Angel Hayes, a kindergarten teacher in Neosho, Mo., was killed by a car in the school pickup line in 2018. Jovan Rembert, a principal in West Park, Fla., was struck and killed by a car while checking on students who were involved in a school bus accident in 2020. Sandra Goodman, a bus driver in Georgia, died in 2021 when the parking brake failed as she was trying to repair the vehicle.
And Irma Garcia and Eva Mirales, two 4th grade teachers were gunned down in their classroom in Uvalde, Texas, last month, alongside 19 of their students.
They are among the 16 educators whose names have been added to the National Memorial to Fallen Educators in Emporia, Kan., which honors school employees who were killed in the line of duty. In a rededication ceremony on Friday, educators and policymakers remembered the 179 school workers whose names are etched into granite—and called for safer schools so that no additional names have to be added.
“Their lives were cut short through accidents or intentional violence simply because they chose the profession of education,” said Carol Strickland, the executive director of the National Teachers Hall of Fame, which oversees the memorial, during the ceremony. “They lost their lives doing what they love—working with America’s schoolchildren.”
The speakers at the ceremony included representatives from the National Education Association, Emporia State University, and local, state, and national elected officials, including U.S. Sen. Roger Marshall, a Republican who represents Kansas and played a key role in having the memorial receive national designation.
While the ceremony was focused on remembrance, it took place against the backdrop of a heated political debate about how to keep schools safe from gun violence. According to Education Week’s tracker, there have been 27 school shootings with injuries or deaths this year.
Earlier this month, Marshall introduced the Safe Schools Act, which would allow federal pandemic relief dollars to be used by schools to “harden” themselves with physical security measures and to hire and pay the salaries of armed school resource officers.
Marshall didn’t mention the legislation or any policy proposals in his brief remarks, which he kept focused on the importance of having such a memorial to honor those who have lost their lives while working in schools.
“There exists no higher calling than shepherding our children,” Marshall said. “Educators have a special place in all our hearts, and we all owe each mentor in our life a significant debt of gratitude. But to those who have fallen while in service, let us especially honor them by sharing their passion for teaching, for educating, and for helping each other be all that we can be.”
But the tensions within the school safety debate—over the relative importance of mental health supports and firearms policy—were not far from the surface.
Kansas Rep. Mark Schrieber, a Republican, dedicated a portion of his remarks to discussing “the connection between mental illness and gun violence,” quoting from a New York Times opinion piece that, “we need to make sure that all students in this country have at least one person, just one adult, they can talk with.”
Later, Anthony Salvatore, who was the assistant principal at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., the year before the mass shooting there in 2012, urged policymakers not to blame mental illness. “There are a lot of people with mental illness who don’t kill people,” he said. “That’s a way to easily identify a problem that is incorrect.”
While Salvatore stopped short of calling for specific policy changes, he both emphasized the importance of relationships and spoke of the utter violence of a school shooting.
“I’m not sure people understand what happens to adults and little children when an AR-15 rips through their bodies,” he said, his voice thick with emotion. “It dissolves them. That’s why they need DNA samples to identify [their bodies]—there’s nothing left. Nothing.”
A bipartisan group of U.S. senators has unveiled a tentative compromise on federal gun legislation that includes funding for mental health services and school security as well as some modest gun restrictions, such as expanding the review process for gun buyers age 21 or younger.
The memorial is filling up quickly
The memorial was spearheaded after six educators and 20 elementary students were killed in the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Strickland and her team researched other educators over the years who lost their lives while doing their jobs, and by the time the memorial was unveiled in 2014, they had come up with 114 names to be etched onto granite slabs shaped like books.
For the next five years, there was an annual rededication ceremony to add more names. Some of the names were of educators who died years or even decades ago, as Strickland’s team discovered more stories, but new deaths happened every year. President Donald Trump signed legislation to designate the site as a national memorial in 2018—the same year seven school employees were killed in school shootings. A third book was added to the memorial in 2019.
The 2020 and 2021 ceremonies were canceled because of the pandemic. Already though, the third granite book is almost filled up.
“There may be room for 10 more names,” Strickland said in an interview. “We are getting toward the bottom.”
The memorial does not include educators who died from COVID-19. According to Education Week’s research, at least 1,299 active and retired K-12 school employees have died from the virus, including 448 active teachers.
Strickland is retiring next month, and her successor will have the job of raising $40,000 to buy a new book for additional names. (Each book has room for about 66 names, Strickland estimated.) But the memorial site can hold only two more books, she said.
“We always say at the end of the ceremony, ‘No more names,’ and every year, sadly, we’re adding more,” Strickland said.
But she’s proud of the permanence of the memorial: “They will not be forgotten because they are a part of a national memorial. I think it’s a little bit of a comfort to the families when they know that.”