Sarah Lerner has painful memories of how Uvalde’s elementary school was attacked by a gunman who killed 21 students and then murdered them on May 24, 2018. Lerner was able to keep 15 students safe at Marjory Stoneman Douglas, Fla. High School, while an AR-15-equipped teenager shot and killed 17 on the campus.
“We get into education because we love children, we love our subject matter, and we love teaching. None of us go into education to be human shields, and to be bodyguards, and makeshift police officers,” says Lerner, who still teaches English at Marjory Stoneman Douglas. “But when those kids are in your charge, no matter how old they are, even my 18-year-old seniors, you are responsible for them.”
As efforts to pass comprehensive gun-safety legislation continue to stall, many educators who survived mass shootings feel like they’ve been left to deal with the problem on their own—forced to protect their students from the recurring threat of gun violence in schools.
Abbey Clements was hopeful that Uvalde had been notified of the shooting and not that any victims were being left behind. When she learned about the death toll, she fell to the floor and grabbed a colleague’s hand.
“I just lost it,” says Clements, who on Dec. 14, 2012 huddled with 17 second-grade students in her classroom when gunshots rang out at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut. Clements recalls reading a book on polar bears, and trying to calm her students by singing holiday songs. “How do we continue to function when kids are killed in an elementary school?”
She was thinking about the 19 teachers who died last week and her fellow students. “Your mind goes right to that time and you think about those teachers and those poor students,” she says. “I’m so sorry for them that we did not fix this.”
Clements said that she relied upon teachers from Columbine High School who were able to relate to her trauma and offer suggestions on moving to another school or whether she should keep teaching. To offer support similar to her Uvalde colleagues, Clements intends to approach them. But the fact that that’s necessary has become tragic proof of the country’s inability—or unwillingness—to solve this problem.
“I mostly feel shame. I also feel outrage,” says Clements, who now teaches fourth grade at another public school in Newtown, Conn. “How pathetic is this that we let this go on this long, tragedy after tragedy?”
Clements and Lerner launched Teachers Unify for Gun Violence with Sari Beth, a New York teacher. The initiative sought to highlight the stories and promote solutions to the problem of gun violence in schools.
“In the almost four and a half years since it happened at my school, how many other shootings have happened, both in school and elsewhere?” says Lerner, who has been teaching for 20 years. “It’s so, so tragically sad that this happened, but that it keeps happening.”
‘This is my cause’
Lerner claims that her entire life was changed by the Parkland shooting. Even though she has been in the room for four years, Lerner is acutely aware that exits are possible from any space she enters. She doesn’t sit with her back to the door. It was her teaching. 1984 to her students when the shooting began, and has not taught the book since: “I don’t know if and when I’ll be ready to do it again.” She still hates the sound of fireworks.
Lerner now teaches students who weren’t on campus the day of the shooting; many were on lockdown in a nearby middle school. She is very clear about how serious she takes safety with students, the day before they start school. “It’s your safety and mine,” she tells them. “And you will follow all of my directions and do whatever I tell you to do, without question.”
American Federation of Teachers (AFT), a national gun reform campaign, launched Tuesday. The AFT is asking lawmakers to approve legislation that can prevent gun violence. “This is a public health crisis,” AFT President Randi Weingarten said in a statement. “Educators deserve to be able to teach and not be forced to be human shields to protect their students.”
On Tuesday, teachers also protested in front of Ted Cruz’s Austin office. “Cruz’s response to the slaughter of children—pushing for more armed school staff—is not only opposed by a vast majority of teachers, but also is an illogical idea that has not proven to be effective,” the Texas branch of the AFT, which led the protest, said in a statement. According to the AFT, it is necessary for new restrictions to be put in place.
Lerner advocates for strict background checks and safe-storage laws. She would also like to see age restrictions that prevent those under 21 from buying handguns, and laws that limit access to military-style assault rifles—like the ones used by the gunmen in Uvalde and Parkland.
But Republican leaders in Texas and in Congress have made clear they’re not interested in pursuing gun-control measures and have, instead, suggested arming teachers, redesigning school buildings with only one entrance, and increasing the presence of law enforcement officers in schools. Texas Governor. Greg Abbott focused on praising law enforcement officers’ “quick response” and “amazing courage,” while barely mentioning the teachers who shielded and died beside their students in two classrooms at Robb Elementary.
Yet the way police officers responded to the Uvalde shooting is now the subject of intense scrutiny, as new details show officers waited more than hour to enter two classrooms where a gunman killed 19 children and two teachers, because the school district’s police chief believed the gunman was no longer a threat, as students repeatedly called 911 for help. Abbott later said he had been “misled” by law enforcement and was “livid” about what happened.
Many Republicans view arming teachers as the solution. However, educators already feeling overworked or underpaid see this proposal as one that could increase their burden to protect the students’ lives in an emergency. “It’s impractical. It’s absurd,” Lerner says. “Putting more guns on campus isn’t going to do anything to keep anyone safe.”
As she advocates for gun-safety legislation, she’s motivated to prevent another cycle of teachers and students from having to experience the same fear, anguish, and grief that she and Clements did.
“These politicians offer their thoughts and prayers, which doesn’t do anything. We want policy, we want change, we want action—because they offered thoughts and prayers after Sandy Hook and after Pulse and after Parkland. And we’re still here,” she says.
“This is my cause for the rest of my life. And I will talk about it until I have no breath left.”
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