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Teachers across US question profession, gun laws after Texas school shooting

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 5/26/2022 Alia Wong, Chris Quintana and Meghan Mangrum, USA TODAY
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Teachers find themselves going through a process that’s become all too familiar: the visceral pain for those who’ve lost loved ones, the agonizing feat of explaining to their students what happened, the overwhelming anxiety of wondering what would I do in that situation? 

The shooting at Robb Elementary in Uvalde, Texas, which serves grades 2-4, was the deadliest school shooting since the attack at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut, in 2012. Nineteen students and two teachers were fatally shot in Texas.

Mass shootings at schools, and the fear of them, subsided during the pandemic. For many, that fear has returned, and Tuesday’s slaying, they said, made it feel more acute than ever.

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"It's so hard to see this and know the capacity for violence that exists in our nation," said Sam Futrell, a middle school social studies teacher in the Richmond, Virginia, area. 

Her fear of school shootings has mounted since she started teaching 10 years ago. 

"It's also so personal," Futrell said. "I see students every day, and I can just imagine something of that level happening in any of the schools that I've ever been to."

'Worst nightmare,' 'We have to act': How lawmakers reacted to Texas school shooting.

Shooting ‘causing a lot of people to second-guess their profession’

Futrell said every teacher knows that student – for whatever reason, "you just know something's wrong." Teachers, well aware of how difficult it is to be a teenager, especially these days, will do everything they can to reach out to students and help or connect them with resources. 

"We all know that kid," Futrell said. "And it's heartbreaking because you feel like you have no options left to help them at a certain point – like you've done everything that you can possibly do. But at the same time, you feel like it's not enough."

Teachers don’t just teach, of course. They are therapists and nurses, social workers and security guards. These days, they’re also IT professionals and health monitors and COVID-19 liaisons, all while navigating attacks on critical race theory and social-emotional learning, even on the teaching profession itself. 

“A lot of folks are struggling in that they want to do what they're naturally called for, but they don’t feel safe – they don’t feel safe from guns or from diseases. And policymakers and the system itself isn't making it any easier,” said Rafa Díaz, a school board trustee for Judson Independent School District in San Antonio. “While everybody's focused on fighting textbooks and securing borders, we can't even secure our schools.”

The pressures, not least that of prospective violence, are "causing a lot of people (in education) to second-guess their profession," he said.

Two shootings, 10 days apart: Texas school massacre comes on heels of racist killings in Buffalo

There have been 27 school shootings this year, according to Education Week, which tracks incidents involving firearm-related injuries or deaths during school hours or at school-sponsored events.

There were more shootings on school grounds last year than any other year since at least 1970, according to an analysis by the Naval Postgraduate School's Center for Homeland Defense and Security. The center's K-12 School Shooting Database documents every instance in which a gun is brandished or fired or a bullet hits school property for any reason. Education Week uses a different metric.

Guns were the leading cause of death among children and teenagers in 2020, according to research from the University of Michigan. 

As part of his role on the San Antonio school district’s board, Díaz has been involved in budget discussions over the past few weeks. He and fellow board members finalized teacher compensation numbers – they were able to give raises because of some reserve funding. 

“But it’s still not sufficient,” he said between tears, “to compensate their willingness to do the work.”

Events such as Tuesday’s massacre leave Díaz feeling helpless: “After yesterday, I don't think we have enough money to keep everybody safe,” he said. “I can't afford to build a fortress, and even if we could, is that the type of space we want to build for students?”

'There are no words': Families mourn as names of Texas school shooting victims begin to emerge

'It still hasn't gotten better'

Charlie Bielinski teaches ninth and 10th grade in the Greece Central School District in upstate New York. The specter of the mass shooting outside a supermarket in Buffalo, New York, this month haunts him, as well as his experience with a school shooting from roughly two decades earlier. 

He had been grading papers inside the library when a 13-year-old student shot and killed a teacher at Lake Worth Middle School in Florida in May 2000. Kids poured into the library, screaming someone had been shot, someone was dead. A teacher was the lone fatality. 

He said he thinks about that confusion and lost time, and he suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and panic attacks from the shooting. The incident drove home to him that shooters could target any school, which raises the anxiety in addressing problem behavior with some students. 

“This could happen anywhere,” Bielinski said. "I have had many occasions where a kid would make a threat and someone would say, ‘He’s not going to do anything, he’s all talk.’ And we just can’t do that anymore.” 

Bielinski recalled after the Florida shooting that national news crews swarmed the school, but he questions whether it would generate a similar response today. He said it feels as though multiple people have to die to break through the news cycle. The frequency of shootings makes it difficult to come up with an answer to prevent them.

