A Teacher's Reckoning on School Shootings
Guest blog from Bill Ivey on gun violence and being a teacher:
I'm not really a New Year's resolution person any more, but on December 31, 2012, I made an exception. Like many teachers and other human beings, the Sandy Hook shooting had shaken me to the core, and I vowed to do what I could to break the usual post-mass shooting pattern of sound and fury that ultimately signify nothing.
As a lifelong pacifist, I knew we were in for a marathon, not a sprint, and that any approach that oversimplified the problem was doomed to failure. On social media, in my classroom, in conversations, I worked to shine a spotlight both on the problem and on solutions.
For the three-year Sandy Hook anniversary, I wanted to take stock of how we were doing, and decided to host a series of discussions on my Facebook page with friends (many of them in education) and family from across the political spectrum. Our goal being reducing gun violence and gun deaths, we looked not only at mass shootings but also at homicides and suicides.
We examined root causes and contributing factors, and found ourselves talking about racism, patriarchy, mental health, media, and access to guns. We talked about ways to do anti-racist and gender activist work, to reduce our cultural stigma against and improve our treatment of mental illness, to influence the media to shift its focus both in entertainment (games, movies, etc.) and in coverage of tragedies, to support proven models for police reform (saving lives of both citizens and officers), and to shape legislation. We talked about the importance of genuinely effective gun safety courses.
I was touched by people's willingness to dive in deeply and not shy away from the sheer overwhelming complexity of the problem, and by their commitment to take actions, each in their own way.
This last December, I hosted another round of discussions, and overall consensus was that we were making progress, if far, far too slowly.
Then 2018 hit. The Parkland shooting was both devastating and, thanks to the powerful, thoughtful, and articulate kids of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School as well as Naomi Wadler, who spoke at their March for our Lives rally, a tipping point for turning grief and outrage into hope and action.
At my school, Windsor '19 wrote what would become by far our most read blog post ever, asking "What can we do?" With my support and that of other adults, she and other students organized a fundraiser, a discussion on gun violence, a protest involving the plastering of the walls of our school with the names of victims of school shootings through the years, attendance at a nearby March for our Lives, and our own Walkout and rally on the town common including a stunning address by a student of colour who had attended Marjory Stoneman Douglas as a ninth grader.
The topic also came up in my advisory group, and we had a good discussion of the hopes and fears of each kid and the ins and outs of each of their ideas for what could come next.
With that momentum created, learning about the Jonesboro, Georgia shooting late in the evening the same day as the Santa Fe shooting just broke me. I knew I'd wake up the next morning ready to take a long, deep breath and get back to work, but for the moment I had nothing left.
The next morning, I thought about what I had done during the 82 days since the Parkland shooting. Was it helping? Was it enough? The answer was, as always complicated - on the one hand, no, it didn't feel like remotely enough. But on the other hand, it was certainly better than nothing. I resolved to take stock 82 days hence and see how I was doing. That day is here.
Since most of these 82 days took place over summer vacation, and since I'm firmly convinced our job is to support students in their activism, not take over and lead, my reckoning will be more personal.
It's been a summer spent advocating to my members of Congress as well as my state Senator and Representative for legislation such as red-flag laws designed to address the intersection of domestic violence and access to guns in a way proven to save lives. I've supported my state's Attorney General in her own efforts to improve Massachusetts firearms laws, already a model for the nation as we have one of the lowest rates of gun deaths of all states. In both cases, I've ended up having countless discussions on social media, giving me plenty of practice at drawing the line between making a point and being sucked into an endlessly circular conversation.
I've (once again) followed the lead of the Parkland kids, and worked to support voter registration.
I've shared back out countless posts to build awareness of the state of gun violence in this country and to look at positive actions and possible solutions.
As a Sandy Hook Promise Leader, I reflected on how their research-based programs to strengthen school communities and thus prevent gun violence and save lives might complement work already being done in my school, to further strengthen our sense of community and to learn to recognize signs of a potential suicide or mass shooting.
I signed up to support the "50 Miles More" March and Rally being organized by students for August 22-26.
And, as always, I periodically shared hotlines and looked for daily opportunities to do anti-racist work and engage in gender activism.
Our Head of School had decided that we would be recording unexcused absences for students who chose to Walk Out, not as a punishment but more to support a lesson of the importance of civil disobedience. As with any unexcused absence (normally extremely rare), this meant I, as Middle School Dean, would hold a conversation with each of the seventh and eighth graders about the reason for their absence, the results of their action, and what they had learned from the experience and how they would use that learning in the future.
Every single one of them valued both the sense of community they found at the rally and the feeling that they could actually take action to try and save lives, and not one of them regretted their decision, even those who were disturbed by the few citizens who disagreed with their actions and stopped to confront them. All but one plan to attend any future rallies and walk-outs that might take place.
As I look back at the last 82 days of my life, I do feel that same sense of community, necessity for action, and hope expressed by my students. And I do feel that I have found my way clear to meet my goal of stepping up my commitment to do what I can to try and save lives through my activism.
As I look to the upcoming school year, I know my students will be feeling both the cloud of gun violence and the desire to feel safe. I am ready to listen to them, talk with them, and work with them to respond to whatever needs and hopes they might have. And they will continue to inspire and drive my everyday activism outside the classroom.
Bill Ivey is Middle School Dean at Stoneleigh-Burnham School., a day and boarding girls school in western Massachusetts. He teaches Humanities 7 and the Middle and Upper School Rock Bands, and manages the school's blog and Twitter and Facebook accounts.