Fear Factor: After Uvalde, Teachers Are Scared and Reformers Want Change. Again.

Teachers are scared of mass shootings
Teachers are scared of mass shootings illustration by Sarah Schumacher
Echoes of the gunfire that ended the lives of 19 children and two teachers in Uvalde last month still reverberate in schoolrooms far from the grief-stricken South Texas town. In North Texas teachers are struggling with fear driven by the state’s latest mass killing at a school.

In the days after 18-year-old Salvador Ramos opened fire at Robb Elementary, schools in DFW and other parts of Texas reported a rash of threats and guns on campuses, sparking fears of copycat killers.

Teachers, already battered by months dealing with the pandemic and chronically short resources, say they are on edge emotionally, and the debate among political leaders over how to prevent what appears to be inevitable — another school, more dead kids — is doing little to soothe them.

“Those emotions range from fear, anger, frustration, sickening grief and extreme sadness,” Rena Honea, president of the Alliance-AFT educators union in Dallas, said via email.

Lauren Walsh, a special education teacher and educational diagnostician in Denton ISD, has dealt with all of those following the deaths in Uvalde.

“When we heard about it at school … I just cried with a bunch of my coworkers. We just cried,” Walsh said. “We showed up the next day and cried more. [We] pretended to keep it together for the kids, but it is legitimately terrifying.”

Walsh said the shooting left her wondering how safe she was in the halls of her own school.

“I literally was walking through the cafeteria that next day, and had to go a back way to get into my classroom,” Walsh said. “And my very first thought that I had when I turned the corner in that dark, sketchy little hallway … was like, what if there’s a shooter right there? I would just be a goner I guess.”

Ramos legally bought the rifle he carried to the school from a licensed dealer in Texas a few days before the shooting. Texas law doesn’t require a person to obtain a permit or have any training to carry a handgun, and anyone 18 or older may purchase a rifle.

If the past is any indicator, that’s not likely to change anytime soon.

After a gunman killed 10 people at Santa Fe High School near Houston in 2018, Gov. Greg Abbott introduced Senate Bill 11, which was designed to protect school children from further mass shootings by strengthening mental health initiatives and “hardening” campuses by allowing more school marshals to carry guns.

“If you’re not in a school right now, working with kids, you don’t understand how hard it is. It’s honestly unfathomable what’s happening in schools right now. And I think people just don’t know. They just have no idea.” - Lauren Walsh, special education teacher

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Abbott said then that the measure would “do more than Texas has ever done to make schools safer places for our students, for our educators, for our parents and families.”

Then came Uvalde, not to mention the more than 20 other mass shootings in Texas since then.

The Gun Violence Archive describes a mass shooting as having “a minimum of four victims shot, either injured or killed, not including any shooter who may also have been killed or injured in the incident.” (Ramos was killed by law enforcement officers at the school.)

So far this year, Texas has had 22 mass shootings, including one in Waco that left four people wounded just five days after Uvalde. Texas and California are tied for the most mass shootings in the country in 2022, with Illinois and Louisiana tied at 16, followed by Florida at 12. Taking population into account, California, which has some of the nation’s strictest gun laws, had 8.5 deaths per 100,000 population in 2020, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; Texas’ rate was 14.2, placing it roughly in the middle of the pack among all states.

click to enlarge Special education teacher Lauren Walsh fears gun violence in her school. - KATE PEZZULLI
Special education teacher Lauren Walsh fears gun violence in her school.
Kate Pezzulli
According to the Gun Violence Archive, 150 children ages 11 or younger have been killed by gun violence in the U.S. this year. Another 529 ages 12-17 have died. The U.S. overall has had 230 mass shootings in 2022 as of June 1. The nation has seen 27 shootings at schools, though not all were “mass” shootings. Uvalde is the deadliest.

Honea said she sees threats becoming more common.

Gun rights proponents are quick to point out that the threat of a child being killed in a school shooting is small. But the fear and hopelessness generated by Uvalde and Santa Fe and Sandy Hook and other school shootings exists and are just one more straw on the backs of teachers already stressed by a shortage of teachers and a general lack of resources.

“If you’re not in a school right now, working with kids, you don’t understand how hard it is,” Walsh said. “It’s honestly unfathomable what’s happening in schools right now. And I think people just don’t know. They just have no idea.”

