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School Climate & Safety Opinion

How to Reduce Gun Violence? Teachers Share Their Ideas

By Larry Ferlazzo — September 06, 2023 15 min read
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Gun violence affects us all, and we also all know how it has affected schools.

Here are some teacher-generated ideas for how to reduce it.

Legislators Need to Act

Deborah Offner is a clinical psychologist and former dean of students who has worked in schools and colleges for 25 years. Offner consults with middle and secondary schools about student mental health as well as school policy and campus culture. She is the author of Educators as First Responders: A Teacher’s Guide to Adolescent Development and Mental Health, Grades 6-12:

Columbine, Newtown, Parkland, Oxford, Uvalde . . . School shootings are a uniquely devastating—uniquely American—phenomenon. Of particular note to those of us who work with young people, the attackers in Columbine in Colorado and the other school shooting incidents listed above ranged from 15 to 20 years of age. The gunman who killed 10 people and injured others in the racially motivated Buffalo, N.Y., supermarket attack—the same month as the Uvalde school shooting in Texas—was 18. And less publicized, smaller-scale incidents are pervasive. The Washington Post recently reported that since 1999, 311,000 American children have been exposed to school gun violence since 1999. (How many school shootings have happened in America since Columbine? - Washington Post)

While we rightfully engage numerous players and methods to protect students and teachers from school gun violence, our efforts are as of yet wholly inadequate. Let’s be clear: Legislators are the only ones with the power to end school gun violence. There is much that schools and teachers can—and must—do, but until the United States and the individual states address the means by which depraved individuals are able to murder our children in their classrooms with legally purchased weapons, all American students and educators will continue to be profoundly—and unnecessarily—vulnerable to school gun violence.

A year ago, President Joe Biden signed into law a bipartisan bill that provides some measures to protect Americans from further gun violence, in particular by youthful assailants. This gun legislation expands background checks for gun buyers under 21, allowing authorities up to 10 business days to examine both juvenile criminal records and mental health records. It authorizes “red flag” laws that allow judges who declare a gun owner dangerous to confiscate their guns. It also funds state mental health and violence-prevention programs.

It’s a compromise—and a start. Currently, an individual as young as 18 can still purchase the AR-15, the rapid-fire assault rifle that the Uvalde, Parkland, Fla., and Newtown, Conn., school shooters used. The AR-15 is specifically designed to maim and kill its victims using special small bullets that gouge muscle and bone. It’s impossible to imagine why any civilian would need such a weapon, for self-defense or any purpose other than mass murder.

Congress also needs to ban the sale of assault weapons and high-capacity magazines and raise the age for gun purchase from 18 to 21. As American citizens, we can vote for the candidates who will support continued firearm restrictions in the name of public health and safety. Finally, judges should have leeway to hold parents criminally responsible for their children’s misuse of guns. Note that the parents of the Oxford, Mich., school shooter, who gave their son a gun for Christmas, are being charged with involuntary manslaughter. (Judge rules that Ethan Crumbley’s parents will stand trial for involuntary manslaughter)

In the meantime, courageous, dedicated teachers are educating our children in the face of continued threat. Here are some things schools and teachers can do for protection and prevention.

Maintain and implement schoolwide social-emotional learning and support that includes violence prevention and anger management for today’s students.

Train teachers in de-escalation and first aid.

Establish clear, simple school safety protocols that teachers, students, and staff can follow in the event of a threat. This includes classroom response drills, however frightening they are to many children.

Educate students, faculty, and staff about the threat of gun violence. Encourage everyone to report any suspicion or concern. In many school shootings, the assailant talked or posted online about their intentions.

Educate parents with school-aged children about the dangers of keeping a gun in their home. The logic is again simple, and the empirical evidence supports it. Having a gun in the household is strongly and independently associated with increased risk of homicide. (Parents, take note: It is also even more closely associated with risk of youth suicide.)

Do not arm teachers; it’s ineffective and potentially dangerous. Police and security work is neither their responsibility nor their skill set!

When it comes to mass shooters, don’t get distracted by trying to understand their motivations. Their behavior doesn’t make sense. The action—and answer—lies in keeping guns out of the hands of individuals who don’t need them and shouldn’t have them.


