02/14/2019

Since Parkland, 365 days of grief and action

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National school walkoutAFT members are no strangers to this nation’s gun violence epidemic. As a union of public servants, we have felt its toll far too deeply—too many members lost, too many communities ripped apart, too many lives shattered. Again and again, we grieve these unspeakable losses. Again and again, we support our members and honor their bravery as they turn their pain into action. And so, the year since the horrific shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., has had its familiar moments. Still, this year of advocacy has also been, in many important ways, unprecedented.

 

After the Parkland tragedy, we saw students and survivors lead the charge, galvanizing a new generation of activists who have made gun violence prevention their signature issue. AFT members and leaders proudly joined in partnership and collaboration with these young activists as they organized mass mobilizations, including the March for Our Lives and the National School Walkout. Stoneman Douglas teachers, who are AFT members, worked side by side with their students to plan and execute these stunning events. During the March for Our Lives in Washington, D.C., AFT headquarters became a hub that hosted students and educators from New York, Baltimore, New Jersey and Florida. That day, as the crowd of AFT members and their students linked arms and chanted, “Enough is enough,” Broward Teachers Union President Anna Fusco was moved to tears: “I think [the Parkland students] sparked some of us, as adults who have become idle and silent, feeling that our voices don’t matter any more. We matter. Lives matter.”

Group at AFT for March for our Lives

During the National School Walkout for gun safety, AFT President Randi Weingarten joined students at New York City’s Leadership and Public Service High School for their walkout to Zuccotti Park. She was inspired by their leadership: “These kids are fighting for their lives,” said Weingarten. “They aren’t intimidated by the NRA, and unlike the White House, they are committed to change. To them, enough means enough, and I am inspired by their actions and unity to make change happen. It’s time to value our children more than guns.”

In tandem with these mass mobilizations, the AFT released a special edition of our “Ranking Asset Managers” report, creating a watch list of investment managers that invest millions of dollars in companies that make assault weapons. The report showed AFT members how they could hit gun manufacturers where it hurts: their bottom lines. It also offered information for pension fund trustees, called on asset managers to evaluate risks associated with investing in gun manufacturers, and urged them to engage in meaningful action, such as adopting policies that mitigate the safety risks assault weapons pose. As Weingarten said when the report was issued, “Educators have a right to assume their deferred wages are not being invested in the companies that make the military-style assault weapons used to injure and kill them and their students in countless school shootings.”

Randi Weingarten at gun violence march

As fallout from the Parkland shootings continued, AFT members were front and center. Some, like Parkland teacher Stacey Lippel, testified before Congress, sharing her story as a survivor with the world. “I don’t remember screaming,” Lippel said in her testimony. “I definitely wasn’t crying. I just knew that saving my students and myself was very important.” Others went toe to toe with Education Secretary Betsy DeVos when she and President Trump proposed arming teachers as a school safety initiative. More than 60,000 educators joined an AFT telephone town hall to discuss the proposal, and their response was universal, even from educators who are gun owners: Teachers don’t want to be armed; they want to teach. They don’t want to be, and would never have the expertise needed to be, sharp shooters; no amount of training can prepare an armed teacher to go up against an AR-15.

AFT members like Abbey Clements, a survivor of the 2012 Sandy Hook school shooting in Newtown, Conn., spoke out about how ludicrous it would be to arm teachers. Sharing her story, she said that armed teachers may very well have made the Sandy Hook tragedy even worse. Clements wrote, “Guns in schools sends the message to students that adults can’t solve the problem of gun violence in America. Guns in schools sends the message to students that they’re not safe in school. The onus of America’s problem with gun violence should not land on children’s shoulders through lock-down drills and active shooter drills, through militarizing schools and having folks with guns roaming the halls.”

AFT members took on the National Rifle Association in November, after the group told physicians to “stay in your lane,” implying that healthcare professionals have no ground to stand on where gun legislation is concerned. Healthcare professionals, including AFT nurses and health professionals, clapped back hard, spawning a #ThisIsMyLane movement. AFT member and registered nurse Morteza Rabii wrote, “People are dying. If you’re like me, you want to do something about that. That’s why we became nurses, isn’t it? To help people, to ease suffering, to prevent pain, heal the sick, and promote health and safety for those around us. It is our privilege and ethical duty.”

Student gun violence summit

As 2018 came to a close, AFT members and leaders had the privilege to attend the Student Gun Violence Summit in Washington, D.C., where student survivors of gun violence gathered from across the country to develop action plans and drafted the Students’ Bill of Rights for Safe Communities. AFT member and social studies teacher Michael Hoerich reflected after the summit, “I was truly impressed by the energy and leadership I saw from the students. From the moment the event began, they took the lead, telling their stories, sharing their hopes and confronting their fears. Seeing the future of leadership at the summit, I know the world is going to be OK.”

This month, as we consider this past year of grief and activism, the AFT continues to support the Parkland community as we work together to bring about the change this country so desperately needs. AFT leaders visited Stoneman Douglas High School last week to serve lunch, offer support, and hear from students and staff as they prepare to commemorate the first anniversary of the tragedy they survived. This visit bookended a year of intense support and partnership between the AFT, the Broward Teachers Union, and Parkland teachers and families. From Weingarten’s visit in the days following the shootings, to support and guidance from members of the Newtown Federation of Teachers and NFT President Tom Kuroski on how they and their community responded following the 2012 shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary, to Share My Lesson’s work on supporting students in the aftermath of trauma, the AFT family has been showing up for Parkland these last 12 months, and that support and partnership will continue.

March for our LivesTogether with Everytown for Gun Safety and the National Education Association, the AFT has recently released a report called “Keeping Our Schools Safe: A Plan to Stop Mass Shootings and End Gun Violence in American Schools.” The report includes new data detailing gun violence in American schools, and provides clear guidance for lawmakers to support effective policies for preventing gun violence and ensuring safe and healthy learning environments. It provides a road map for how to tackle the problem from multiple angles, outlining strategies proven to help improve school safety. These strategies include providing schools the necessary staff and resources to address students’ mental health needs, empowering educators and law enforcement to intervene when students show signs they could be dangerous, and keeping guns out of the hands of people who shouldn’t have them in the first place.

The urgency of these proposals has only increased in the year since the Parkland shooting. Since then, gun violence has claimed the lives of 1,200 children in America. “That’s a Parkland every five days, enough victims to fill three ultra-wide Boeing 777s,” writes McClatchy reporter Kevin G. Hall. “The true number is certainly higher because no government agency keeps a real-time tally and funding for research is restricted by law.”  As Weingarten said upon releasing the “Keeping Our Schools Safe” report, “When the safety of our kids is at stake, we must consider every possible solution to gun violence in schools.”

You can read what AFT members and leaders have written about gun violence on AFT Voices . Learn more about the AFT’s work to end gun violence here. Educators and parents can find free educational resources on preventing gun violence on Share My Lesson, the AFT’s free lesson-sharing site.

[Leilah Mooney]