20 Years After Columbine, I Still Have to Worry About My Students’ Safety

Before I left school on Tuesday, I looked at my classroom. Not to check and make sure the floor was clean, or to look for coats left behind, water bottles on the floor, or rows askew. Rather it was to glance at the line of sight from my door.

I spent my last minutes in my room debating whether I needed to rearrange my desks in case an active shooter came up the stairs and through my door. After three hours of lockout, my mind was not reflecting on how teaching went during the day or preparing for Wednesday, it was wondering whether my students and my own children were home safe, if they would be safe tomorrow at school.

Now I think about the law enforcement professionals who worked across the nation for two days to find a person who was a safety threat to many and who finally found her dead in the mountains of Colorado. She was in hiding after after she stepped off a plane, legally purchased a gun with ease, and started threatening schools across my home state of Colorado yesterday—this is just days prior to the 20th anniversary of the Columbine tragedy which is still carried in the hearts and minds of so many. I’m sure proponents of gun rights will want to say that regulations have been followed and this is a constitutional right. Really? What about my right, and the rights of my students to feel safe in a place where we learn?

Today I think about my students who are indifferent to the school day being cancelled on Wednesday because they have grown up in a society where this is commonplace. I think about my own child who woke me up at 4:30 in the morning Wednesday to let me know he was going into work for extra hours because school is closed again for something “stupid.” After that conversation, this mother can’t go back to sleep from worry and from wondering, “When did violence in schools become common?”

Today, I think about my students who—though back at schoolmay not understand the complex issues that forced the closure of their schools yesterday. I think about the hard questions they may be asking, and the answers that are even harder to give as a parent. How do we explain the need for safety without placing fear in them when they go back to school? When we are at a loss for words as parents or teachers, and are not sure how to deal with difficult subjects like this one, we need help too. Here are some resources to support all of us in having conversations with children about events around us.

Today I think about my colleagues. I think about those who quietly deal with safety, mental health issues, trauma, and challenges every day in their classroom in their own way. I think about every person who will walk into a school today who will struggle in some way returning to a job they love in an environment that has felt unsafe. This is not uncommon, in fact it is so common, that education professionals are working together to change our future for the better through the National Coalition for Safe Schools. Let’s be frank, we shouldn’t’ have to have a coalition like this in the first place!

The suspect has been found, but the story and impact on all of us does not end here. There are and will continue to be so many unanswered questions. Why? because today I think about tomorrow. I will never be prepared to think about threats made today that could eliminate a tomorrow for any of us. Unfortunately, this is the reality of being a teacher and parent in our society right now.

Today as a community, we need to once again remind both ourselves and others to collectively take steps to ensure violence can not, does not, and will not happen in our schools, now or in the future.

Michelle Pearson is the 2011 Colorado State Teacher of the Year and a member of the National Network of State Teachers of the Year. She is a middle school social studies teacher in the Adams 12 Five Star School District in Thornton, Colorado, where she has been teaching for 25 years.  This post first appeared at Education Post.

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