After a deadly school year, area teachers reflect on shootings, safety, and challenges ahead
The return to in-person learning this school year means a return of the threat of violence to schools in America.
As information about police response and access to deadly weapons continues to surface since the mass shooting at Robb Elementary in Uvalde, Texas in May, public school teachers in NEPA have returned to old conversations about gun laws and school safety, the impact of such tragedies on their profession, and what it all means for their students in the long run.
At the federal level, legislation designed to incentivize state red-flag laws was passed and signed into law in late June, with the goal of preventing legal firearms sales to those deemed a threat to themselves or others. Additional steps toward hiring more faculty and support staff may also be in store for schools in Northeastern Pennsylvania.
The Safer Communities Act, a bipartisan effort signed by President Biden, will send funding to schools and communities, allocating over $2 billion in grants and direct aid toward safety measures while also prohibiting any of the money from being spent arming or training school employees with firearms.
Specifically, the Act issues $500 million toward school-based mental health service grants; $500 million in training of mental health staff in schools, including counselors, social workers, and school psychologists; $1 billion in Title IV support to foster better school climates; $50 million in extracurricular programming; and $300 million in school safety measures and training.
This sort of support has been a long time coming.
Amye Archer, a local author and educator who has spent years researching and writing on the subject of school shootings, says that while she’s tired of the regular tragedy of childhood victims, faculty death toll has been just as exhausting.
“Honestly, I wish there were no more stories like this," she says, “but this is important work, and I have found in my research that teachers are underrepresented” voices in the fight against gun violence in schools.
According to data compiled by the Washington Post, the number of students directly impacted by shootings since 1999’s Columbine High School massacre has climbed to over 311,000 across 331 schools, but the number of teachers with unseen wounds remains uncounted.
Meanwhile, a poll of the National Education Association (NEA) reveals that 90% of educators consider stress a serious issue in their work, and trauma-related stress in the wake of a pandemic and years of shootings has had lasting impacts in and out of the classroom, from how teachers conduct their day, to year- and career-long plans.
Christina Reynolds is a Pre-K teacher at St. Nicholas-St. Mary School in Wilkes-Barre. Teaching and working daily with that age group has been her life’s work, and with smaller class sizes, she enjoys the individual attention she can give to young minds. She has two Pre-K and two Kindergarten classrooms on her floor.
“Supervision is paramount. Colleagues talk about it out of an abundance of caution," Reynolds says. "Every teacher takes stock and makes a plan based on their space. We think about how to keep students quiet and out of sight.”
Wrangling the dozens of 3-year-olds is a difficult task that Reynolds says requires good colleagues and routine: “Thank God we have a team and procedures. We check and double-check.”
All that checking takes time.
The school in which Reynolds teaches is an older building. Built before a time when school shootings were the norm, the school was designed to be easy to enter and learn in, and has since been retrofitted with more secure locks and buzzers. Still, Reynolds wonders if that is enough, and knows many of her concerns are shared by her colleagues.
“We’re happy to do [the work], but there is so much to juggle," Reynolds says, “I get sad sometimes that this takes up space in my mind. Like, I have no more bandwidth for it, and I don’t want it [to] be a burden on my students, or my own children.”
Jessica Schafer is a music teacher who just ended her first year teaching 7th and 8th graders at Hazleton Area. In her seven years as an educator, she says she’s become frustrated with the growing root of the problem of school safety, and has noticed that blame gets passed around on social media rather than any agreement on addressing the causes.
“There is no need for anyone to own an assault rifle, and there are mental health problems that need to be addressed in ways they are not being addressed,” she says, adding that in the wake of national stories like Uvalde, that blame manifests itself in toxic ways, including silence.
“It’s kinda sad that we as faculty aren’t really discussing it (school shootings) anymore,” she notes.
Despite this, Schafer is finding some hope in the form of preparedness and prevention. In addition to metal detectors in school buildings, Schafer has seen enough in the last year to know that her district and the administration “takes every threat seriously."
Schafer shares that a student was expelled for threatening a teacher by name in a social media post. In a separate incident, a knife-fight took place between students outside the high school, and as often follows in the aftermath, kids and parents were afraid.
“There were a lot of absentees that day,” Schafer says. “I even confiscated a revenge list from a student of mine," she says. “It had teachers and student names on it.”
Being prepared for these incidents has been as much a part of Schafer’s training as managing a classroom. In her previous position at another school, Schafer recalls how active shooter drills were part of faculty and student life, complete with blank rounds being fired.
“They came over the loudspeaker and said ‘The shooter is in this wing,’" she says. "Kids from the drama club would pretend to be the shooter. We threw stress balls at them to practice [defending ourselves].”
In addition to drills, Schafer says that programs now exist to prevent bullying and address long term social issues and isolation, focusing instead on collegiality and confidence.
John Sharkus has been teaching English at Wyoming Valley West High School, and in his 15 years in secondary education, he has also seen his share of scares, including anonymous threats called into the school. Any time another shooting is in the national spotlight, he knows the potential for incidents goes up.
“You find out these things happen more often than we’d like to admit, and it becomes a very real concern,” Sharkus says. “Do I feel safe at school? Yeah, I guess maybe, but perhaps that’s having faith in my students. Maybe not wanting to admit [that it can happen]. Respect among the students is up, actually … they are very tolerant of each other and other backgrounds.”
But Sharkus also admits to real concerns: “The logistics [of safety] become hard. We do have metal detectors, but we do not use them every day because they are faculty- and administration-run” – which means pulling faculty from other duties or opportunities for learning.
Sharkus notes that most discussions with his colleagues come back to greater issues, that the gun debate “is the manifestation of more problems than we know to deal with.”
Still, he is confident in where some of the solutions lie, and one of them is staffing.
Sharkus lists the ways he and his colleagues and students are spread too thin: “The research is out there. Schools need resources – they need money and personnel. Support staff, more administration staff, more guidance counselors … these [shootings] don’t just happen, and we need to do more to address people at other points before they get to the end of their rope … the answer is not to put guns in the school … you’re only going to increase the likelihood of shots being fired, in my opinion”.
Each of the other teachers agree on these points: none of them want to have to handle a firearm, and all of them point to the long-term effects that all this stress has on the profession of teaching, regardless of grade level.
“Burnout is real!” Christina Reynolds says. “Coming off of the pandemic, the idea of safety makes us more raw.”
Jessica Schafer agrees, saying that the pile-on takes its toll.
“We’re trying not only to juggle our jobs; the myriad things that are involved in
education, but also in the back of our minds always trying to keep our students safe … taking students outside at the end of the year and being overwhelmed with the thought of where to go or what to do if something bad happens.”
John Sharkus adds that the national teacher shortage has its impacts on the safety of the classroom, as well: “We already have a full day before running metal detectors and doing the bus checks and getting into the hallways after school. We already have a full plate. And I notice a lot more colleagues taking sick time than ever before, and there’s nobody to cover those classes now. They just don’t have the people.”
So what else can be done?
Amye Archer has been thinking about the burnout in teachers and parents alike, and calls the feeling of helplessness “outrage paralysis” – the idea that one is so frustrated in the aftermath of the same national tragedy that they risk giving up hope on productive action against violence.
Instead of giving into outrage paralysis, Archer offers bite-sized actions about what concerned teachers and community members can do about gun violence in schools:
- Forget Social Media – Call or write your representative’s office instead
- Research what to say to get your message across
- Attend a peaceful march, rally, or protest
- Share a story of the violence and your reaction with someone you know, whether they vote your way or not
- Temper the rhetoric – leave politics at the door and reach out to someone to normalize the conversation