Teachers are often traumatized by gun violence on school campuses—and it’s time for their voices to be a central part of the conversation on how to stop school shootings, a group of educators said in an emotional conversation last week.
The teachers, many of whom had experienced gun violence at their school or in their community, were in Washington over the weekend for a summit hosted by the National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers’ union. The NEA brought together a small group of educators from across the country to talk about how to end gun violence and protect students and educators.
The summit started off on a somber note as news of yet another school shooting—the first of 2023—rocked the education community. On Friday afternoon, a 6-year-old boy was taken into custody after police said he shot and injured a teacher at Richneck Elementary School in Newport News, Va. The teacher is in stable condition.
“This is not the job we signed up to do,” said Angela Chen, a visual arts high school teacher in Waterford, Mich., in an interview before the news of the latest school shooting broke. “I signed up to teach kids art. I teach jewelry, teach painting, teach sculpture and printmaking—not how to hide and combat and run away from a school shooter.”
Chen’s school is a half-hour away from Oxford, Mich., where four students were killed, and six students and a teacher were injured, in a high school shooting in 2021. Many of her students and coworkers were friends with those who were involved—or lost their lives—in that shooting.
The experience was traumatic for her and for her school community, and over a year later, they’re still struggling. Chen said therapy has helped her, and she hopes more districts will offer free mental health support for teachers, in addition to students. Too often, she said, teachers are expected to act like everything is normal, despite feeling afraid for their own safety.
“We are so focused on the students, because that is our job,” Chen said. “Whose job is it to look after us?”
Teacher voice must be part of the conversation
While students have been front and center in the fight to end gun violence—in particular, the survivors of the 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., who founded the advocacy organization March for Our Lives—teachers haven’t always had their voices heard, the educators said.
“It’s very hard to speak out,” said Ovidia Molina, the president of the Texas State Teachers Association. She added that many educators feel as if their job will be at risk if they are outspoken on gun violence because the issue so quickly turns political. And teachers have lately borne the brunt of political fervor over race, gender identity, and what gets taught or discussed in the classroom.
“The support system for our educators needs to allow us to be honest, and we’re not there because of all the attacks that we have on our public schools,” she said. “We can’t give them one more thing.”
Also, some teachers feel uncomfortable centering their own experiences in the conversation, said Zach Martin, a social studies teacher at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo. He was a student at the school during the 1999 massacre.
“Teachers are helpers—they are selfless, they’re always thinking about the students,” he said. “Even in the face of tragedy, it becomes hard to speak out. [It feels] like you are calling attention to your own situation in a way that is unnatural or uncomfortable for many educators who just want to go to work, just want to teach their kids, just want to be in their classroom and serve their community as best as they can.”
More recently, the student activists with March for Our Lives have brought teachers into the fold.
“They very much wanted to show that students were standing with their educators just like their educators had been standing with them,” said Mary Kusler, the senior director for advocacy for the NEA.
Meanwhile, other efforts to elevate the voices of school staff have emerged. After the shooting at Oxford High School in 2021, three educators—Sarah Lerner, a teacher who survived the Parkland school shooting, Abbey Clements, a teacher who survived the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2012, and Sari Beth Rosenberg, a New York City high school teacher—co-founded the group Teachers Unify to End Gun Violence.
Educators have different ideas about what could stop school shootings
In 2022, there were 51 school shootings on K-12 campuses that resulted in injuries or deaths, according to an Education Week analysis. That was the most in a single year since Education Week began tracking such incidents in 2018. Thirty-two children and seven school employees or other adults were killed.
The tragedy at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, where 19 students and two teachers were killed, was the largest in 2022—and the deadliest school shooting since Sandy Hook in 2012.
Since then, President Joe Biden signed into law the first major federal gun legislation in nearly 30 years. The bipartisan bill included measures to keep weapons out of the hands of dangerous people as well as hundreds of millions of dollars in additional funding for school safety and mental health resources.
The educators at the NEA’s summit said more needs to be done, including restoring a federal ban of assault weapons.
“Why are we doing the same thing that we’ve always done? Why are we, again, putting it on our educators, on our schools?” Molina said. “We can’t just have our educators be willing to give up their lives. We can’t just train our students to survive attacks and make it seem like, OK, now we’re doing something. No—our kids are doing something. Our educators are doing something. Our state and the national [leaders] need to do more.”
But solutions to keep schools safe should be decided by local communities, said Marcia Mackey, an associate professor at Central Michigan University, which experienced a deadly shooting in 2018. “When you come up with a policy, one size isn’t going to fit all,” she said. “We need to recognize that this is a huge country.”
Mental health support needs to be a priority, the teachers said. There aren’t enough school counselors to meet the needs of all students, Chen said. The American School Counselor Association estimates that there are 408 students per school counselor in U.S. schools.
Social-emotional learning in the classroom is critical, Martin said. He added that having male educators be a part of this conversation is important, too.
“Perpetrators who are committing these crimes are typically young males,” he said. “I think that we are failing to recognize or address an aspect of masculinity where anger and violence are appropriate ways to express emotion, and [we] are not giving the social-emotional skills to young men to handle mental health crises, to handle negative emotions.”
The NEA is rethinking its approach on the issue of gun violence
At the NEA’s annual representative assembly last summer, delegates voted nearly unanimously to coordinate a “unified response” to protect schools and communities from gun violence. The measure, which had a price tag of nearly half a million dollars, was proposed by the NEA board of directors, the union’s top decision-making body.
“Way too often, the way that we have engaged in this work has been reactive rather than proactive,” said the NEA’s Kusler. “These tragedies are not stopping, unfortunately. And we need to be smarter both on the preventative side of things, ... [and] there’s leadership that we need to take at the federal, state, and local level through our union, through our members to support students, to support each other, and to try to figure out what we can do better.”
The summit last weekend marked the first step of the NEA reimagining its role as a union to be more proactive against gun violence, Kusler said. The conversation will continue even after the educators return home, she added.
After all, Martin said, the nation has been offering thoughts and prayers since he survived the Columbine school shooting more than 20 years ago. He’s ready for action.
“I’m hopeful that there is a movement, and that NEA is a part of that leadership, where now tangible action is taking place, and it’s not just thoughts and prayers, it’s not just talking about it and that’ll resolve itself, but that we’re going to take actionable steps to prevent and then to respond to the trauma,” he said.
He added: “I’m not naïve enough to think that it’s going to end anytime soon, so how do we live in the reality to prevent it, and stop it, and help those communities and individuals heal?”