‘Know the Facts’

Keisha Rembert is an award-winning educator who is passionate about anti-racism and equity in schools. Currently, Keisha is a doctoral student and an assistant professor of teacher preparation at National Louis University:

Stakeholders can begin with an awareness that school massacres are an outgrowth of a societal culture of violence and apathy. Society, its people and institutions, has not been acting as a protector of its citizens. Thus, state-sanctioned violence, pervasive poverty, marginalization, educational inequity, and health inequality are all contributing factors to increasing school shootings and gun violence.

To reduce school gun violence, stakeholders must know the facts about gun violence and school shootings. We can’t address an issue without its facts and without an understanding of the impact of those facts. Stakeholders must be responsible for educating the public at large on the root causes, facts, and impact on school gun violence.

Provided with facts, we can then ask ourselves some hard questions: How are societal conditions creating and exacerbating this issue? What does protection look like for students and teachers? What are the effects of school massacres on students and the teaching profession? How are we valuing the lives of young people?

Hopefully, these types of questions will cause all stakeholders to realize we must reinvest in young people and their mental, emotional, and behavioral health and that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. To this end, school communities can and should themselves form lobbying groups championing students and teachers right to life and go to school without fear. It is imperative that students, educators, and school administrators be legislatively active and at the helm of advocating and drafting legislation that affects us.


‘Gun-Sense Legislation’

Bill Ivey (he/any) is middle school dean and teaches Humanities 7, rock band, and academic skills at Stoneleigh-Burnham School, a gender-inclusive girls school for grades 7-12 in western Massachusetts. His 2018 piece A Teacher’s Reckoning on School Shootings appeared in Nancy Flanagan’s Education Week blog “Teacher in a Strange Land":

Fundamentally, I don’t think we can ever sufficiently reduce school gun violence without addressing the root causes of gun violence in our society. That said, I believe we also need to examine gun laws and work for what Moms Demand Action (a group for which I now volunteer) calls “gun-sense legislation.”

I live in Massachusetts, whose gun laws can be considered a model for the country as our rate of gun violence and gun deaths is the second lowest in the country (Everytown). For example: To get a license, we require not only background checks but also completion of a state certified Firearms Safety Course or a Basic Hunter Education Course. We require guns to be safely stored and locked at home. We’ve passed an Extreme Risk Protection Order law, also known as a “red-flag law,” whereby we may report people at risk of suicide or of committing domestic violence and their license may be suspended and their guns temporarily taken away. Individuals may only sell guns to people who are licensed, and the sale must be reported.

Concealed and open carry of guns is prohibited except for agents of the commonwealth and other states or the U.S., law-enforcement officers, the military, and licensed people engaged in hunting. We have banned assault weapons. Legislators in other states can and should pass similar laws, Congress can and should do the same at the federal level, and constituents can and should champion these.

Even Massachusetts, however, has a much greater level of gun violence than do most countries. Laws alone will not solve the problem. We need to address the root causes as well. This is where districts, schools, and teachers can most easily and naturally step up.

In an interview with Politico, professor Jillian Peterson gives this profile of mass shooters: “There’s this really consistent pathway. Early childhood trauma seems to be the foundation, whether violence in the home, sexual assault, parental suicides, extreme bullying. Then you see the build toward hopelessness, despair, isolation, self-loathing, oftentimes rejection from peers. That turns into a really identifiable crisis point where they’re acting differently. Sometimes they have previous suicide attempts. What’s different from traditional suicide is that the self-hate turns against a group. They start asking themselves, “Whose fault is this?” Is it a racial group or women or a religious group, or is it my classmates? The hate turns outward. There’s also this quest for fame and notoriety.” (Peterson, quoted in Warner) Seen in this light, white supremacist thinking is often a contributing factor (see for example Hoskin) as is misogyny (see for example Bosman, Taylor, Arango).

This suggests a number of courses of action we can and must take in our schools. It’s critically important we build community and address bullying. Equally important is the kind of diversity-equity-inclusion work that helps all our students understand the roots and realities of white supremacist and misogynistic thinking, of Islamophobia and anti-semitism, of homo- and trans-antagonism, and know how to resist them. We can also work to destigmatize mental illness and ensure students get the counseling and support they need.

