As a new academic year begins, school safety is top of mind for many educators across the country. The stresses surrounding pandemic protocols and censorship are still present, but perhaps no issue looms larger than gun violence. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lists gun violence and firearm-related injuries as the leading cause of death for children ages one to 19. According to research from gun safety organization Everytown for Gun Safety, updated in early 2021, there were 549 incidents of gunfire on K–12 school grounds nationwide from 2013 to 2019. Though mass shootings (where four or more people are killed) on school grounds are rare—accounting for less than 1% of school gun violence incidents—they represent 24% of overall gun deaths and 12% of all people shot and wounded in schools between 2013 and 2019. Even more recently, the tragedy at Robb Elementary in Uvalde, Tex., has freshly revived the horror. Teachers, students, and parents are typically introduced to their school districts’ preparedness plans for a potential active shooter situation as part of the annual return to school.
We asked some teachers for their best advice on addressing the topic of gun violence inside and outside of the classroom, including the cofounders of the Teachers Unify to End Gun Violence movement, which launched earlier this year.
When a mass shooting occurred at Oxford High School near Detroit in November, people everywhere were once again horrified. For three longtime public school teachers in particular, however, the tragedy galvanized them to take action in a new way. Abbey Clements, a survivor of the Sandy Hook School shooting in 2012; Sarah Lerner, a survivor of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in 2018; and Sari Beth Rosenberg launched the Teachers Unify to End Gun Violence initiative this January. “Sarah and Abbey unfortunately know each other because they’re in that club that no one really wants to be in—gun violence survivors from school shootings,” Rosenberg says. “I am a New York City public school teacher, and the way I experience the gun violence problem in this country is more because my students experience it in their respective communities. We all got to know each other through various panels and education events throughout the years.”
The trio were already in a group chat and had been sharing their reactions to the Michigan shooting when Clements suggested they do something more formal. “Abbey reached out and said, ‘Want to start a teacher group with the goal of ending gun violence? Because one doesn’t exist,’ ” Rosenberg recalls. “I think within probably a minute Sarah and I both wrote, ‘Yep, let’s do it.’ And really, we joke about this, but it’s true: if you want to get something done, get some teachers involved.”
Lerner adds, “I would say within the day that we decided to do this, we had a website, our domain name purchased, and our social media handles.”
The organization’s mission as stated on its website is to “elevate stories of gun violence in schools and communities in order to influence policies and Americans at large to make us safer.” Both Lerner and Rosenberg stress that gun violence is not just school shootings. “It’s gun violence in Black and brown communities; anti-Asian, antisemitic, anti-LGBTQ violence; domestic violence; suicide—it’s all of that,” Lerner notes.
“Everyone’s talking about teachers in the classroom and coming up with all these ridiculous ideas like arming us,” Rosenberg says. “But it’s very rare that people actually ask teachers who are in the classroom dealing with this how they feel. Teachers feel like they are alone with it.”
Lerner adds, “That’s part of what got us so fired up after Oxford. Because in the aftermath of all of these shootings, no one ever mentions the teacher or asks us for our perspective, or what would be helpful for us; the decisions are just made—and they’re made by people who aren’t in the classroom. As well-meaning and well-intentioned as they might be, it’s not what we need, and oftentimes it’s not what we want, either. We need to have a seat at the table to advocate for ourselves as individuals, each other, and for our students.”
Clements, Lerner, and Rosenberg have taken their message on the road whenever possible, and the response has been overwhelmingly supportive. Most recently they exhibited and presented at the American Federation of Teachers convention in Boston in July; all three are AFT members. The sheer number of people who came up to them at the conference with firsthand accounts confirmed “the need and hunger for” a teacher-
centered group like Teachers Unify, according to Rosenberg. Those who are interested in becoming part of the movement can find a survey, a podcast, and other information on the Teachers Unify website, teachersunify.org. The group is planning a virtual back-to-school event in mid-September featuring a day of action, panel discussions, and additional resources for educators.
