At Western Branch Middle School in Chesapeake, Va., students were asking about the rituals that color the end of school year: state tests, the dance, the menu and activities for field day, an upcoming award ceremony.
“It could be that students may not be watching the news,” S. Kambar Khoshaba, the school’s principal, said a day after yet another mass shooting at one of the nation’s schools. “How much of it do they know? Are they getting numb to it because you keep hearing a lot about school shootings?”
At a morning meeting huddle at LEARN Charter School in Chicago, teachers felt “this could be us; this could be our school,” said Ayanna Mitchell, the principal of the 367-student school, serving grades K-6.
On Tuesday, 19 children and two adults were killed in a 4th grade classroom at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, about 80 miles west of San Antonio. Nationwide, K-12 staff members were left to make sense of the tragedy and what it means for them and their students.
In some schools, news of the latest massacre on a K-12 campus had not penetrated students’ consciousness, even as teachers remained painfully aware of the tragedy.
“I just put myself in that school leader’s position,” LEARN Charter School’s Mitchell said of her counterpart at Robb Elementary. “I know their heart is bleeding. Student safety is a number one priority for principals. Even at the end of a crazy day, I can say, ‘At least everybody went home safe.’ ”
Mitchell and her staff spent part of their morning meeting the day after the school shooting reviewing the school’s safety procedures and basic protocols, such as ensuring doors are locked after they’ve entered the building.
But some teachers, she said, struggled, even as students remained largely unaware of the Texas shooting.
“It was pretty dismal for teachers,” Mitchell said. “Most of our teachers are parents. It’s just really sad because school was supposed to be a safe haven for our students.”
Mitchell and staff decided to keep the school day as normal as possible, unless a student broached the topic.
“The kids really don’t pick up on things until we make it important for them,” she said. “We decided, as a school community, that we are going to go on as normal, but if a kid brings it up, it will be addressed.”
A recurring nightmare
When Haley Lancaster, a high school English teacher in Vincennes, Ind., heard the news of the Texas school shooting, her first thoughts were, “Again?”
She still remembers exactly where she was when she heard about the Columbine school shooting in Colorado in 1999, in which 12 students and one teacher were killed.
Her son had just finished kindergarten, making the topic feel even more urgent. During the drills, her son’s class plays the “quiet game” until the “bad people” go away.
“I am so terrified that we’re going to become numb to this,” Lancaster said, adding that once, during a professional-development session about school safety, the facilitator told teachers, “It’s not a matter of if it will happen, it’s a matter of when.”
“I don’t know a single teacher who hasn’t looked about their environment and thought, what can I use to protect myself?” Lancaster said. “It almost feels like some days, we’re like lambs to the slaughter. This is our normal now.”
The disconnect between the prevalence of school shootings, where some teachers sacrifice their lives for their students, and the national rhetoric about how teachers are “indoctrinating” students on issues of race and sexuality is “exhausting,” Lancaster said.
Daniel Krause, the principal of Willowbrook High School in Villa Park, Ill., and his staff spent the hours after the shooting reviewing the school’s safety procedures and other social-emotional support programs the district and school have developed over the last two years.
“I’d say the mood is somber and reflective, while also being concerned,” Krause said.
Students, he said, are living through a range of traumatic events, from the coronavirus pandemic, the racially motivated shooting in Buffalo, N.Y., two weeks ago in which a gunman killed 10 people, and frequent violence in nearby Chicago.
The school also has a number of students from Ukraine and the former Soviet Republics, whose families are affected by the ongoing war. The school community also lost two staff members and students this academic year.
“It’s not just about school shooting tragedies, it’s about tragedies that happen in communities and throughout the country and around the world,” Krause said, “and always trying to make sense of ... decisions that are made that impact young people.”
Teachers have liberty to set aside their lesson plans to discuss with students current events and the shooting. If a student has an immediate need, they can seek support from the counseling staff, Krause said.
Teachers received training to help students process through grief and trauma, he said.
“But when it occurs somewhere else, it’s also an opportunity for us to revisit the relationships we have with one another, the work that we do collectively as a staff and as a community, and also with our young adults,” Krause said.
Hard lessons for the youngest students
Only half the students in Kim Manning Ursetta’s early-childhood education class attended school on Wednesday. The teacher, who works at Traylor Academy in Denver, noticed that the parents of students who did attend were clinging onto their children more tightly than usual, somber looks on their faces.
Manning Ursetta didn’t sleep well Tuesday night after hearing about the Robb Elementary shooting. This isn’t the first time she’s dealt with the aftermath of a school shooting. Manning Ursetta has been teaching since before the Columbine High School massacre in 1999, which occurred just seven miles away from Traylor Academy.
“It breaks my heart to see this happening over and over and over again and nothing is being done about it,” she said.
She channeled her sadness and anger into action on Wednesday by involving her 3- and 4-year-old students in a discussion about safety. She posted charts on her wall in both English and Spanish for her bilingual students.
In the center of the chart, she wrote, “We are safe at school.” She then had the students work through safety protocols like sitting away from windows and locking doors, only leaving the school with their parents, listening to teachers, and trusting the school’s security officer.