“If the senators and congressmen aren’t willing to do anything, what can one of us do?” Bielinksi said.

Sandy Hook survivors reflect: "I thought it would wake up the country."

Inaction on gun control – and the loosening of laws in parts of the country – fueled some teachers’ frustration. Last year, half a dozen states, including Texas, passed laws allowing people to carry a concealed firearm without holding a permit. 

“I've been in education 15 years already, and it still hasn't gotten better,” said Ericka Avila, a former elementary school teacher and vice principal who works as a testing coordinator in her San Antonio-area school district’s central office. 

Teachers said they're attuned to how gridlocked the politics have been on gun control. Some said they've resigned themselves to the possibility that progress won't ever happen. 

“Saying things are sad almost feels insensitive; it’s almost disrespectful to just go on saying it’s so sad,” said Liz Santana, a fourth grade teacher in the San Antonio area. Throughout the year, Santana teaches her students to use “fourth grade words” in their writing – bold, powerful words. 

“Sad is just not a strong enough word,” Santana said. “There are people that have convinced themselves that their rights are the only rights that matter – that people only get killed in their homes ... that schools and where others are defenseless are the last target – when it's in fact the opposite.” 

Be angry about the Texas school shooting: We owe the 19 children killed our rage

Alex Oliver has been a teacher in Riverside, Iowa, for 14 years, and he has grown painfully familiar with mass shootings. He was headed to his school’s track to go for a run when he heard the news from Texas. 

“It kinda hits different when you know you’re going to the place you love and care about,” Oliver said. “Then you start thinking about the students in your classroom and how they would be impacted. Those kids in Texas? They’ll never be the same because of this.” 

Oliver was a high schooler when two students killed 13 people at Columbine High School in 1999. He remembers “kids crawling out the windows trying to get away.” 

The possibility of a mass shooting permeates his existence. He keeps a change jar at his desk to lend petty cash to students and to serve as a missile he could lob at potential intruders.

Oliver said there’s often a public outcry after school shootings, but he’s unsure that it leads to change. He said too often people’s response boils down to “Where’s it going to happen next? Hopefully not here.”

Oliver wasn’t sure whether stricter gun laws would help prevent mass shootings – he pointed to the continued use of alcohol during Prohibition. He said he would be in favor of mandatory training to own a firearm. After all, he said, people have to take driving lessons before getting behind the wheel of a car. 

“I think, as a teacher, if they said I had to carry a gun, I would do it because I care about my kids,” Oliver said.

Proposals to arm teachers are ‘insulting’

Texas’ attorney general called for the arming of teachers after Tuesday's shooting.

“The reality is we don’t have the resources to have law enforcement at every school,” Attorney General Ken Paxton, a Republican, said. “It takes time for law enforcement, no matter how prepared, no matter how good they are to get there. So having the right training for some of these people at the school is the best hope.”

For Santana, the San Antonio elementary school teacher, such proposals are insulting. 

Research by Everytown for Gun Safety, a New York City-based organization that advocates for stronger gun control, underscores the safety hazards of that approach, saying it would give students easier access to firearms. The risks are especially pronounced, according to University of Virginia professor Patricia Jennings, an expert on teacher stress, as educators suffer from increased burnout and other mental health challenges. 

“If somebody has a gun and they’re coming into my school, my kids' schools, the supermarket, wherever, there’s not a whole lot I am going to be able to do to stop them,” said Davlyn Edgett, a teacher who moved from Arizona to Colorado, where she said she feels safer because of the stricter gun laws. “Even holding my own gun, the odds that I am able to shoot with accuracy to make a difference? I don’t know if that’s going to.” 

Edgett said the possibility of a mass shooter can affect the way educators teach students. Some, she said, may be unwilling to discipline students in fear they might be the type of person to bring a firearm to school.

Many schools in the past decade or so reinforced their buildings with additions such as two-layered entryways and bulletproof glass and adopted other security measures such as hiring school resource officers or holding active-shooter drills

“There comes a point where we have to strike a balance for school to still be a safe happy place,” said Ashley Croft, an elementary school principal in Nashville, Tennessee.

Absent stronger gun control, teachers said they’re limited in how they can protect students.

Robert Jackson, a government and civics teacher at Smyrna High School in Tennessee, said schools do what they can to keep folks on campus safe. 

“We are just playing a cruel guessing game. We have put ourselves in a situation because of gun laws,” Jackson, a first-year teacher, said.

The time spent talking and worrying about school safety could be spent reducing the school-to-prison pipeline or ensuring all students learn to read and are given a chance at success, Jackson said.

For people who choose to work in education, he said, “the offer that America seems to make to you is that you might be shot just trying to invest in the next generation.”

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Teachers across US question profession, gun laws after Texas school shooting

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