Opinion
School Climate & Safety Opinion

How Teachers Can Collectively Push Back Against Gun Violence

‘We should not accept this as a way of life,’ urges a teacher educator
By Rebecca Woodard — May 11, 2023 5 min read
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On March 27, three children and three adults in Nashville, Tenn., died in yet another school shooting. Although this was the most well-reported gun violence that day, it was not isolated. According to the Gun Violence Archive, across the United States, there were 125 reports of gun-violence on March 27 and 47 deaths. Since then, four additional people have have been injured by guns at schools, and there have been at least a half-dozen shootings causing the death or injury of five or more Americans. With each tally, I find myself reflecting on the omnipresent threat from guns in America.

Mass shootings in schools are a particular source of anxiety and fear for me as a mother, former K-12 teacher, and current university professor. Every day when I go to work, I worry for my children’s lives, for the lives of the many teachers I know and love, for the lives of the future teachers that I teach, and even for my own life. It’s become second nature to me to scan my classrooms for evacuation pathways and possible entry points. I—and all teachers I know across K-16 contexts—are now encouraged or required to participate in active-threat trainings. In our line of work, they have become a necessity.

And keeping schools and students safe from gun violence is a problem that extends far beyond mass shootings. Since 2020, children and teenagers in America are more likely to die by guns than any other cause or means, with 12 children dying in that way daily. The youth firearm suicide rate is higher than it has been in 20 years, and there has been a disturbing rise in shootings among teens. It is our most vulnerable that are the most impacted, including children living in poverty and Black and Latino youths. In the last year, teachers I know have endured lockdowns, dealt with the ramifications of weapons brought to their schools, and even attended the gun-related funerals of their students. Just yesterday, I received an email from my children’s school district of a potential threat. The emotional and psychological toll of living this way is immense.

We should not accept this as a way of life. We cannot. What I propose is this: Teachers need to better organize to collectively raise our voices alongside outraged parents and youths to demand gun-safety legislation and comprehensive school safety policies.

Although some legislators have suggested that the best response is to arm teachers, there are a myriad of complex issues that this raises—like training, compensation, and safe storage. Furthermore, both a 2019 survey of over 2,900 current and former teachers from California State University Northridge and a 2022 survey of nearly 4,000 teachers from the Texas Federation of Teachers found that the majority of teachers do not believe they should carry guns in the classroom. Teachers don’t want legislators to give us autonomy to carry guns; we want autonomy to do our jobs.

Gun violence is a solvable problem with a road map for success. The evidence suggests that more permissive firearm laws and higher rates of gun ownership lead to higher rates of school shootings. Gun reform has worked elsewhere. In 1996, both the United Kingdom and Australia enacted intensive gun-control legislation. Since then, Australia has seen no mass shootings while there have been no school shootings in the United Kingdom.

Gun violence is a solvable problem with a road map for success.

Worthy evidence-based measures to increase gun safety include banning assault weapons and large-capacity magazines, as well as keeping guns out of the wrong hands by requiring background checks for all gun sales and by allowing family members and friends to request temporary dispossession of firearms for those they believe to be a threat (“red-flag” laws). Measures that discourage community violence are also important, for example, prohibitions on visibly carrying guns in public and the repeal of Shoot First or Stand Your Ground laws. Responsible gun-ownership policies are also necessary, such as safe-storage and child-access prevention laws.

While we can all advocate these kinds of effective gun reforms, teachers are positioned to take additional steps. Student survivors of the Parkland, Fla., massacre and parents who lost children at Sandy Hook Elementary School show us the way. They have done the hard work of identifying key issues and concrete advocacy steps. With a long history of successful organizing that involves building community coalitions with families, the nation’s 3 million public school teachers have an opportunity to join together—across states and urban and rural contexts—to make it clear that teachers are also major stakeholders in comprehensive school safety. Both the major national teachers’ unions, the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, have called for teacher action on gun control and offer action steps that teachers can take.

We can, for example, join and share the Students’ Bill of Rights for Safer Communities, which still needs over 5,000 signatures to reach the organizers’ goal. We can pledge our support to stop gun violence in our schools. We can participate in the Wear Orange Weekend June 2-4 or in March for Our Lives events on June 11. (A national day of action against gun violence in schools, with events around the nation, is also held each April on the anniversary of the Columbine High School shooting.)

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We can email our representatives to urge their support for universal background checks and banning assault weapons. We can join grassroots movements like Teachers Unify to End Gun Violence to share and elevate stories of gun violence in schools. And in our schools and classrooms, we can advocate expanding mental health services and violence prevention, as well as create curricular spaces to address gun violence, mental health, and well-being.

This is the kind of comprehensive work that is necessary for school safety: It must be about more than arming teachers or adding more police. And this work will be most effective if we show up collectively, organizing and taking action in large numbers with support from our local unions.

No matter our profession or where we live, none of us is safe from gun violence in America today. But the recent mass shooting in Nashville reminds us, yet again, that schools are under particular threat. It’s time for teachers to work alongside parents and youths to galvanize the public and push for the enactment of gun-control and school-safety laws and policies.

To be honest, the thought of taking on more work right now makes me tired. Yet, to save our lives and the lives of the students we are entrusted to care for, we must.

A version of this article appeared in the June 07, 2023 edition of Education Week as How Teachers Can Collectively Push Back Against Gun Violence

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