It was Tuesday, April 20, 1999, when I was wrapping up my field experience at Four Peaks Elementary School in Fountain Hills, Arizona. I had just met with my mentor teacher, Mrs. G. and was excited about this moment because it meant I was nearer to finishing my Post-Bac degree in Elementary Education, and I was closer to becoming a full-fledged teacher. Yay!
As I was leaving school that day, news of the Columbine school shooting was spreading quickly among teachers and staff. I remember hearing that students were the shooters, that at least 13 people had died, and that the school was in a suburb of Denver, Colorado. If this information wasn’t horrific enough, the fact that we had friends who lived in Littleton, just a few miles from Columbine, with high school age kids, was even worse. All I could think of is that I had to get home to call them.
From my journal: April 21, 1999, Fountain Hills, Arizona
“Called many times…finally talked to Lisa this morning. Thank goodness S & T are OK…my heart goes out to all the people who are going to have to heal from this…”
Shock, sadness, and disbelief seeped into every conversation I had with family, friends, classmates, teachers, neighbors, and people I saw in and around town. There seemed to be a collective feeling of sorrow hanging over all of us. It seemed that we all had the same questions, but not all answers given were definitive.
Who were the gunmen? How did they amass so many guns and bombs? How could no one else have known? Why did they do it?
We were inundated with details of this massacre on the nightly news and in daily papers for months on end. We learned that two 18-year old males in their senior year at Columbine High were the killers. Because they were underage, a friend and an acquaintance bought them firearms at gun shows. We found out that they learned to make bombs from information on the internet. According to journals and tapes, they apparently had been planning the attack for over a year, yet their parents and others said they didn’t know. And the possible motives for the assault were bullying, the use of antidepressants, mental health issues, violence seen on the internet, in movies and in video games and the ability to buy guns and build weapons.
Given the plausible reasons, now the question was: who should be held accountable? Just the gunmen? Their parents? Those who purchased guns for them? Internet businesses who sold items for their weapons and offered instructions to make them? Those who didn’t stop the bullying? Pharmaceutical companies? Movie studios, video game creators?
Following this mass shooting, schools throughout the US, stepped up their security measures. The schools in the district I worked in had fences installed around their perimeters. There became only one point of entry for visitors who now had to show IDs. More security cameras were put in place. Teachers and staff held regular active shooter drills and met with healthcare professionals to help identify kids who might be at risk for violent behavior.
It was Friday, December 14th, 2012 when I was teaching 2nd grade in our neighborhood school. During our morning recess, we were informed of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. The questions we all asked before, we asked again. But the one that hit hardest was, why is this continuing to happen? I remember walking back to my class with tears in my eyes.
From my journal: December 17, 2012 Newbury Park, California
“Had a staff meeting this morning… 20 children and 6 adults were killed at school. Why are so many kids having behavioral and mental issues? Is it our violent society? Access to guns? It has to stop. We have to figure out a way to change things.”
With the Robb Elementary school shooting in Uvalde, Texas this past week, I am more saddened and outraged than before. What can we do to stop these senseless killings?
Each time a massacre occurs a discussion of hardening and softening schools takes place. Hardening refers to lock-down policies, surveillance cameras, metal detectors, hall monitors, resource officers on campus, and active shooter drills. Softening includes teaching conflict resolution skills, stress management techniques, and ways to cope with bullying, so all kids feel respected, safe, and connected in school. Do we need more measures like these? Are they effective?
Next comes the talk of police response time and tactics. Were there enough officers on the scene fast enough? Did they handle the situation as trained? What else could have been done?
Then the debates over gun laws begin. Should the age to own a gun be raised? Will universal background checks help? Should the sale of large capacity magazines, ammunition feeding devices and semiautomatic weapons be banned?
As parents, teachers, and community members we can help end gun violence at schools. We can get behind gun reforms and vote for reasonable gun control laws. We can push for more counseling and mental health resources at schools. We can get involved in youth mentoring programs to help at risk kids, just to name a few. Schools need to be and deserve to be, a safe haven where all kids can learn, grow and flourish. And schools need to provide a secure working environment for all teachers and staff.
Tragedy hasn’t entered through the doors of any schools I taught in, but still I feel the weight of a heavy heart when one occurs. I remember my own students, their families, our community.
For twenty-three long years now, I have been praying for a time when all of us can stop witnessing these massacres and their aftermaths, and can stop thinking, feeling, and saying, “There, but for the grace of God, go I.”