By Abbey Clements, Sarah Lerner, Sari Beth Rosenberg
In the wake of the Oxford High School shooting in Michigan on November 30, 2021, we checked in on one another in a group text. Like so many educators and school staff across the country, we were shocked, disgusted, distraught, angry, and heartbroken that this had happened yet again: another school shooting bringing death, injury, terror, and abject fear. As teachers, we—and our students—are on the frontlines of America’s gun violence epidemic. But rarely, if ever, does the public hear from those of us enduring these horrific school shootings, caring for kids impacted by shootings in their communities, and fearing that our loved ones or our students will be next.
The news cycle moves fast. Reporters sweep in and out, rarely capturing the authentic scope of trauma and grief, especially the long-term effects of loss and fear. And rarely captured is the everyday gun violence—the domestic violence, suicide by gun, unintentional shootings, and more—that also impacts school communities. At the end of our text thread that horrific day in November 2021, we decided to take action by launching a national organization for and by educators and school staff.
Two of us are school shooting survivors: Abbey, from the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2012, and Sarah, from the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in 2018. Sari is a New York City high school history teacher who, like millions of educators across the country, endures countless challenging drills and conversations with her students about the fears and logistics of an active shooter on campus.
Abbey was teaching her second-graders on the day of the tragedy in 2012. Her surviving students are high school seniors now. They are watching. They are watching a country allow what happened to them and their friends and neighbors happen over and over again. Some of Abbey’s former students have become activists, like her, and some are still trying to process what happened in their childhood town. Teachers Unify to End Gun Violence is dedicated to listening to the voices of young people who have been left with this public health crisis at their feet. Partnering with them, following their lead, building a coalition of generations—this will force the change we need.
Sarah lives with the constant reminder of February 14, 2018. The 1200 building where students and staff were shot still stands. The fire alarm and lockdown drills still trigger her. It’s been a difficult road to navigate through trauma and PTSD. Some days Sarah is OK, and some days she’s not. She knows she has to stay strong for her husband, children, family, and students. She knows that some of her coworkers lean on her for strength. This is what happens when tragedy occurs; a person either finds strength they didn’t know they had or becomes stronger than they already were. This is how Sarah keeps going. She is strong and outspoken, which is why the founding of Teachers Unify to End Gun Violence means so much to her. She is able to use her voice, experience, and strength to help, encourage, and support others—just as those who came before her, like Abbey, did for her.
When Sari’s class went through their first active shooter drill of the school year last fall, she was horrified by the conversation that it generated. Students were discussing an escape route if there were actually an active shooter in the school and determined they would just jump out the window even though they were two stories above ground. Only later did the whole class realize how disturbing it was that they even had to think about how to survive a mass shooting. There’s an important lesson here: even when schools do not become the center of a mass shooting, the specter of the possibility is forever lingering, especially when participating in the drills.
We are union members who work closely with leaders to ensure the public and our elected officials know about these pervasive concerns about safety, fear, and anxiety among children, educators, and school staff. The mission of Teachers Unify to End Gun Violence is to elevate the narratives of current and former educators, school staff, administrators, and other stakeholders impacted by school and community shootings because gun violence leaves no one unaffected. Teachers Unify is expanding the conversation about gun violence by supporting, empowering, and leading with those on the frontlines. Every teacher and school staff member has a story to tell about gun violence and the fear of gun violence. It is imperative that these narratives are heard in order to change hearts, minds, and policies to make our schools and communities safer.
What do we mean by elevating narratives? Through this article, we’re sharing the stories of five educators—Alfred “Shivy” Brooks, Rori Abernethy, Jon Parker, Jean Darnell, and Kiki Leyba—whose experiences with gun violence in their schools and communities offer unique perspectives on why this crisis persists and how we can end it. Likewise, through our podcast (https://teachersunify.transistor.fm), people get to know many more voices and stories of gun violence and how it affects us physically, emotionally, in our relationships, at work, and at home. In addition, through collaboration and support—one-on-one, school- and district-wide, at education conferences, and on social media—we share anecdotes, resources, camaraderie, and tips on how to get a seat at the table to improve districts’ safety plans, how to talk to students appropriately about gun violence, and how to move forward in the aftermath of a school or community shooting.
We hope everyone connected to the education world, whether current or retired, will join us. So many teachers and school staff have decided that enough is enough. The public needs to hear from a coalition of voices speaking up for the safety and well-being of the school community, including those who work there. To become a part of Teachers Unify to End Gun Violence, complete our survey here.
Originally published in American Educator, Winter 2022-2023.
About the Authors
Abbey Clements is an elementary educator with over 30 years of experience. Since surviving the Sandy Hook school shooting in 2012, she has been a gun violence prevention activist working alongside survivors, advocates, and AFT leaders. Sarah Lerner, a survivor of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas school shooting in 2018, has 20 years of experience teaching. The editor of Parkland Speaks, her writing has appeared in several national publications. Sari Beth Rosenberg is an educator with over 20 years in the classroom, the host of the PBS NewsHour Classroom Educator Zoom Series, and a senior adviser for Voters of Tomorrow. Together, Clements, Lerner, and Rosenberg founded Teachers Unify to End Gun Violence.
Teachers Unify uplifts narratives from everyone who works or who has worked in schools and universities, from paraeducators to counselors, principals, school nurses and others.