Opinion
School Climate & Safety Opinion

A Devastated Teacher’s Plea for Gun Reform

I worried about school shootings daily as a teacher. It’s even worse as a new parent
By Mary M. McConnaha — May 25, 2022 4 min read
The archbishop of San Antonio, Gustavo Garcia-Siller, comforts families outside the Civic Center following a deadly school shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, Tuesday, May 24, 2022.
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At the front of my classroom, I would run through the drill in my head daily.

  1. Shooter in the building: Get the kids to run to the left and down the back staircase. Go across the parking lot and into the tree line behind the school. Make sure I have my phone.
  2. Shooter in the hallway: Close the door and turn off the lights. Pretend like the entire school has gone on a field trip. Don’t forget to turn off the projector. Direct the kids to sit along the wall away from the windows and stay silent. Sit myself closest to the door, ready to flip over the rolling whiteboard.
  3. Shooter in the classroom: Shove the wheely cart in front of me at the door. Keep my water bottle, phone, and pencil cup at hand to be thrown. While throwing, run at the shooter.

When I was a second-year education major at a small liberal arts school, my professor thought it was important to cover these three situations. We memorized the address of the school and room number of the classroom, looked at the best ways to bar the door, and even established who would open the windows in the event we had to escape.

Our professor also walked us through what she would do in the event of a shooting in our classroom and assured us she did not expect any of us to fight back with her. She was modeling for us how we could have these conversations with our own students.

Columbine happened when I was 3 years old, and Sandy Hook when I was in high school. I have always gone to school in a country and at a time when school shootings have been a real threat. When I was a student, I honestly didn’t think of that threat often. But as a teacher, I thought about the prospect of a gunman every day of my career.

At every school, I took stock of each classroom. Bookcases, whiteboards, and chairs could all serve as barricades. Water bottles, computers, books, and coffee mugs could all be flying projectiles that just might slow down the shooter.

When I taught at my second school, I was on the third floor of a building with windows that did not open. Our only exit was through the classroom door, which was glass. There, we would hide along the back wall on the other side of the storage closet. That was exactly what I did the first time an announcement came over the intercom that we were in a lockdown and needed to take shelter immediately.

I didn’t hear anything and I was alone during my planning period, so I turned off my projector and lights, locked the door, and closed the curtains before sitting on a milk crate in the back of class. Should I call 911 as my professor had said to? I didn’t. Instead, I held my knees and texted my husband that I loved him without any context. Five minutes later, the secretary came on to say that that had been a drill, and that was when I learned about unannounced active-shooter drills. I went home and cried.

Later that month, a student brought a BB gun to school. In the moment, when he was running around and trying to fight another student, we thought it was a real gun. And that was when I realized how unprepared the other teachers and I actually were to handle a live shooter in the school building.

Once everything calmed down, we brought the students back into our rooms to process quietly for the last two hours of the school day. Many of my students were crying and asking if they could take out their phones to call their parents. We were asked not to allow that, but I couldn’t say no to them. None of the other teachers could either. I went home and cried again. Ultimately, I left that school before winter break.

Even at my last teaching placement, at a private school where the cost to attend was more than my college tuition, I ran through active shooter drills in my head. My room had even more glass than before. Where could I possibly have the students sit that would be safe? These students were younger. How could I teach them to be absolutely silent when all they wanted to do was poke each other in the side as we did an all-school lockdown drill?

All these questions I have asked myself over the last seven years, as a teacher and a preservice teacher. Ultimately, how can I keep my students the safest for the longest, knowing full well it might be me that goes down? It’s an unfair question that millions of teachers wrestle with every day, and even more on a day like May 24, when at least 19 children and two teachers lost their lives to a gunman.

Now, it is not me who will be in the classroom but my son.

Until yesterday, I have always been a student or educator watching these far-away news stories unfold. I’ve imagined where I would hide and how I would defend, how I would direct my students to run or take shelter along a concrete wall. But this time, I found out about the shooting at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, as I was comforting my newborn son and first child. I left the K-12 classroom permanently about a month ago to start my maternity leave, and I did not consider that yesterday’s news would hit me harder than it ever had before.

Now, it is not me who will be in the classroom but my son. He won’t start school for another four or five years, but when he does, will our students still be practicing active shooter drills? Will teachers still be planning escape routes and strategically placing large bookcases near the door for an easy barricade? Will politicians still be unable or unwilling to adopt any laws that will keep my tiny baby safe? I hope to God that something changes.

National Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman wrote on Twitter last night, “It takes a monster to kill children. But to watch monsters kill children again and again and do nothing isn’t just insanity—it’s inhumanity.”

As I refresh the news and hold my newborn tightly, I’m devastated for all the parents and family members of the children who won’t be coming home. There is only one way to honor all the children and school staff who have lost their lives to gun violence—inside and outside the classroom—and that is with gun reform.

A version of this article appeared in the June 01, 2022 edition of Education Week as A Devastated Teacher’s Plea for Gun Reform

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