Students can’t fight against gun violence on their own—teachers must be part of the conversation, three activists told educators at a major labor convention on Friday.
The panel discussion was led by David Hogg, the 22-year-old co-founder of March for Our Lives; RuQuan Brown, a 20-year-old activist and founder of the clothing brand Love1, which donates a portion of proceeds to communities affected by gun violence; and Sarah Lerner, an English teacher who co-founded the group Teachers Unify to End Gun Violence.
Hogg and Lerner both survived the 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., in which 17 people were killed. Brown’s stepfather and high school football teammate died from gun violence.
“What is often left out of the conversation when it comes to gun violence is the voice of the teacher,” Lerner said. “We are the ones who help the students when they lose a parent. We are the ones who help and move forward after a school shooting. We are dealing with gun violence in our own communities.”
Lerner—along with Abbey Clements, who survived the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2012, and Sari Beth Rosenberg, a history teacher in New York City—founded Teachers Unify to End Gun Violence after four students were killed in the 2021 mass shooting at Oxford High School in Oxford, Mich.
“We just decided that enough is enough,” Lerner said. She added that the group is seeking to end all gun violence, of which school shootings are a small percentage.
There have been 27 school shootings this year, according to an Education Week tracker. There were 34 shootings in 2021.
Teachers also need to know how to support their students who have been affected by gun violence outside of schools, Brown said. An estimated 3 million children in the United States witness a shooting each year, according to the gun control nonprofit Everytown for Gun Safety.
“You guys need to know how to hold me when my father dies. You guys need to know how to hold each other when your students are murdered,” he told the educators in the audience. “In our neighborhoods, ... where young people are being murdered, oftentimes teachers are not equipped to deal with that.”
Fighting for change
The activists spoke to a crowd of about 2,000 union delegates at the American Federation of Teachers’ biennial convention. While the fight against gun violence has been slow-moving and polarizing, education can be a driver for change, they said.
“I know it to be true that no sort of injustice is inevitable, but I also know that within the current fabric of this country, the injustice is inevitable,” Brown said. “The best place to sort of change that is in our classrooms, because young people spend more time in our classrooms than we do at our homes. It was in class where I learned what politics are; it was in class where I learned what voting is.”
Said Hogg: “People are not born hateful. People learn hatred, they learn racism. ... We have to realize that it’s going to start in our educational system, teaching our young people about love and justice.”
Hogg and Brown, who both attend Harvard University, have also been lobbying city, state, and federal officials to take action on gun control.
Last month, President Joe Biden signed into law a bipartisan gun bill that includes measures to keep weapons out of the hands of dangerous people as well as billions of dollars in additional funding for school safety and mental health resources. It’s the first major federal gun legislation in nearly 30 years—more than “me and RuQuan’s entire lifetimes,” Hogg said.
The new law does not go as far as gun control activists wanted: They favored a ban on assault weapons and universal background checks. But in passing this first gun bill, Hogg said, it was important not to “let perfect be the enemy of the good.”
Hogg asked teachers to make sure that the new federal funding is spent on counselors and mental health—not on policies that could lead to the incarceration of students. (Last year, March for Our Lives launched a campaign to “expel school resource officers and police from schools, and invest in creating care and community for students over criminalization.”) He also urged teachers to stay engaged on the state legislative level, as an onslaught of gun-control bills have been introduced after recent mass shootings.
AFT delegates call for more funding to address violence
Earlier in the day, delegates approved a resolution calling school and community violence a “national crisis.” The resolution called upon the national teachers’ union to lobby state and federal legislators to earmark federal funding for:
- school counselors and social workers with a defined case load;
- providing schools with “sufficient security personnel who will also be trained to gain the confidence of students to relate any concerns;"
- community groups that work with students to prevent violence; and
- additional security measures for any school or district that needs them.
The resolution, which was submitted by the Buffalo Teachers Federation and the New York State United Teachers, passed with at least a two-thirds voice vote, despite some dissent. One delegate said he was concerned about using federal funding to add more police officers to schools, given the potential harm to students of color. Black students are arrested at school at disproportionately high levels.
After the murder of George Floyd in 2020 at the hands of police, a small number of school districts began to reconsider their use of school resource officers, who are mostly armed. From May 2020 through June 2022, at least 50 districts serving over 1.7 million children ended their school policing programs or cut their budgets, according to an Education Week analysis.
But school shootings—including the recent one that killed 19 students and two teachers in Uvalde, Texas—have caused some to restart their programs and other districts to bolster them, despite limited evidence of their effectiveness in preventing such tragedies.
The other national teachers’ union, the National Education Association, also took steps to address school safety at its annual representative assembly earlier this month. Union delegates there adopted a policy statement calling for an end to the “criminalization and policing of students,” but that statement stopped short of urging the removal of armed officers from school campuses.