After publishing a piece I wrote about mass shootings, a local newspaper editor asked me, “In your role as an administrator, did you ever think it would be a good idea to arm teachers?”
I didn’t take a breath before responding, “Never! It wasn’t even a consideration when we instituted safety precautions after Columbine.”
My response was truthful but incomplete. Because her question triggered trauma for me, professionally and personally.
I clearly remember that day in 1999 when everything about my career as a school district administrator changed. Lock-out and lock-down drills became routine; police patrolled the hallways; cameras were mounted; bullet-proof shields were installed to protect school secretaries; all employees had to wear name tags and sign in; we were expected to suspect, not welcome, visitors; parental access to classrooms (even to drop off birthday cupcakes) was restricted; doors were locked; community use of schools was curtailed; fences were erected.
Essentially, the “public” was removed from public schools. “Hardening schools,” they’ve since termed it. Such a tragic oxymoron to describe where we socialize our children.
Every district in America followed the same playbook and then some. It hasn’t been enough. According to Education Week, there have been 27 school shootings so far this year, with 83 people killed or injured! According to a 2019 study, there’s little evidence that dollars poured into school security measures have decreased gun violence because they can’t keep pace with access to weapons. Texas had already “hardened” schools, spending more than $100 million on school safety measures. But since last September, Governor Abbott has signed 22 pieces of legislation to ease gun accessibility.
Time and money that should be spent enriching our kids’ lives are spent on self-defense. Over 300,000 American students have suffered school-violence-related trauma – not to mention parents’ deepening anxieties. Yet “thoughts and prayers” are all some elected officials are willing to offer; even a recent bipartisan bill fails to ban assault weapons, raise the age to buy a semiautomatic, or require background checks for private sales.
The conspiracy-theorist in me wonders if right-wing politicians don’t want to stop school shootings because if parents are afraid to send their kids to school, kids won’t be exposed to what is perceived as the real threat: critical thinking that questions our nation’s shameful history of race relations. Better yet, if home-schooled, their kids won’t encounter “those people.”
Should teachers have guns? the editor had asked. Besides the fact that combat requires a different skill-set than child-centered professionals typically hone, I’d witnessed first-hand that any employee can develop a mental health breakdown – a breakdown that can make them irrational and rageful. It only takes missed doses of medication, a divorce, a scary health diagnosis, an unfaithful spouse. A poor performance appraisal. An annoying colleague. A wise-ass student.
Years working in human resources convinced me that no school employee should have a gun. Period.
But I sensed this long before I became a school administrator; I learned it in high school when my father brought home a Beretta handgun “to protect us.” This made my family uneasy because, although never physically abusive, he could be verbally assaultive manifesting in bulging neck veins and hurled objects. We never knew what would trigger his rage; looking back, I realize it could be anything. Especially my feminist mom.
From research I’ve done since he died, I believe he suffered from bipolar disorder.
My dad was a teacher. A teacher with undiagnosed and untreated mental illness.
Although he apparently held it together with students (they adored him, I learned at his funeral), he often “lost it” with administration and at home. For the most part, the gun stayed out of sight, although once in a while he’d brandish it, not at us but at a noise that might suggest a trespasser. Like my friends showing up unexpectedly at our door. Sometimes he’d bring it out “as a joke,” which was never funny. We never knew for certain if it were loaded.
In 2017, when our county sheriff declared he would not enforce New York State’s Safe Act requiring periodic recertification of weapons, I wrote the sheriff this letter:
Circumstances can change over the course of a gun owner’s lifetime. Physical disabilities, mental illness, dementia, and failing vision, to name a few, can all impact judgment and physical dexterity…My father purchased a gun when he was in his fifties. He was always prone to fits of rage and, as a family, we worried about possible misuse of the weapon. Our anxiety deepened greatly thirty years later when he developed dementia and still wielded the gun. My mother was alone in the house with him for years under those circumstances, and we were fortunate that there was not an incident before he died. If he’d had to re-register his gun, he would not have had the wherewithal to do so, enabling law enforcement to confiscate his gun, saving my family years of sleepless nights.
The sheriff never acknowledged my correspondence, although I offered to accompany him to speaking engagements as a replacement for the NRA representative he typically took.
I inherited my father’s gun. And, ironically, turned it over to the sheriff’s department. On any given day, there are likely a few people relieved I did so.
Copyright 2022 Patricia A. Nugent
Patricia A. Nugent writes to give voice to those who might otherwise be silenced. She’s the author of They Live On: Saying Goodbye to Mom and Dad, and editor of the anthology Before They Were Our Mothers: Voices of Women Born Before Rosie Started Riveting. Her latest book is Healing with Dolly Lama: Finding God in Dog about an unwanted puppy that became a muse for her personal transformation.