“I am alive today because of him.”

“I am alive today because of him!” These are the words from Kelsey Friend, a student at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, referring to teacher Scott Beigel who died protecting his students. Aaron Feist, an assistant coach, literally shielded students with his body and paid the ultimate price. Ashley Kurth, a culinary arts teacher, risked her own life by shuttling students into her room, exposing herself to any potential harm.

 

If Scott Beigel and Aaron Feist had been police officers, their names would be included on the National Police Memorial and read out loud during National Police Week. Their funeral would be attended by local elected officials and officers from across the country. The event would possibly make national news.

 

If they had been military personnel, they would be flown to Dover and ceremonially taken off the aircraft. Flags might be flown at half-mast. Their funerals would be attended by other military personnel, resplendent in dress uniforms. They might even be buried in a military cemetery complete with a twenty-one gun salute. They would be posthumously awarded the Purple Heart and possibly another medal for bravery.

 

“But Scott and Aaron were just teachers” is what many people would say, as if their sacrifice is not worthy of the same reverence. The sad truth is that many teachers are in harm’s way and are the first adults to respond to emergencies in the school. A recent report published by the Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics stated 209,800 school teachers were physically assaulted in the 2011-2012 academic year. That same year, 8% of male students reported carrying a gun to school; 2% of girls reported carrying a gun to school. I saw a bumper sticker that said, “I serve my country, I teach public school.”

 

I taught in Baltimore County Public Schools, including 17 years at Loch Raven High School. Yes, we had active shooter drills. One classroom I was in faced the hall across from the main stairway. Only thin wood paneling separated the classroom from the hall. This was not a protective barrier. When I pointed this out to the administration, no action was taken. Another class I was in had a door that would not lock. Again, when I brought this to the administration, no action was taken. I created my own plan if an actual event occurred and shared this with the students. Realistically, schools were not built to sustain gun fire.

 

The students and faculty of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School stated that they had practiced active shooter drills yet one still gets a sense of chaos. Lauren Fest, a student described the scene as “Kids were running everywhere.” My own experience is that many students and teachers did not take the drills seriously.  The administration saw it as another thing to do, mandated from the superintendent’s office. The horrible truth is that the drills are inadequate with deadly consequences.

 

After each one of these episodes is the question of how to stop this from happening. The U.K. government passed two laws after the massacre at the school in Dunblane Scotland which left only muzzle-loading and historic handguns legal.  The British government completed an investigation into what could be done to prevent further school shootings. Their investigation took into account public sympathies. I suspect that won’t happen here, nor am I advocating that action, but the reaction in the U.K. was much different than here. Celebrities wrote songs and even a bagpipe band wrote and performed a tune to commemorate the loss.

 

We need to have an uncomfortable conversation about the issue of school violence. First, we need to acknowledge that there are students with a predilection toward violence and anti-social behavior. We need to acknowledge what we are doing now is insufficient.  We also need to acknowledge teachers for who and what they are, first responders. I am not advocating changing how teachers operate in school; I am advocating a shift in how legislators, parents and reporters view education and teachers.

 

Why not honor teachers in the same way military, fire fighters and police are? Let’s have programs that portray teachers in a realistic manner. Teachers are willing to give their lives to protect our children. What do you do for teachers?

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