And, of course, any work we can do at a societal level to understand and reduce bigoted thinking in general and patriarchal white supremacist thinking in particular can only help.

And we must vote.

While this question is specifically about reducing school gun violence, I want to bring up an important related point. Nelba Márquez-Greene, the mother of Isaiah, who survived the 2012 Sandy Hook shooting, and Ana Grace, who did not, has noted that there are two different dimensions to addressing gun violence: working to reduce and ideally eliminate gun deaths, and working to respect and support survivors of gun violence. She believes that both kinds of work are needed and that, since it is hard to do both kinds of work well, it’s OK for people to focus on one or the other. In my own work, I am trying hard to do both, which means careful introspection with what I share publicly. When contemplating a post, do I in fact know the wishes of specific gun-violence survivors and am I certain I am acting respectfully of these wishes? If not, I either rephrase or take a step back. I am also careful to read and boost survivors’ voices.

The vast majority of Americans want to take steps to address and reduce gun violence, in our schools and in society at large. And the solutions are clear. What we need is the collective will.


‘Prevention Reduces Violence’

Ashley Kearney is an award-winning educator focusing on systemic changes that can support the whole child:

Starting with the acknowledgement that school gun violence is an issue and understanding that school gun violence is not an issue that schools alone can own, legislators, districts, schools, and teachers can reduce school gun violence by including student voice in the planning process. Students know their peers best, and they understand what they are experiencing from a stance that only they can communicate in some cases.

While adults may be aware of resources and have the means to make shifts, students first must have the safe space to share the issues and the trust that action will be taken. This starts with ensuring all school environments prioritize love.

In addition, we must take a community approach in ensuring collaboration amongall stakeholders for the development and implementation of comprehensive training plans that specify our roles and incorporate the realities of subgroups, such as children living in poverty, LGBTQ+ youth, Black youth, etc., and the impact of a society with persistent strains on our mental health. Prevention reduces violence.


A ‘Deeper’ Problem

Andrew Sharos is a teacher, administrator, speaker, and author in Chicago. He wrote All 4s and 5s and co-authored, Finding Lifelines, a book for new teachers and their mentors:

I struggle to tackle this question for how sensitive and political it can be, but I think it’s so important that I am going to give it a try. While many people like to point to legislation, mental health concerns, or law enforcement’s role in schools, I think the problem is much deeper than this.

We have a major problem in America with our erosion of the family unit. At best, our families are living hectic lives, rushing from commitment to commitment, struggling to maintain balance, and failing to invest in our best safety net. At worst, our families are broken, uninvested, torn by domestic violence, and unable to maintain a cohesive unit that looks out for each other. Because of the amazing freedoms we have in our country, all of us have choices in where we work, how we invest our time, and who we surround ourselves with. We are making more individual choices, not familial choices.

Family. It can take many different shapes and sizes and still be ... family. The school in your community may just be the best family a student can find. The events, celebrations, customs, culture, and traditions of a school can be the reason why students feel safe, connected, and mentally stable. Any investment in culture and school family should pay dividends in building a strong community where there is genuine connection among all the individual parts. No one should be left behind in the family, and the family should look out for one another.

Maybe that sounds a little idealistic. I am sure Sandy Hook, Parkland, Uvalde, and other school communities made great deposits into the community to create a family atmosphere. But as the question poses: What can we ALL do to contribute to a solution? If our legislatures committed to opining the value of time spent with family around the dinner table … If our districts and schools held family and community events where all were welcomed … If our teachers treated each class like a family and looked out for the good of the collective instead of the achievements or pitfalls of the individuals …

Once we make this a priority in our society and in our communities, I would love to talk about police presence, metal detectors, bulletproof glass, and background checks. I am guessing the nature of the debate would certainly change.


Thanks to Deborah, Keisha, Bill, Ashley, and Andrew for contributing their thoughts!

The new question of the week is:

What do you think legislators, districts, schools and teachers can do to reduce school gun violence?

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

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