The Observer reached out to Andi Turner, legislative director at the Texas State Rifle Association, for the group’s reaction to Uvalde.

“I can’t help you. I do not comment. On a professional level, I do not comment,” Turner said. “We do not comment on active investigations.”

Turner has spoken with the Observer in the past about gun controversies. For instance, last September for a story about the danger of Texas’ new permitless carry law, she said: “We’re not seeing the blood in the streets and the danger that some people are concerned with.”

The National Rifle Association hosted a convention in Houston days after the Uvalde deaths. Attendees revealed to The Texas Tribune what they believe to be the cause of the shootings.

They said they were horrified, but access to guns was not to blame. The general consensus was that the problems were “a broader breakdown in society, wrought by the removal of God from public schools, the decline of two-parent households, a perceived leniency toward criminals, social media and an increase in mental illness.”

In a mix of victim-blaming and circular reasoning, Lyndon Boff, 67, told The Tribune that it’s not guns that killed the people, “it’s their programs teaching children in school that our country is a bunch of crap.”

Still, those who want new regulations soldier on. Among them is Texas Gun Sense, a nonprofit that has long advocated unsuccessfully for measures such as background checks on every gun sale, requiring safe storage for guns and red flag laws that would allow law enforcement to take guns away from those deemed a potential threat.

The group’s executive director, Nicole Golden, said even when they bring data, stories of gun violence survivors and even support from law enforcement, the political will for moving forward with “common sense” gun laws just doesn’t exist in Texas.

“The wrong direction has been taken,” she said. “[It] speaks to the decisions made by top leadership at the state level, and … I think people are really feeling that anger right now.”

Honea also believes politicians can do more to protect teachers.

She wants universal background checks for purchasers, a higher age limit to purchase guns, the removal of assault weapons from the market except for military personnel and better education about the Second Amendment.

“While I’m not opposed to people’s choice to own a gun, Texas no longer has a militia, so the right of the people ‘to keep and bear arms’ is taken out of context,” Honea said. “Parents should become informed voters and exercise their right to elect those that are willing to stand up for what is right and not just vote in the name of a party as well as against their own interests.”

One idea resurrected by gun rights advocates — arming teachers in the classrooms — is outright rejected by many educators.

“Absolutely not! Teachers wear many hats in addition to educating students, but asking them now to be security and police officers is unacceptable!” Honea wrote. “Mistakes, as we’ve seen, are made by well-trained officers for situations like this. If an educator is focused on the shooter, who is focused on his/her students? Some students are not beyond trying to ‘take’ a gun from an employee they know is armed and then another tragedy could occur.”

Walsh wonders where the funding for something like that would come from and how teachers would be trained.

“They don’t trust us to put books that they would deem appropriate into our classrooms, but yet they want to hand us a gun. - Lauren Walsh

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“They don’t trust us to put books that they would deem appropriate into our classrooms, but yet they want to hand us a gun,” Walsh said. “Number one, they have no place in a classroom. That’s a classroom full of children.”

Walsh said she already has to pay for everything she puts up on the walls for her classroom. In some years, she got a hundred or so dollars, some years she got nothing.

“Y’all can’t even give us the supplies that we need, but you want to put a gun in my hands,” she said. “Also, what kind of training would be provided? All while teachers would most likely be expected to do that on their own time as well, much like we’re expected to do everything else on our own time.”

Golden said more guns in the classroom won’t make anyone safer.

“I think we really need to think carefully about that before we rush to that as the answer,” Golden said. “To put that forward in place of sensible gun laws … is a real mistake, and I don’t think it’s acceptable to the public right now.”

But mass shootings do happen and protocols exist for when there is an active shooter in a school.

Dallas ISD’s lockdown protocol calls for students to follow staff directions, which could include moving out of sight, staying silent, locking classroom doors, turning lights off, and waiting for first responders.

These same protocols, or ones very similar, are used all over the U.S. and have been for decades. Most students who have gone through a U.S. school system would be aware of these general guidelines.

“I just think if someone’s going to come in, what do we do? What do we do?” said Walsh. “We have these drills and we have this training, but like, what do we actually do? Because the training and the drills doesn’t seem like it would work.”

click to enlarge Wooden crosses are placed at a memorial dedicated to the victims of the mass shooting at Robb Elementary School on June 3, 2022 in Uvalde, Texas. - ALEX WONG/GETTY IMAGES
Wooden crosses are placed at a memorial dedicated to the victims of the mass shooting at Robb Elementary School on June 3, 2022 in Uvalde, Texas.
Alex Wong/Getty Images
Part of her district’s protocol was to line up against the wall where the door is to stay out of sight, but the Uvalde shooter had weapons with rounds that could easily pierce wallboard and wooden doors.