“The first thing in both of my groups that they said was, ‘Our teachers keep us safe,’” she said. “Obviously, that weighs heavily on you as well.”
Despite all the news, Manning Ursetta said she feels safe at her school. Because of Columbine, the Denver schools have long-established safety protocols in place, but the teacher still wonders when she might get to hear of a school shooting for the last time.
“When is enough, enough?” she said. “When are we going to stop?”
A painful mix of emotions
“The whole building is in this tension of celebration and contemplation,” said Paul Hankins, a high school English teacher in Floyds Knobs, Ind. As end-of-year festivities were taking place on campus Wednesday, the American flag hung at half-mast—a solemn reminder of the tragedy in Texas.
To ground himself for the day ahead, Hankins spent the morning before school going on a silent 21-minute ride on his stationary bike—one minute for every victim.
His knee clicked with every turn, and Hankins said that he counted each click. Each time he counted to 21, he would think about the faces of the students and teachers who were killed, the parents who were waiting for news of their children, the grieving community members—and his own role as an educator in a country where school shootings can happen.
Hankins then went into school and met with his mentor group, a small cadre of rising seniors. Some students knew what had happened, while others were just finding out. To help them take a calming moment, Hankins read aloud the children’s picture book, This Is a School, by John Schu.
The book describes a school as a “place for sharing, for helping, and for community, … a place of hope and healing.” That message resonated with Hankins, as he thought of the violence that took place at Robb Elementary School.
“This is a community that cares,” he said. “I don’t believe that has to be limited to a dream.”
Khoshaba, the Virginia principal, said adults seemed more affected by the shooting than students, who may have been preoccupied with testing—which generally takes up a lot of their energy—or not aware of all the details.
“What can we do? What else can we do to keep schools safe?” he asked. “That’s what we should continue exploring.”
The Texas shooting is a reminder that “something like that can happen to anyone; so, we have to stay vigilant.”
“This is not one of those things that happens once every 100 years,” he said. “These things are happening [often] enough. Every time it happens, people in the community are like nobody saw it coming. Every school has the potential to be victimized in that way. We’re just lucky or fortunate that we not been affected directly. We’re just all lucky.”
In a way, he said, he’s relieved that students were asking about normal school activities. The school has a robust focus on student voice so students know they can approach administrators about any issue. The daily advisory period also includes a check-in for students.
“I am glad that those are things they are thinking about,” he said of the more-mundane discussions. “But if they wanted to talk about something that’s more serious in terms of the tragedy that occurred yesterday, we would talk about it.”
A day suffused with sadness—and dread
Saani Perry, an assistant principal at West Florence High School in Florence, S.C., prepared for work Wednesday morning with a feeling of sadness.
He ran through his school’s safety procedures, imagining what he would do if a gunman were to enter the school. He thought of the students who died in Texas and how he would explain that to the high schoolers he works with.
“It’s unimaginable that this continues to happen,” Perry said. “These are young children that had their whole lives ahead of them.”
Throughout the school day on Wednesday, Perry heard from several students who needed to talk about what happened. Because his students are older, Perry could tell they were aware of the shooting, reading the news on their phones and talking about it with each other.
Perry always begins the tough conversations with students by letting them vent and validating their concerns. He then reminds them about the safety and security measures in place in his school.
It’s “a balancing act,” he said, one that he continues to try to master as tragedies keep occurring.
“Going into work today, you sort of think, what can you do to support students who don’t understand how this could happen, without letting your emotions get in the way of that?” Perry said.
Kathryn Vaughn, an elementary art teacher in rural Tennessee, said her students were “blissfully unaware” of the shooting on Wednesday—it was their last day of school. But for her, it was a difficult day.
“It was just such an awful feeling,” she said. “You’re looking around and thinking about what happened to those people yesterday and what continues to happen in our country over and over again. It’s one of those things that can happen at any time.”
The entire school year had been tumultuous, Vaughn said. “We’ve survived the mask debate, COVID cases, the [critical race theory] outrage, and now one of the deadliest school shootings in history, and we continue to be criticized by the communities we teach in, [even though] we would protect their children and shield them from gunfire.”
Vaughn noted that the debate about arming teachers has already started up.
“I’m not a trained marksman,” she said. “I’m not even trusted with the code to the copy machine.”
The Austin public schools in Austin, Minn., shared resources from the National Association of School Psychologists on its website for students and teachers to help staff and community members who wanted to talk to students about the Robb Elementary shooting.
In his message, Superintendent Joey Page also emphasized the district’s commitment to school safety.
“We’re sure that people are wondering about safety and security. We want to make sure that people have the resources and timely communication to help facilitate those conversations,” he said.
Page said his district was in communication with local law enforcement and had school resource officers on campus per usual but had not increased police presence at schools in response to the shooting.
He said he was unsure whether teachers were discussing the events of the Uvalde shooting, now deemed the deadliest school shooting since 2012. But some community members and staff reached out to say they appreciated the information about safety and resources that he provided in his message.
“Like many other schools in the country, our hearts are breaking, and we’re feeling for the families who’ve lost their loved ones through this act of violence,” Page said.