More than 700 people have been shot dead in the US since the Texas school shooting on 24 May. Here, American school teacher Kylie Lynch, 23, shares what she and her colleagues have been discussing in the weeks since the tragedy.
When I heard about the Uvalde shooting at Robb Elementary School on 24 May, I was alone in my apartment in New York City. I watched the news with tears in my eyes and my fists clenched tightly. As a teacher, I also wondered exactly how I was going to talk to my students about the 21 lives that had been taken too soon. President Biden declared that, “This time, we must actually do something,” but I thought of all the presidents before him I’d heard relay that message after mass shootings, and how little progress has actually been made. His words feel like a formality, rather than a promise.
Guns in schools have been part of my world for as long as I can remember. Growing up as a student in Virginia, active shooter drills (also known as “hide and lock” drills) were a standard part of each academic year. During these drills, we would silently sit in the corner of a dark classroom. The teacher would barricade the door with desks, chairs and bookcases. School administrators and police officers would come by and mimic what a potential shooter may do – shake the door handle, pound on the door, try to break into the classroom.
At first, these felt oddly exhilarating. There was a spirit of camaraderie fostered through communal terror and hushed explanations of hypothetical situations that were difficult to comprehend at a young age. Yet the novelty quickly wore off as those exhilarating seconds soon flickered into long, tense minutes sitting on a linoleum floor, praying that the drill was really just a drill.
Now, five years since I graduated from high school and a year into my job at a school in New York City, I’ve become the teacher who barricades the doors, yet I still have nightmares in which I’m the student, sweating and shaking in darkness, wondering if the shooter is real. When I raise this fear with family and friends, it’s never dismissed as an irrational worry because, in America, mass shootings are to be feared. They fear for me.
In 2022 so far, there have been 27 school shootings and over 18,000 deaths and 15,000 injuries related to gun violence. More than 700 people have been shot dead in the US since the Texas school shooting alone.
Because of this, active-shooter drills have been a standard part of workplace training in schools since the Columbine High School massacre in 1999 – a fact teachers feel mixed about. “The preparations we go through as teachers have become part of the yearly barrage of meetings – technology updates, benefits enrolment, school shooting procedures,” says Chris, 50, an elementary school teacher in Virginia. “Each time I sit through one of the latter meetings, I find myself getting angry that my country seems to be OK with the current state of affairs.”
Even with this training, I live with a constant, fearful worry of it happening at my own school. I do everything I can to prepare: I memorise code words and escape routes. I check the locks on classroom doors, seeing how fast I can lock them, ensuring that my keys work. Since the Texas shooting, I’ve been afraid to go to the bathroom alone for fear that if the school would go into lockdown I’d be stuck, alone in a bathroom that doesn’t lock. I worry that I wouldn’t react the right way if a shooting were to happen.
My colleagues share similar concerns. “My biggest fear is that I would not know what to do, regardless of the training and protocols in place,” says Lola, 26, a middle and high school teacher in New York City. “There are so many considerations to take into account that are not factored into training. What if the shooter is already in the classroom? What if one of my students is shot? What if my students are screaming? I’m not a medic. I’m not law enforcement. I’m not a bodyguard. I’m a teacher.”
There is also a certain desensitisation among young Americans that is horrifically sad. The day after the Robb Elementary School shooting, I asked my students how I could best support them. I received responses like, “Well, it happens,” and, “I was just waiting for the next one,” and, “We train for this, so I’m not worried.”
When I asked Tallula, 27, a teacher in Manhattan, how shootings were spoken about at her school, her response was upsetting but not surprising to me. “My students make offhand comments about them without understanding the significance and the sadness of what they’re saying,” she explained. “They’ll say things like, ‘I hope we have a lockdown drill to get out of math class’ or ‘If I get too much homework tonight, I’m going to threaten to shoot up the school.’ The casualness with which they speak is alarming, but common.”
Presently, there is also an ongoing discussion in the United States about whether teachers should be armed in the classroom (they already are in some schools across as many as 14 states). But I don’t want to be armed. I don’t want to even think about being armed. I spend my days at work surrounded by such life, such joy, such innocence that I could never bring a firearm into that environment, even if it was a placebo safety measure.
For many teachers, myself included, shootings are not enough to push us away from the profession. “Oddly, they don’t deter me from wanting to be a teacher,” says Ann, 24, a teacher in Virginia. “It makes me want to be there more for my students, to comfort them, to instruct them, and to show them as much love as I can in the hour and a half that I see them each day.”
Although I’d prefer to spend more of my time talking with my students about legislation and change rather than lockdown drills and grief, such discussions are not plausible. There is potential for such progress to be made, yet so much stagnancy and stubbornness for America to unlearn. Progress and unlearning could come in many forms: increased access to affordable mental health care, stricter purchasing laws, increased age requirements, outlawing assault rifles, requiring intensive background screenings, gun buyback programmes and longer waiting periods when purchasing guns.
As teachers in the United States right now, we can only demand more measures to help us. More safety precautions, more background checks, more legislation, more security, more action, more funding, more accountability, more lives saved, more “actually doing something”.