“A lot of these people that are shooting these schools have grown up with a lot of these drills, they know exactly what we do,” Walsh said. “They know that we lock the doors and we hide, but that’s not a foolproof system in itself.”

As a special education teacher, Walsh faces additional problems with complying with the protocols.

“How am I expected to keep my autistic kids silent?” she asked. “It’s a disability rights issue too.”

Questions about the nature and value of school shooting protocols is something Honea has heard from other teachers.

“When events occur like school shootings, some begin to question if they can continue in the profession knowing that they may have to put their lives on the line for their students to protect them, especially for those that have children of their own at home,” Honea said.

There are some measures Honea believes would be helpful to increase security and protect teachers and students like all doors being locked from the outside, working cameras that are monitored at all entrances and security officers, either uniformed or plain-clothed, at the entrances.

But these measures would require funding and a change in priorities.

“Restricting the ability to purchase assault weapons would be one of the best ways to protect everyone from mass shootings,” Honea said. “We must vote for people willing to truly put safety first and not politics.”

Texas Gun Sense board member Denise L. Cooper said in a press release following the shooting that this tragedy is a tipping point for Texans, and Golden agrees.

“People … just absolutely want to see change and want to know who’s accountable for this,” Golden said. “On top of that, people hear about, read about [gun violence] in the news on a daily basis, then to face what we faced … and seeing how last legislative session went, I just think people are putting the pieces together and want answers.”

Abbott is trying to work on those answers in a similar fashion to how he handled them in 2019 after the Santa Fe High shootings. He’s calling for a special legislative committee.

Included in the topics he would like to cover are school safety, mental health, social media, police training and firearms safety. Similar measures were taken after the Santa Fe shooting. They didn’t prevent Uvalde’s.

Sen. Ted Cruz also posted his thoughts about the issue on Twitter: “What inevitably stops these horrific crimes: Armed good guys stopping armed bad guys.” This sparked outrage from Texas teachers who organized a protest in response.

Abbott’s decision to include social media and mental illness in his list of problems that need to be considered by the legislative committee parallels the comments from those attending the NRA convention.

What is also true is that in the interim between the Santa Fe shooting and the Uvalde shooting, Abbott did a great deal to loosen gun laws, pushing for a one that allows Texans to carry handguns without a permit.

“The Legislature has continued to loosen gun laws and allow them to be carried in more places, by more people … and we’re facing a gun violence crisis,” Golden said. “It’s kind of unbelievable to leave sensible gun laws off the list, when in states that have stronger gun laws, they have fewer gun deaths. It’s a real disservice to our public safety and to the sentiment that many Texans are feeling right now.”

To leave gun violence prevention solutions off the table is missing an important point.

“I don’t think that that inaction is going to fly for how people are feeling right now,” she said. “We have to throw all solutions on the table, including safe gun laws.”

Honea believes that the laws in Texas are affecting educators in negative ways and students are losing out.

“The students are the ones that pay the consequences of adults making decisions [that] many are not qualified to make,” Honea wrote. “Educators would like to be heard when decisions are made at the Legislature and in school districts. They’re the ones that must implement what is put in place. Their voices must be the first to provide input. They also need to be fairly compensated for the jobs they do. Education should be collaborative, but the competition put into evaluations and laws make it a horrible atmosphere to work in.”

Walsh doesn’t believe enough has been done to protect her or her students, and also has a hard time understanding where Abbott is coming from with some of his recent statements.

“I watched some press conference recently where Abbott said it could have been worse, and I’m infuriated,” Walsh said, holding back tears. “What does he mean could have been worse? How? How could it have possibly been any worse?”

Walsh has heard the promises from politicians before.

“I don’t need smoke blown up my ass,” said Walsh. “I need change.”
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Kate Pezzulli, an editorial fellow for the Observer, is a graduate student at the Mayborn School of Journalism at UNT. Besides storytelling, she likes sailing, working on Jeeps, camping, potting and baking. Voted No. 1 friend in an apocalypse.
Contact: Kate Pezzulli