Most often, I use this column to offer my perspective on one of the issues addressed in American Educator. I have many thoughts about the topics covered in these pages, particularly the Teacher Leaders Program, which the AFT started during my presidency. But I write this shortly after the first anniversary of the tragic murder by a former student of 17 students and staff at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, and shortly after visiting the school. I have developed many bonds in Parkland and elsewhere forged out of tragedy—with students, school staff, parents, and grandparents who have lost loved ones in school shootings. Their unbearable losses, and those of thousands of American families, compel me to do all in my power to confront the intolerable scourge of gun violence in America.
In the 12 months since the tragedy at Stoneman Douglas, nearly 1,200 children have been fatally shot in the United States. In the two decades since the rampage at Columbine High School in Colorado, more than 187,000 students have been exposed to gun violence at school. Let that sink in. America is utterly failing our youth.
Young people are fluent in the shorthand of school massacres—Columbine, Sandy Hook, and now Stoneman Douglas. A majority of American teens now say they are worried about a shooting happening at their school. There are indications that measures intended to make students safer, such as lockdowns and active shooter drills, can instead make them feel less safe and more anxious.
While school shootings still are relatively rare, more can and must be done to intervene and prevent them. This includes improving the physical security of schools by installing internal locks and limiting entry points in schools, but it does not mean turning schools into armed fortresses, or arming teachers—research shows that would only make schools more dangerous. Abbey Clements, a second-grade teacher at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, who survived the 2012 shooting rampage that claimed the lives of 20 first-graders and six staff, is one of many educators who denounce this risky and ineffective tactic. “This is not the movies,” Clements says. “It’s school.”
Schools need resources to support students’ social, emotional, and behavioral well-being—including bullying prevention, positive behavioral interventions and support, and wraparound services. School staff should receive training to identify, assess, and respond to threatening behaviors that can lead to violence. As we saw in Los Angeles and other places where teachers have walked out of their schools to demand necessary resources for their students, America’s public schools need more counselors. Far too few students have access to a trained counselor at school. About 1 in 5 youths ages 13–18 experiences a severe mental disorder, but only half of children with a mental health condition receive mental health services.
Our schools can’t do this alone. The AFT, the National Education Association, and Everytown for Gun Safety recently called on lawmakers to implement strategies proven to help enhance school safety and reduce gun violence, including:
- Background checks on all gun sales, to keep guns out of the hands of people who shouldn’t have them;
- Responsible firearm storage laws, to make it harder to access the most common sources of guns used in school shootings: the shooter’s home, friends, and family; and
- Raising the age to purchase semi-automatic firearms to 21, to prevent minors from easily getting their hands on the most lethal weapons.
There has been slow but promising progress. The U.S. House of Representatives recently passed bills broadening federal background checks for firearm purchases. And the state of New York passed a red flag law, which allows family members, educators, and law enforcement officials to seek to have guns confiscated from people deemed by courts to be an “extreme risk” to themselves or others.
These actions are effective and have public support. It’s time for children and common sense to take priority, not the National Rifle Association’s fearmongering that claims every gun safety proposal violates the Second Amendment. Frankly, policymakers who put campaign contributions from the NRA and gun manufacturers ahead of Americans’ safety are complicit in this crisis. Teachers will continue to speak out against these warped priorities. That’s why we joined a lawsuit to investigate why the Education Department is more focused on arming teachers than funding mental health services in schools. And that is why we are grateful that the new leadership in Congress is holding the first hearings in years on gun violence prevention.
Teachers want what children need, and there is no better demonstration of that than providing every child with a safe and welcoming school environment. We can and must do better.