By Drs. Adam Jordan and Todd Hawley
So far in 2018, bullets have flown on American school campuses 18 times. Our Southern Schooling columnists argue it’s time for teachers and parents to fight back.
DAHLONEGA, Ga./KENT, Ohio, 11:17 p.m. EST, St. Valentine’s Day, 2018
Eighteen. This number has significance tonight.
Students and teachers lost their lives today in the classrooms and hallways of a Southern public school, Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. While details will come later, their number will include the lives of innocent, vulnerable students and teachers.
We are just 45 days into 2018, and Parkland marked the 18th time bullets have flown on an American school's campus. The ratio tonight is precisely incident every 2.5 days.
As we write into a shared document from our respective homes in Georgia and Ohio, we know there are grieving families in Florida who just wish they could hug their babies’ necks one more time. Between us, we have lost children, fathers, mothers, brothers. We know that feeling. It’s godawful. But our losses were not easily preventable. For the families facing the unthinkable tonight, that’s not the case.
We believe in the power and possibility of a democratic, community-focused, free, appropriate, public, inclusive education system. We believe the educational system should promote equity and justice. We believe in schools filled with brilliant teachers, administrators, cafeteria workers, nurses, maintenance folks. We believe schools should be vessels for the values of community — love, peace, kindness, and citizenship.
We had two resolutions for 2018: 1) To rage against those who seek to use teachers as scapegoats, and 2) To tell the stories of teachers who fight for justice-oriented classrooms.
Now, we need a third: To call out the bullshit. All of it. We’ve had enough, and we expect y’all have, too.
We may now be education professors, but we have spent years as teachers in all sorts of settings — from urban to ultra-rural, from traditional to alternative, from general education to special education. We’ve taught students with mental health issues, with emotional behavior disorders, with felony records, with drug addictions, with histories of violence.
We have taught dozens of those students. And if you don’t know it already, every teacher has. It is what we do! This is, after all, public education. We take all comers. The job is hard and sometimes feels impossible, but it isn’t. And perhaps it starts with calling out two particular piles of BS.
First, teachers can’t teach students who have easy access to firearms. Teachers are superheroes, for sure, but they can’t stop speeding bullets, although Aaron Fies tried to inside Douglas High. Other teachers rushed to stop the bleeding of their wounded students. Undoubtedly, more stories will come.
Make no mistake: Teachers are the first responders on site in these horrendous situations. Some of us will speak to people in our communities who will quickly say it is too soon to start talking about gun control. But if we don’t talk about this every day until our students and teachers are no longer gunned down, then what good are we?
Gun violence has become part of every aspect of American life. Politicians are shot at baseball practice, cops are killed sitting in their cars, children holding toy guns are shot, people get shot in a movie theater. Students and teachers are killed in schools.
As educators, we can live up to our own resolutions only by demanding gun control legislation. We understand this will take time. We know the gun lobby has vast amounts of political control.
We also understand parents love their kids, people respect teachers, and communities care about the safety of all residents. Certainly, political action in the names of the hundreds of victims of school shootings can help move the hearts and minds of those with political power. If not, we can elect people who are tired of living in a country where kindergartners have to practice active-shooter drills and teachers have to explain to students that school isn’t always a safe space.
Now is the time to make that phone call to your representative and senator. Make sure they know you are calling to advocate for gun control legislation — so parents can feel good about sending their kids to school and teachers can feel safe every day. Keep calling, emailing, posting to their Facebook pages, visiting their offices, and voting until they either work to change the gun laws or are voted out of office.
Tell them you’ve had enough.
Second, schools can play a part in the solution.
Most school districts in the United States have alternative high school programs. Depending on the district, such programs may be considered vibrant components of a successful system or as a place to ship the “bad kids.”
In the first example, alternative programs are life-changing for students. We witnessed it firsthand. We spent years of our lives in such classrooms, and we know how powerful they can be. If you have never been there, you can’t imagine how humbling and powerful it is to see a ninth-grader, having been removed from the traditional setting, riddled with multiple issues, dragging a mountain of doubt and baggage, then walk triumphantly across the stage and receive a diploma just four years later. These students usually arrive with many needs, but we have seen teachers become transformative agents in these students’ lives.
A little love, a lot of laughs, some schoolbooking, and a few tears can help “troubled youth” become kids who are ready to be active members of their community.
Unfortunately, a different type of alternative program is also pervasive. In places where the goal is not to help students in need but simply to remove them, for the good of all the others, alternative programs receive less support and are understaffed, many of them relying on technology to fill the role of teacher.
Such schools are also the victims of the pervasive politics of the day. They become scapegoats in the meritocratic narrative of those who continue to use phrases like “failing schools” and “at risk.” These schools, and thus the children in them, become scapegoats for a loud group of folks who insist these students and their families just need to grab ahold of their bootstraps and yank like hell.
Make no mistake. Poor families pull as hard as they can, but they consistently face ridiculous obstacles of systemic racism and classism.
We have to support alternative education programs and accept them as part of a rich and robust ecology of public schools. Like demanding gun control legislation, arguing for funding to support students who are more often than not considered problems will take sustained commitment, advocacy, and action.
But if our goal is thriving public schools, then we must demand school systems support the needs of all students, especially those with physical, emotional, and mental health needs. This is part of the ecology of schools. This is why we need to encourage teachers, school nurses, custodians and maintenance workers, school psychologists, physical therapists, guidance counselors, and school leaders to recognize the potential in all students — and the role schools must play in improving the lives of individuals and communities.
This will take money and a change in perspective regarding the role of alternative schools. Just like the discussion of why we need gun control legislation, we believe people can be the catalyst for change. So, when you call your legislators to tell them to support gun control legislation, tell them you also support increased funding for alternative education. Tell them you’ve had enough.
When you hear politicians sending “thoughts and prayers” to families who lost loved ones, tell them you’ve had enough. Enough talk, it’s time for action.
When you read Congress is failing to act on comprehensive gun control legislation and the Second Amendment trumps protecting teachers and students, tell them you’ve had enough. Enough talk, it’s time for action.
When you hear the conversation return to the need to pass national conceal-and-carry reciprocity legislation, tell them you’ve had enough. Enough talk, it’s time for action.
When you hear people say schools should kick out the bad kids and never allow them back, instead of providing quality school experiences for all students, despite the level of services required, tell them you’ve had enough. Enough talk, it’s time for action.
If you are like us, and feeling a little nervous about sending your kids, spouses, or in-laws to school this week, we understand. Still, we must ask . Do we want to commit to stopping the bullshit? Do we want schools to be safe spaces? If so, we can take action.
If not, perhaps the 19th incident will move us. Statistically, we need not wait long.
We have to act. We owe it to everyone who has hurt by gun violence, both in and out of schools. We owe it to ourselves, our students, our teachers, and our communities to take action. We owe it to every student who has felt the fear that comes with the sound of gunshots.
Teachers, we love you. Parkland, we love you. Let’s work together to make the list end here.
An earlier version of this column was corrected to reflect that there have been 18 incidents of firearms being discharged on U.S. school campuses this year.