What teachers need
“Something that would be helpful—and I don’t even know how practical it would be—would be to have a safe space for teachers and students who are directly or indirectly connected to gun violence to share their stories and to feel like they’re being heard,” Lerner offers. “In the weeks after the shooting at my school, the students didn’t feel comfortable talking to all of the guidance counselors and school social workers who were there—they felt comfortable talking to their teachers. I was more than happy to listen and help in whatever capacity I could as a mom and a teacher, but then I needed somebody to listen to me, because I had just soaked up all of these horrible, horrible accounts of what they had seen. It weighs heavily on us.”
Rosenberg agrees, noting that this is why they want to make their Teachers Unify support group “as huge as possible for teachers and give them the tools that they might need to do this work, or even just provide a place for them to process it so they can be strong for their students.”
Students will want to address such topics, Rosenberg notes. “With every major gun incident, whether it be in a school or not, kids want to process it with you,” she says. “They might not feel comfortable talking to their parents about it, or it might not be enough just to talk about with their parents. They want to process it with their peers with their teacher there. And it’s hard. I will say that I cried talking about the Buffalo shooting with my students. But any good teacher—and most of them are really good—will go into the classroom the next day knowing that it needs to be addressed before you get into anything else. You can shut your classroom door to the noise in the hallway, but you can’t shut your classroom door to what’s going on in this very destabilizing, chaotic world around your students. There are so many pandemics that we’re contending with, and kids want to talk about it. I believe it’s educational malpractice to not be able to do that. So, in these states where they’re making it illegal to talk about anything that’s controversial or divisive, they are doing such a disservice to young people by dodging these issues that are plaguing them.”
While supporting kids who have experienced gun violence falls under a classroom teacher’s purview, teachers are also key players in preparing students for potential shootings at schools, and they can also play a role in preventing gun violence in their school communities. “Regardless of where you live, what you’ve experienced in school or out of school, every single school across the country does some version of a code red or a lockdown drill,” Lerner says. “And those in and of themselves are traumatizing.”
Though Lerner had never run a code-red drill prior to the shooting at her school, ever since then, she says, she’s considered them to be of paramount importance. “On the first day of school, when I go over my syllabus, I tell the kids, ‘I was here that day. I was in this room with 15 students until the SWAT team let us out. If we are on an actual lockdown, or even during a drill, you are going to follow every direction you are given without question.’ It may come off a little standoffish, but I don’t care, because I need to keep them safe, and I also need to get home to my own family.”
Lerner notes that though she’s barely five feet tall, her message comes across loud and clear. “These gigantic 6’4” 18-year-old football players—you cannot hear a peep out of them, because I set the tone,” she says. “For any teacher, the important thing is to set your expectations, but also be there for them if they’re having a moment during the drill, or if they are upset after the drill, because maybe they have a connection to something that we just don’t know about. We’re told that we’re not supposed to hug our students or touch them in a loving, parental way. But if you see a kid who’s freaking out during a drill, how can you watch someone be upset and not empathize and emote with them?”
Rosenberg agrees that “it does start on day one” in terms of an approach to overall school safety. “What I would tell teachers to do is be authentic, be a real person, and then also listen,” she says. “Because when I say that we have these conversations to help the kids process, it’s me listening. And I think it’s sometimes hard for adults to do that. Whether it’s talking about gun violence or anything else, children will tell you what they need, if you just listen to them, but they’ll only be honest with you if you are an authentic person.”
Lerner and Rosenberg concur that some social-emotional learning strategies and being in touch with one’s feelings are important in any school community, but Lerner notes that she has not yet seen effective SEL resources for addressing gun violence with her students. “What they give us—in my district, at least—is not in any way helpful,” she says. “We’re given a script to follow from which we are not allowed to deviate. It is so hokey and contrived, and as I’m reading it, I hear the kids—like, if you can hear someone roll their eyes, that’s what I hear. I tell them, ‘I need to read it to you, and we can have a real discussion after, but in case someone who’s more of an adult than I am asks you, we have done this’—and it is like torture. But again, they don’t ask the teachers.”
