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Teaching Profession

‘The Emotional Scars Run Deep': Stories From Teachers Who Survived School Shootings

By Madeline Will — May 24, 2018 2 min read
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Two teachers and eight students were killed in the fatal school shooting in Santa Fe, Texas, last week. It was the 13th school shooting since the beginning of the year, according to Education Week’s ongoing tracking.

In each of those school shootings—and the ones that happened in previous years—the students and teachers who survive are left reeling. Four teachers who have experienced gun violence at school share their stories:

Holly Van Tassel-Schuster, an English teacher at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., survived the February 14 shooting that claimed the lives of 17 people. During the massacre, she wheeled a 36-inch television in front of the classroom door, planning to push it onto the gunman in case he tried to enter. She told Education Week in an email:

After the shooting at Santa Fe High school, my heart broke thinking of the teachers and students affected. It truly took me back to the day, and it triggered the memories of alarms, helicopters, tears, and terror. Personally, I have reached out to the English department [at Santa Fe High] to let them know I am here and more than willing to listen. Sadly after the event at Stoneman Douglas, I truly did not feel prepared to speak to outsiders, who would not be able to relate to my experiences. In the days following the incident at Stoneman Douglas, I spent them with my colleagues driving to memorials, therapy, and funerals. Many days I just wanted to hide away and avoid the world around me. As much as my family and friends reached out, they were not the people I was able to communicate with. The thoughts of having to repeat the events of February 14th were too difficult. Once we returned to school, we had the pleasure of meeting a teacher from Sandy Hook, and she was the first outsider that could understand and relate to our experiences. For me this was one of the most important people I needed to speak with. Those of us that had the chance to speak with her bombarded her with questions as to how Newtown navigated the days and years ahead of them. After Santa Fe, this is why I reached out. I know they are going to be faced with painful weeks right now, but when they are ready, I am here for them.

In Los Angeles, teacher Sherry Zelsdorf experienced a classroom shooting earlier this year. Nobody died, and the incident received little national attention. But the experience was traumatizing, Zelsforf said. After the Santa Fe shooting, she wrote in an email:

I know what it feels like, what it sounds like, and what it looks like when your students are shot at school. On February 1, 2018, a 12-year-old student brought a semi-automatic handgun to school and shot two students inside of my classroom. Shrapnel from the bullet hit me on the forehead. My classroom went from silent to screaming in an instant. After I was discharged from the emergency room, I returned to school. I put on a mask and walked through my classroom with the forensic police. Blood covered the floor, the wall. A dark pool of blood was left where the student shot in the wrist waited for the paramedics. The word search I handed the student moments before he was shot in the head was covered in blood. A Los Angeles school police officer responded to my classroom within minutes after the shooting and recovered a loaded semi-automatic handgun. The police deemed the shooting [at] Salvador Castro Middle School in Los Angeles to be accidental. Regardless of intent, a gun was brought to school and fired inside a classroom. I returned to work on February 14. On the same day, 17 [people] were murdered at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. ... The schools in this country are not safe. Do something.

In an Education Week essay published before the Santa Fe shooting, a teacher who survived the 1999 Columbine school shooting shared her journey to activism, which started in part because of the horrific event.

“The battlefield was not just in politics, but also, horrifically, now in the classroom,” teacher Paula Reed wrote of the shooting. “The stress and the trauma we faced then sounds much too similar to the stress and trauma educators face now.”

Now, Reed has spoken at several rallies for stricter gun laws. She wrote that she has been inspired by the students from Parkland who have taken the lead on pushing for change.

“Many of the reasons educators have tended to avoid activism, including busy lives, fear of retribution, and an aversion to political discord, remain,” she wrote. “But there seems to be an increasing awareness that, fair or not, we’ve all been drafted. If our students can speak out, we can, too.”

In a recent essay for Education Week Teacher, high school English teacher Ashley Lauren Samsa shared her experience of being on lockdown when a student brought a gun on campus. Nobody was hurt—the only physical scar from the traumatic event was a bullet hole in the middle of a glass pane.

Still, Samsa wrote that she can’t say that she and her students were lucky. “It was decidedly unlucky that a student decided to bring a gun to a fight in the first place,” she said. “It seems like that’s the kind of bad luck that we should change.”

Months later, Samsa wrote, the trauma of the incident still lingers:

‘Every time the PA system sounds, I get worried,’ [a student] says. There’s nothing I can say, because it happens to me, too. The emotional scars run deep, and our situation does not even come close to the trauma and anguish in Santa Fe and Parkland and Sandy Hook and Columbine and so many other places. I cannot imagine how those students, teachers, and parents feel. I want to live to see a time when there is no need for lockdowns, no senseless and violent deaths, and no student who is afraid to attend school. It may seem like a lofty dream, but I believe it can happen.

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Evie Blad, Senior Staff Writer contributed to this article.
A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.