May 24th marks the first anniversary of the massacre in Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas. Despite the horror of that day, incidents of school-based gun violence are increasing, and educators and students are paying the price.
Firearms are now the leading cause of death for children and teens in the United States, and gun violence in our schools has been a chronic issue for more than 40 years.
Despite these statistics, I thought that gun violence was not in my lane as an educator—that was an issue for policymakers and law enforcement to address. The increasing numbers of school shootings have caused me to question this assumption and realize what a constant presence gun violence has been in my career--even though I have never been in a school shooting.
I recalled Chris, a 6th-grade student in the ’90s, who was a refugee from the civil war in the Congo. He had profound PTSD after fleeing his home while a battle raged around him. As a 2nd year teacher and only 24 years old, I was ill-prepared to help Chris settle into a new school while he suffered from trauma that made it almost impossible for him to learn.
I remembered the first time I led an active shooter drill in the aftermath of the Columbine massacre. Just 28 then, I tried to instill calm in my voice as I guided my students through the duck and cover procedures.
I thought of Damon, a 5th-grade student in the school where I served as an assistant principal. Damon came to my office one day when he couldn’t sit still in class. He’d seen his cousin be shot that morning, and unsure what to do, he came to school. He didn’t know whether his cousin was dead or alive. I was 34 years old and came to understand what safe haven schools could be for our children.
Finally, Marlene, a dedicated parent volunteer in a school community plagued by gang violence, came to mind. One day I entered the parent room to find Marlene, usually full of energy and purpose, perched on the edge of the couch, shaking, her arms wrapped around her shoulders. Marlene had just sat with a young man who was shot and dying in the street. Rather than allowing him to die alone, she held his hand and tried to comfort him. At age 45 and with a young son, I held Marlene while she cried, and I ached for the dying man’s mother.
These are just a few examples of how gun violence has shaped my career as an educator, and I’d wager that my experiences are more common than not.
Our education system has many pressing needs today, including COVID recovery. Fighting for gun control may seem like another demand for educators’ limited bandwidth. There is also a risk of speaking out–discussing gun control can be highly contentious. Some of us are already putting our careers on the line by addressing Critical Race Theory and LGBTQ+ rights in systems increasingly influenced by partisan politics. Why take on another cause?
The answer is simple–gun violence already impacts us, but we may not realize it. The media’s focus on mass shootings draws our attention away from the more subtle influence gun violence has in our schools.
Lost in our media coverage is the disproportionate impact that gun violence has on our Black, Indigenous, and People of Color community (BIPOC). Everytown for Gun Safety is a national nonprofit that promotes common-sense gun laws. They estimate that Black children and teens are 14 times more likely to die from gun violence, and Latinx youth are three times more likely to die from gun violence than White youth. BIPOC youth are also disproportionally impacted by school-based gun violence.
Also lost in our news coverage is the long-term impact on survivors and witnesses. Students and staff who witness school shootings are susceptible to traumatic stress, anxiety, depression, and generalized concerns for their safety. While some witnesses will have temporary symptoms, others will suffer much longer and develop chronic disorders. Even short-term symptoms can profoundly impact youth’s academic achievement and social-emotional growth.
Finally, the increased incidences of school-based gun violence, coupled with their pervasive coverage in the news, has made them feel almost inevitable to our youth. The Children’s Defense Fund’s annual Child Trends Survey found that being involved in a school shooting was second only to bullying as the top worry for children ages 6 through 17 across all racial lines.
Schools have become unwilling bearers of the costs of gun violence. These costs are disproportionately higher in schools serving our BIPOC communities, contributing to achievement and outcomes gaps and having a life-long impact on youth and adults alike.
So, what can we do?
Speak-Out: Join the nation’s two largest teacher’s unions, the National Education Association (NEA) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), leading the fight to establish common-sense gun laws in every state.
Advocate: Join the call to add exposure to gun violence to the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) measures. This action would provide access to federal funding to address the long-term trauma caused by exposure to gun violence on and off campus.
Engage: Participate in thoughtful conversations about school safety. Discuss what measures make the most sense for your community. Pay close attention to their disproportionate impact on our BIPOC students, who have historically been over-policed and disciplined in schools.
Nurture: Attend to students’ social-emotional well-being and provide access to intervention when students exhibit at-risk behaviors. Creating safe and supportive schools is the best means to avoid future violence.
Vote: Vote for politicians on the record supporting gun safety measures and laws that will make your community safer.
It is time for educators to recognize that gun violence is a real and everyday issue in our schools. We do not need to wait for another mass shooting to act. Our voices and experiences provide an invaluable lens on the gun safety debate, and our students need us–now.
1 Everytown for Gun Safety. (2021a, December 28). Fact sheet: The impact of gun violence on children and teens. https://everytownresearch.org/report/the-impact-of-gun-violence-on-children-and-teens/
2 Cox, J. W., Rich, S., Chiu, A., Thacker, H., Chong, L., Muyskens, J., & Ulmanu, M. (2022, May 27). More than 311,000 students have experienced gun violence at school since Columbine. The Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/2018/local/school-shootings-database/
3 Center for Violence Prevention. School shootings. Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. https://violence.chop.edu/school-shootings
4 Children’s Defense Fund (2018). School Shootings Spark Everyday Worries. https://www.childrensdefense.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/09/YouGov-SafeSchools-Final-Sep-18-2018-1.pdf