Jaye Rich was unwinding from a night of parent-teacher conferences at McMahon Elementary School in Lewiston, Maine, on Wednesday when she received a devastating phone call from her superintendent.
The automated call informed her and the rest of the Lewiston school community that there were reports of a mass shooting and everyone needed to stay in place. The rest of the story unfolded throughout the night of Oct. 25 and into the next morning, as Rich and the rest of the Lewiston community—as well as the nation—learned that a gunman had shot and killed 18 people and injured 13 others in a rampage at a bowling alley and bar.
“A lot of our teachers were just leaving the building and going home and saw all of the police cars on their way home,” Rich said. “First of all, [I’m] terrified that this is going on and then just heartbroken. We are a very small community. When you’re a small community, everybody knows everybody. Most people know somebody that’s been impacted or saw this happen.”
Schools in much of Maine closed their doors Thursday, Oct. 26, while police instructed people in the communities of Lewiston, Lisbon, and Bowdoin to shelter in place as they searched for suspect Robert Card, a 40-year-old Army reservist. The search is ongoing and police have not released information about the victims of the attack.
The second largest city in Maine, Lewiston is a tight-knit, diverse community of 37,000 people and a major hub for Maine’s African community, with thousands of Somali people, according to the Associated Press.
The shooting is the 36th mass killing in the United States this year, according to USA Today and the Associated Press, which defines a mass killing as the intentional killing of four or more people within a 24-hour period. It’s the deadliest U.S. shooting to date in 2023.
So far this year there have been 33 school shootings with injuries or deaths, according to Education Week’s school shooting tracker, but Maine hasn’t been the site of one.
Educators in Lewiston and across the state grappled with shock, horror, and grief as they navigated next steps Thursday.
“Until now, there had been this feeling, ‘well, it hasn’t happened in Maine,’” said Steve Bailey, executive director of the Maine School Management Association, which represents school and district leaders across the state. “Well, it’s happened in Maine now.”
Not just a question of ‘if,’ but ‘when’
The shooting has come as a shock to people throughout Maine, statistically the safest state in America. But for educators, the possibility of something like this happening has always lingered in the back of their minds.
“We’ve always known it’s not just a question of if, it’s really a question of when this would happen,” said Grace Leavitt, president of the Maine Education Association who’s on leave from her positions as a Spanish teacher at Greely High School in Cumberland, Maine. “We just have as a country not taken enough steps to do what we can to reduce the possibility of something like this happening.”
School administrators took time on Thursday to reevaluate their safety, communications, and emergency response plans, Bailey said. Those include arrangements to share staff between schools and districts so the areas with the most need have the resources to respond.
“Social workers and counselors are being shared as needed, and very willingly and quickly, to be able to provide support for staff and families of affected folks,” Bailey said.
Lewiston Superintendent Jake Langlais sent out regular communications to the district’s families and staff throughout Thursday, including a guide for talking to students about gun violence and mass shootings.
“It will take time but we will find a way to grieve, mourn, support and feel safe again,” the superintendent wrote.
Rich has already started thinking about how she will talk about the shooting to her students, who are pre-K, kindergarten, and 1st-grade multilingual learners.
The Maine Education Association sent out a guide to its members on how to speak with children about gun violence. It suggests that educators let students’ questions guide how much information to provide, look for non-verbal cues that students may be struggling, reassure students of their safety by talking about concrete measures like locked doors and emergency drills, empower high school students to share their opinions, encourage healthy media consumption so students aren’t fully consumed by fright and sadness, and maintain a routine.
Rich said she plans to use the guide and its information when she gets back to the classroom with her students.
“When we do go back, I think it’s going to be a time that we make sure that we’re providing a safe place for students to have these emotions and feelings and that they know that there are adults that will listen to them and there are plans in place if they are scared and they are in danger,” Rich said.
Fear affects teachers’ morale
While educators respond to the crisis and keep themselves safe as police search for the suspect, they’re also grappling with anger and outrage about the toll gun violence has taken throughout the nation.
Feelings of insecurity and uncertainty about their own safety affect educator morale, Leavitt said.
“First and foremost, [educators] are focused on their students each day, but it’s always there as a worry, a concern, and it does wear on you,” she said.
Following the mass shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, that killed 19 students and two teachers in May 2022, President Joe Biden signed the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, a sweeping gun safety package that imposed enhanced background checks for gun purchasers and provided funding for schools to boost safety and mental health.
It didn’t go as far as banning ownership of semiautomatic rifles like the AR-15, which was used in Uvalde, Parkland, and other notable mass shootings. The Lewiston gunman was carrying a military-style, semiautomatic rifle, according to news reports.
Educators in Maine said they’d like to see policymakers take action on gun safety and prioritize the mental health and well-being of school workers as they navigate the Lewiston shooting’s aftermath.
“Teachers take on a lot of burden and a lot of empathy for our kids, and when we’re not able to make sure our emotional needs are being met we can’t meet those for our kids,” Rich said.