On that score, Rosenberg suggests the following to those who are looking to develop helpful resources: “Talk to kids. Get Gen Z to be a partner in creating these materials. This generation that we’re teaching, they know what they need, and they’re extremely skilled in communicating that. I think that young people are really sick of teachers with these workbooks and stuff coming to them, with good intentions, to help them. We’re all trying to help them, but it needs to be intergenerational. We need to be bringing young people into the conversation of what materials to create, what books to write, because we don’t know. Let them tell us.”
Other educators from various parts of the country echo Lerner and Rosenberg’s take on addressing gun violence with students. “I have seen firsthand the stress that lockdown drills can cause young students over my almost 20 years in the classroom, and I was unaware of any books that specifically deal with this type of anxiety,” says Kathryn Vaughn, an elementary school art teacher in the Tipton County Schools in Brighton, Tenn. “I love the idea. Books are often the best way for teachers to introduce challenging topics, and I feel like publishers would do teachers a great service by producing work that could aid in easing student stress related to new safety measures in the upcoming school year.”
In terms of sharing best practices with colleagues, Vaughn says, “I would first tell teachers to vote for legislators who are supportive of measures to control firearm access and increase mental health support for people under 21.”
Vaughn agrees that student-teacher dialogue is vitally important. “In the classroom, the best prevention is relationship building,” she says. “Teachers who work every day on getting to know their students and build relationships are the best assets we have to counteract school violence. However, this is difficult for teachers with multiple classes and limited time with students. I teach between 600 and 700 students and trying to connect individually is a challenge in my position.”
Sarah Milianta-Laffin, a teacher at Ilima Intermediate in Ewa Beach, Hawaii, says, “Every teacher I know has a lockdown code we text our boyfriends, partners, etc. When my school goes into lockdown, my husband is my first text. ‘I love you, we’re in lockdown, I’ll keep you posted.’ Then he’ll follow the news and get updates—often he communicates with my mom. Having met with teachers around the world, this is uniquely an American teacher thing. Being a public school teacher in America means that you know someday, in some way, guns will touch you, or your school community. It’s not if, it’s when.”
Milianta-Laffin is a vocal activist in support of teachers and students, speaking out on LGBTQ issues, menstrual equity, and other social justice and equality issues and has participated in numerous rallies and events including marching after Parkland at the Hawaii State Capitol. In early July, at the National Education Association’s annual Representative Assembly, to which she was an elected delegate from Hawaii, “we all wore orange to the first meeting directly relating to gun violence,” she recalls. “Yet, the next day after that orange observance, where all of us teachers committed to fighting gun violence, the Chicago Fourth of July parade shooting happened.”
On July 4, Milianta-Laffin tweeted: “Yesterday, 5,000 NEA Teachers wore orange in Chicago... to show solidarity among teachers to fight gun violence. Now, for our own safety, we’re locked in the convention center as the gunman is at large. It doesn’t have to be this way. #NEARA”
Milianta-Laffin laments that some criticize her efforts as straying from her professional lane. “I’m tired of being told as a teacher that our work must be apolitical,” she says. “Kids are dying in our classrooms, and I think that teachers must take up this mantle to fight for our kids. I’m active with NEA’s EdActivist program that helps teachers take political action on things like gun violence. I have been trolled on social media for my activism. I’m told to ‘shut up and teach.’ But you can’t be neutral on a moving train—to teach my students, I must build a safe space for everyone.”
Rosenberg concurs, noting that in these days when activism is increasingly dangerous in a number of ways, Teachers Unify can help. “We can privately give you support, we can even anonymously lift your voice, share your story,” she says. “People think that activism is something where your face is out there, you’re marching, you’re giving speeches, you’re tweeting—but there are so many other ways to be an activist.”
Rosenberg says that teachers can be active by simply joining the organization’s Zooms or in-person meetings. “There are plenty of people in this group who are happy to put their faces out there and use their platforms to elevate what these other teachers are going through,” she adds. “Hopefully we get through this time in which teachers are feeling fearful for their jobs and have to choose between speaking what they believe in and their paycheck. Until that time, until we see a shift, we want to be there for those teachers, and just be a safe space, a brave space for them.”
Below, more from the school and library feature.
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