I reached out to fellow educators around the country to better understand how they think about their role as teachers in an era of school shootings. In these conversations, what I came to understand is that being a teacher today means working in a climate of intense fear—both their own and that of their students. Like me, many of my colleagues have experienced a violent act in their schools or know of an educator who has. To say the least, it’s not what they thought they were signing up for. “When going through college to become a teacher, even after the Heath High School shooting in Paducah, it never crossed my mind that I would need or ever receive active-shooter training,” said a Kentucky teacher, Staci Clark Hughes. “I never thought I would have to worry about turning a broom handle into a weapon of defense or how to lock my classroom door within seconds. I never thought I would need to know what a discharged weapon sounded like in a school hallway.… We did not go to college for this.”
Schools are trying to bring teachers up to speed with active-shooter trainings and drills—protocols that can simultaneously assuage and exacerbate fears. Many teachers told me that the school-violence training they had received was disorganized and insufficient. Some shared that they had been encouraged to stock their rooms with canned goods to throw at potential attackers should they enter the classroom, or to search their rooms for potential barricades to block the door should an active shooter enter the building. One teacher, Ryan Kaiser, the 2016 Maryland Teacher of the Year, told me he considered bringing in a bucket of rocks, just in case, but still felt helpless because his doors didn’t automatically lock. And because his door opened outward, he would be unable to barricade the door.
Even so, the teachers I spoke with generally felt that active-shooter training had improved since Columbine, a time period during which 32 states have passed laws requiring schools to conduct lockdown drills. By 2015 nearly 95 percent of schools were conducting drills, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Many teachers discussed the plans they’ve made on their own and with students, independent of school instruction. Some teachers spend time searching their classrooms for potential protective weapons, places to hide, and escape routes. An art teacher told me she had a pile of box cutters in her storage closet that she told her students was there just in case. Many teachers regularly check and double-check the locks on their classroom doors and storage closets, to ensure they can hide in these rooms if needed. A couple of teachers noted considering their placement in the building—whether they were close to the front door, near a potential escape exit, or close to communal areas. Tiffany Hursh Gruen, a Kentucky teacher, told me that the silence in her school building when class is in session is striking to her now, post-Columbine—doors are locked and learning takes place in closed spaces. “There was a time in my career when we encouraged teachers to keep their doors open, let the learning spill out, fill the halls with the sounds of excited exploration,” she said. “Now, it’s silence.”