Brooklyn schoolteacher demands right to teach in gun-free environment

I am an elementary school teacher in Brooklyn, New York. Less than a month after the shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, and two days before the recent shooting in Taft, California, I was sitting in a meeting with my principal, fellow teachers, and some PTA members.

The school security guard came to the door to inform the principal that there was an irate parent in the building. The parent, who was having some issues with the school,was threatening to come in the morning with a gun. She had reportedly even described the weapon's make and model.

The principal came back into the room and briefly described the situation, calling it “foolishness” and moving on to the next item on the agenda. The following day, there was some police presence at the school, but nothing happened, and things quickly went back to normal. There is still no formal protocol for what to do if a person enters our school and opens fire. We have only been told to “lock our doors.”

A casual attitude toward gun violence is typical of our school's neighborhood, where shootings are common. After that gun threat at my school, two shootings did occur a few blocks away, on the same day as the one in Taft, on the West Coast. But the media barely covered the Brooklyn shootings, and they passed unnoticed, like ripples in an ocean.

When shootings occur in poor neighborhoods, it doesn't make the news. My students are aware there are people with guns are around them, and have already developed an instinctive fear of the police. Casings can be found on the sidewalks outside the school in the mornings. It is generally accepted that violent crime can and will occur, especially in the inner city.

So why are we so reluctant to take meaningful precautions to prevent violence?

There is a breakdown in our nation's faith that law enforcement and the legal system will protect us from danger. Americans cling to the Wild West mentality of good guys versus bad guys, fighting violence with more violence. This is precisely why we have senators, even Democrats like California's Barbara Boxer, calling for federal funding to place armed officers in elementary schools rather than limit access to assault weapons, and why the NRA has, in all seriousness, suggested we arm our schoolteachers. 

As a nation, we cannot agree on whether to focus on preventing or combating gun violence. Clearly, it is unrealistic to take away guns from everyone. 

But Canadians also own guns, and with much fewer incidents of violence than here in the United States, proving that allowing private citizens to own guns does not necessarily mean more shootings. There is a gun culture in Canada, but Canada has no real organization tantamount to the NRA, the US guns lobby, with such wide-reaching political and societal influence.

What is the difference? It seems that Americans would rather make speeches about abstract ideas like “freedom” and “rights” than deal with the underlying causes of the violence in our society, or even limit access guns. Even after a massacre like the one in Newtown, the president of the NRA can rest assured that there will be no ban on assault weapons.

Despite all the attention on the issue of gun control, the system for targeting and treating individuals with the potential to perpetrate these acts of violence is extremely weak.

Ryan Heber, the teacher at Taft Union High School, who talked the gun-toting teenager in the latest incident into submission, understood that the emotional toll of bullying and isolation – a cross-border North American epidemic and international epidemic – is too much for someone to bear alone, and that compassion, mediation, and outreach are the real tools for building a safer world for our children. 

Stronger outreach facilities to support our children can help – at least in part – turn a culture of violence into a culture of compassion.

But how much can we expect from a society where educational facilities are the first public service to suffer budget cuts in a faltering economy?

As a teacher, I demand the right to teach my students in a safe and nurturing environment, free from weapons and threats of violence. I demand the freedom of those children to live in a neighborhood where they don’t have to play inside all year long, because they might get shot if they go out. I want desperately to protect them from the so-called American “gun culture,” and I will quit my job before I bring a lethal weapon into their classroom.

Our children are the first to take the hit in a recession, and they're the last to be considered in this series of shootings. My fear is that as long as the debate is about the rights of gun owners rather than the safety of children, we are facing more shootings, not fewer.

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