend the wounded or dying, lest they become easy targets and get shot themselves. And under no circumstances should they attempt to take on the shooter.

Watching the show, I was, of course, thinking about what I would do if I was in a room full of people with a person firing a gun. I didn't really think I could run past someone who was wounded or step over someone who was dying. But I didn't even think about stopping the killer. You have to know your own limitations, and you have to have some expertise in order to quickly assess the situation and make a decision.

But what 14-year-old has the necessary experience and expertise? For that matter, what 40-year-old has? How in the world did we get to this place where we need this kind of public instruction on TV and are required to have these excruciating conversations with our kids?

Lots of other people were upset by the program, because I got many faxes from my radio listeners in the days following the broadcast. Brenna, from Phoenix, wrote about a conversation she had with her 14-year-old son. He said he could not live with himself if he ran away and didn't try to stop the shooter or help others.

"How could you live with yourself, Mom, if you told me to do that?" he asked her.

"That's the toughest question you have ever asked me," she answered. "I'll need time to give my answer a lot of thought."

Wow! What a painful moral and ethical dilemma. What would I say to Deryk? What would other parents say to their children? So I decided to put the question to my radio audience. I asked them not to give me just the knee-jerk reaction of telling their kids to protect themselves at all costs, but rather to think about all the issues involved and then tell me what they would advise their children to do.

Initially we heard from fathers. John from Placentia, Calif., said: "I was reminded of nature programs where you see the herd scatter, each to protect itself from a predator. But we are not just animals. We are beings made in G-d's image and 'greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friend.'"

A paramedic reported that he told his sons, 11 and 16, to "stop and help. Period. If you can stop the shooter, do so. If helping puts you in harm's way, so be it. It's the right thing to do."

I wasn't surprised that men reacted that way, but I was surprised by similar responses from women, because mothers are so reflexively protective. But Carol wrote: "G-d forgive me, but I would tell my child to run and protect herself. This is pure selfishness on my part, because I love her so much." Gaylene from Nebraska and many other mothers said that "the answer lies in the question. What would you tell someone else's child to do, if your child lay on the floor bleeding?"

Lorene's children "wouldn't be able to run away without looking back. I have taught them to treat others as they would want to be treated."

Another mother reminded me, "All it takes for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing."

Members of the military also wrote in with another strategy learned in ambush situations -- rush a near ambush; flee a far ambush. If you are able to get close to the shooter in two or three seconds, knock him down. You may get shot, but if you are that close you are already at risk. If others did the same, the number of injured would be small rather than having tens of people picked off in closets and under desks. But once again, that's where training comes in. It's not exactly a great playground exercise!

A full majority of respondents -- 61 percent -- said they would tell their child to try to either stop the shooter or help save the wounded. "Although I don't know if I could stand losing my son, if I told him not to be compassionate, I would lose his love and respect. Not helping someone would hurt him in a more terrible way and would torment him for the rest of his life. I couldn't do that to him," wrote one mother, Emily.

Twenty-two percent of the folks said common sense dictates telling their child to run.

"No question about it ... he should run! Odds are probably going to be too great that he couldn't make any appreciable difference in the outcome of such an incident! His life would be in jeopardy for no good reason," wrote Jeff, another parent.

And finally, 13 percent simply didn't want to obligate their children to either fight or flight.

"For many people running for safety over dead and bleeding bodies would be the right thing to do. For some it would not," wrote Mary. These parents seemed to believe that right and wrong is a simple personal choice. They were more concerned with not making their children feel guilty if they didn't stop to help.

Apparently in response to my on-air, three-hour, unscientific survey, Marcelo Vignali sent me a cartoon depicting a boy being tucked into bed by his mom. The caption reads: "The teacher told us to run if a school shooting starts and not to stop to help others. Does that mean we should only do what is right when it's easy?"

G-d help us that this is even a question for our children.

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©1999, Universal Press Syndicate