Will We Even Try to Keep Students and Teachers Safe from Gun Violence? Or Just Keep Preparing for the Worst?
“Teachers, we are operating on a lockdown. Please keep your doors locked until we tell you it has been lifted.”
Before me a sea of wide eyes and scared faces.
I slowly walked toward the door continuing the lesson I had been giving before the announcement. The door was already shut and secured but I nonchalantly turned the extra deadbolt.
“Click!” it sounded like a gunshot across the suddenly silent room.
I continued talking while making my way back to the blackboard pretending that nothing out of the ordinary was happening.
That’s just life in the classroom these days.
According to Eduction Week, there have been 38 school shootings in the US this year resulting in injuries or deaths. That’s up from 34 last year and the highest it’s been since the media source began tracking such things in 2018.
During the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, there were only 10 such shootings in 2020, and 24 each in 2019 and 2018.
That comes to a total of 130 school shootings in the last five years.
“Mr. Singer, can I go to the bathroom?” DeVon asked.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “We’re still under lockdown. I’ll write you a pass as soon as it’s lifted.”
It seems like nowhere is safe.
Three of this year’s shootings were in my home state of Pennsylvania.
The first was on January 19 at Pittsburgh’s Oliver Citywide Academy, a special education school.
A 15-year-old boy waiting in a van to go home was shot and killed after at least one person opened fire outside the school.
The second was on April 5 at Erie High School. A 16-year-old student was shot and injured at the school.
The third was on Sept 27 at Roxborough High School in Philadelphia.
A 14-year-old student was killed and four others wounded (ages 17, 15, 14, and 14) in a shooting near the high school athletic field after a football scrimmage.
“Mr. Singer, what’s happening?” Olivia asked.
I turned to her confused at first then I realized what she meant.
“The lockdown? Let me check my laptop. No…. Nothing. I really don’t know, Honey. But I’m sure whatever it is, it will be over soon. Why don’t you get back to the assignment?”
Such violence isn’t limited to schools.
On Sept 24 three people were shot in Kennywood Park, a popular amusement park in West Mifflin.
Two years ago in September a 15-year-old boy was killed and another was wounded in a shooting at the Haunted Hills Hayride in North Versailles.
In 2020 a man was shot and killed at Monroeville Mall. In 2015, a 17-year-old entered the men’s department on the lower level of Macy’s department store in the evening and shot his intended target and two bystanders, leaving two with critical injuries.
Is there anywhere safe anymore?
You can’t go to the mall. You can’t go on a haunted hayride. You can’t go to an amusement park.
I had students who were hiding in the mall during the 2015 shooting. My daughter wasn’t involved in any shootings but she went to Kennywood this summer.
Where does it stop?
A few weeks ago my school had another active shooter training for teachers while the students, thankfully, had a day off.
Every few years we do this. Teachers huddle in classrooms and try to react to a shooting scenario. We either barricade ourselves in our classrooms or try to find an escape route. We help train police and local medical personnel.
At this years training, teachers were given a talk by a law enforcement “expert” who regaled us with his time working as a Blackwater mercenary in Afghanistan. He told us how difficult it was to make decisions under fire but that sometimes you had to make the hard decisions.
“Some of you teachers have kids in wheelchairs in your classrooms. You think you’re going to get your whole class out of the building and to safety!? You have to ask yourself, how are you going to get that kid in the wheelchair out? What are you going to do if a child flips out or is too scared to move? I know it’s not nice to think about, but sometimes you have to make decisions that will save the most people – not necessarily everyone.”
It made me want to vomit. But he wasn’t telling me anything I didn’t already know.
I like to believe I’d pick the child up out of his wheelchair, throw him over my shoulder and carry him to safety. I hope I could calm down a child having a panic attack and whisk her out of the building.
But could I really? Alone?
We do everything we can to prepare ourselves in case something like this happens – but as a society we do nothing – NOTHING – to prevent shootings from happening in the first place.
Where’s increased gun regulations to make sure these weapons aren’t getting into the hands of criminals or the mentally unstable?
Where are bans on assault weapons and other weapons of mass destruction and war?
“Mr. Singer, I really have to go to the bathroom.”
“You can’t hold it just a little longer, DeVon?”
“No,” he said hoping from foot to foot.
“Number 1 or number 2?”
He giggled and held up one finger.
I reluctantly pointed to the trash can.
“Take it over there to the corner. I’ll stand in front of you so…”
“Attention teacher! The lockdown has now been lifted. You may continue as normal.”
I sighed, unlocked the door and wrote DeVon a bathroom pass.
We never did find out what triggered the lockdown. One time it was a gunshot in the surrounding neighborhood. Another time it was an unauthorized adult seeking access to the building.
It could be much worse. And it will happen again.
The chances of myself or my students being hurt or killed is even lower.
But it’s still too high.
Living under the constant shadow of this threat is creating a trauma that we’ve given up trying to solve and just call normal.
It is unacceptable.
Not just on the days when one of these tragedies strike – but every day.
It is not safe for students and teachers – it will NEVER be completely safe, but it can be safer.
That’s the point – how safe can we make it?
And why aren’t we doing anything to reach that goal other than preparing for the worst?
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