When Teachers Fear the Students They Must Protect

The dilemma educators are facing now that school shootings appear to be happening more frequently in the U.S.

Cori Sorensen, a fourth-grade teacher at a school where teachers and administrators are allowed to bring guns, receives firearms training. (Rick Bowmer / AP)

I had turned 18 years old two weeks prior to April 20, 1999. I was looking ahead to starting college, to setting out on my own, and to buying a prom dress—to living. While I vaguely understood that mass shootings took place, I was detached from them as a real possibility. Then the Columbine shooting occurred at a high school in Littleton, Colorado, taking away the lives of 13 innocent people. That day, the realization sunk in that death could come not despite being in school, but because of it.

Eight years and numerous mass shootings later, the Virginia Tech massacre again shook me out of complacency. On that April morning in 2007, 32 people were killed on campus in Blacksburg, Virginia, in what remains the deadliest shooting rampage by a single gunman in U.S. history. As the coverage unfolded and the cellphones of the dead infamously continued to buzz, I—a graduate student instructor in Philadelphia still new to the job—prepared to teach my own class of freshmen and sophomores, 18- and 19-year-olds who were confronting the same reality that I had faced at their age: that schools and universities, places of growth and possibility, had become fair game.

As I readied my lesson on masculine and feminine pronouns for that mid-level Spanish class, I wondered if I should start by teaching them muerte (death), as I imagined what they were thinking anyway—that death could, in theory, find us here, now. I thought about the fact that even if the students and I were killed in some freak disaster or horrific massacre, there would still be fewer bodies than had been recovered at Virginia Tech the day before. I worried that no matter what I would do to try to protect them, it most likely wouldn’t be enough, and that only a “lucky” few of them might live to remember watching their classmates and teacher die.

Despite being just 5 or 6 years older than my students, I felt responsible for them, protective, aware of the incredible weight carried by teachers. I also recognized the probability that, should an intruder walk into the classroom, these students would quickly and inevitably look over to me for what to do. And chances are, I wouldn’t have any answers.

That morning, I scanned the room as the students found their seats, looking for signs of distress, of rage, or even of some perverse satisfaction. As the typical profile of a mass shooter leans so strikingly toward young males, I paid particular attention to the men in my class and wondered whether a potential shooter could be among them. I felt an immense sadness at feeling this inclination.

Finally, after 20 minutes of stilted class time, I talked about the elephant in the room and opened the floor to discussion on what many, if not all, of my students were really thinking about: Could it happen here? While we comforted ourselves with the knowledge that chances remain statistically low, such incidents showed that a campus shooting is nevertheless a possibility. Behind the scenes, many among the faculty felt uneasy, suddenly conscripted into the gun debate and stationed at the front lines.

From that moment forward, and even more so as incidents make national news, many educators and administrators wonder if the hypothetical situations they prepare for could become real. The Chronicle of Higher Education, Inside Higher Ed, Education Week, and the NEA website, among other prominent outlets targeted at the education world, all regularly feature leading stories on school shootings. An educator must navigate this gray space of uncertainty, finding a way forward amid what more and more teachers admit is increasing fear. A teacher in the United States is now likely to enter a room and do quick mental calculations on exit points, barricades, and locking mechanisms while handing out assignments, dutifully practicing ever more realistic lockdowns, a safety measure that ultimately feels as though it’s placing shootings on par with fires, earthquakes, and natural disasters. At the elementary-school level, my daughter’s teachers devise quiet lockdown games and crouch-down-under-the-desk dances for their little first-graders, while a group of teachers in Iowa has even devised and marketed a locking mechanism that allows doors to be closed from the inside. The trees in Newtown, Connecticut, a short drive from us, still have ribbons for the children lost at Sandy Hook.

Just a few weeks ago, I watched in dismay as media reported multiple campus shootings in a single day—and they are becoming more frequent.

I feel helpless, as both an educator and a parent. The fabric and tenor of education has changed, because the people we are supposed to protect and teach are also those we must, in part, fear.

College campuses in particular have come to be viewed as potentially weaponized zones in which students and faculty tend to take one of two perspectives on guns: Either reject them on site because of concerns over misuse—a perspective sometimes vilified politically as weak or uncourageous—or advocate for allowing more weapons on campus, on the grounds that students and faculty should be able to protect themselves, which some research has shown increases the risk of accidents across the board. Kenneth Trump, a safety expert with National School Safety and Security Services, questions the idea proposed by some advocates and politicians, that those leading classrooms should not only accept the role of educator but also those of combatant and peacekeeper, suggesting that such a responsibility is “beyond the expertise, knowledge-base, experience, and professional capabilities of most school boards and administrators.” Nevertheless, legislation to arm teachers continues to be proposed in numerous states. Already an approach less favored by faculty, arming teachers could also send the message that educators should now see tactical training as part of the job description.

Many educators and students have taken a stance against weapons on school grounds by advocating against guns in the classroom or even leaving universities where campus carry laws have passed—as is the case with a University of Texas professor, Daniel Hamermesh. Some young educators are even having painful discussions on how teaching feels risky and whether to opt in or out. Still others have accepted the literal call to arms, as elementary teachers in various states across the nation become weapons trained despite lingering concerns about having guns in proximity to young children.

Calls for measures such as cameras in classrooms and security systems on campuses seek to provide a stopgap and feeling of safety, but none can overcome the reality that teaching will always require interfacing with students and frequently challenging them, pushing them to think critically, work hard, and disagree with their educators and each other. Educators can only put so much distance between themselves and students. Practical solutions are difficult, particularly at universities designed as bastions of open ideas and open space with many new faces and points of entry. Educators must assess the fine line between normal adolescent frustrations and what constitutes a ticking time bomb of rage. College students are legal adults and cannot be compelled into counseling, even if they may pose a danger. Some campuses do not yet have adequate safety personnel or emergency trained staff, or possess sufficient knowledge about what precipitates and how to cope with a possible attack. This has prompted 18 prominent educational research centers to jointly sign a call for serious inquiry into gun violence in educational settings, imploring “foundations, federal and state governments, and entities on all sides of gun violence debates to sponsor research projects that expand knowledge in the field about important topics” related to school shootings.

Whatever one’s stance on gun laws, nobody goes into education to see combat. Teachers are not soldiers. In the meantime, educators find themselves caught in a maddeningly repetitive cycle whereby media coverage gives the shooter the attention he sought, where farcical debates on gun rights and background checks lead to very few substantive changes, where the victims are all but forgotten if not openly doubted. Teachers see and participate in the requisite vigils and social media prayers, they clamor for more mental health resources, while some call into question a culture in which violence, rage, and masculinity intertwine. And then, when the cycle is through … silence. Until the next time.