There’s a rule that many teachers live by, and there are times when it’s frustratingly insufficient: “If you see something, say something.” We see something odd in the classroom or around school, we hear something troubling, we read something serious, we follow directives and protocols. We report it.
Sometimes it’s taken seriously and acted upon. Often, school administrators tell us that if nothing violent or serious has occurred, they will make note of it, but nothing can be done until the student breaks a rule or school board policy. A disconcerting but cryptic comment, a terrifying but enigmatic drawing. Our warnings may end up in a file somewhere until the threat becomes reality.
I was left thinking about how teachers try to look out for their students, and can still be powerless to stop tragedy, when I read in a Facebook group about a student opening fire last week at Oxford High School in Michigan, killing four people and injuring several others. My Facebook group was for teachers, like me, who survived the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida nearly four years ago. I was on campus on that day, when a former student opened fire, killing 17, injuring 17 others and traumatizing an entire community.
Reading the accounts of what happened at Oxford High School, I noticed examples of teachers trying to do the right thing, raising concerns to the officials who were supposed to act. But at the same time, teachers are left with the horrifying reality that they can do only so much as a line of defense to protect their students. Once again, a child gained access to a lethal weapon. Once again, he was able to bring it to campus.
After 20 years of teaching, I’m unclear about how teachers are supposed to continue teaching when so much more is being asked of us, often without training or the proper resources. We are expected to be mental health counselors, social workers, psychologists, security guards and so much more for our students. Just look more closely at what happened at Oxford High School.
Hours before the violence there, according to the Oakland County prosecutor, a teacher found a drawing by the 15-year-old sophomore who, officials said, would become the shooter. It showed a person being shot and the words “Blood everywhere.” This led to a meeting with school officials. (The day before the shooting, a teacher reported seeing the sophomore looking at images of ammunition during class; when his mother found out, she texted him saying he needed to “learn not to get caught.”)
School officials told the parents on the morning of the shooting that they needed to seek counseling for their son, according to the prosecutor; the parents didn’t want to have their son removed from school, nor did the parents ask him if he had a gun or search his backpack. Teachers then had to take this student back into their classrooms. The school’s counselors did not believe, at that point, that the student would harm others, according to the district superintendent.
But it seems clear to me that school officials at Oxford High School didn’t take this threat seriously enough. If they had, the student would have been removed from the campus. It’s hard to believe that after what happened at my school, others haven’t learned or taken actions to keep their campuses safer from gun violence. How do warning signs still fall through the cracks? How do these pleas for help go unanswered? How can school officials put the onus on the parents? And how can parents not take responsibility for what led to their son’s actions?
There is only so much that teachers can do in acting as a line of defense for their students.
After the 2018 shooting in our community, I saw my students’ lives change in an instant. I mourned the loss of their innocence, grieved with them over the friends and teachers they lost and worked to support them when we returned to school. I found myself in the position of mental health counselor for my students all while trying to hold it together myself. I sought therapy and was later diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. The trauma is, at times, debilitating, but it’s something I’m learning to live with.
After the attack at my school, teachers and other staff members were offered a number of therapy sessions free of charge, but it wasn’t nearly enough. It’s absurd that the district didn’t do more for us, given what we experienced.
After the news broke about Oxford High School, I thought about my dear friend Abbey Clements from Sandy Hook Elementary and her experience. I think about the 17 families from my school. I think about the people I know from the Pulse nightclub and from Columbine High School and the yearbook adviser I connected with after the shooting at Saugus High School and the countless others who have experienced loss as a result of gun violence.
As an educator, it’s my job to protect my students and keep them safe. But at what cost? Immediately after the shooting at my school, the White House proposed arming teachers with handguns. I spoke publicly about why arming teachers was (and I believe still is) a terrible idea. If I had a gun that day and the assailant entered my classroom, I wouldn’t have had time to retrieve it. A handgun is no match for an AR-15.
I am not a gun owner. I don’t begrudge people for owning guns, as long as they secure them safely and store the ammunition separately. It is the responsibility of the gun owner to secure the weapon and keep it away from children.
The bottom line is, we are educating students who know life only in the world of school shootings. Lawmakers need to pass legislation to protect students, teachers and others from gun violence. The right to own and carry a gun shouldn’t outweigh the right to live peacefully and attend school safely.
Sarah Lerner (@mrs_lerner) is a teacher at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., and the editor of “Parkland Speaks,” a book of eyewitness accounts and other recollections by survivors of the 2018 Parkland shooting.