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Katrina Rasmussen was an eighth grader in North Texas when she watched the raw, TV footage of children her age fleeing their Colorado high school as ambulances loaded bleeding students and teachers into parked ambulances.
Today, 23 years later, she saw the tragic events of the week unfold in Uvalde while she was a high school teacher herself in Dallas, and she says it’s like nothing happened. changed since the Columbine High School shooting.
“We feel like we’re at the mercy of people who don’t even know what it’s like in the classroom,” she said.
Across the state, teachers in Texas are ending one of the toughest years they’ve ever seen. A global pandemic has closed schools and forced more than 5 million public school students to use laptops and desktops at home.
It was to be the successful return to normality for public schools. But after two major COVID-19 surges, a year of angry school board meetings, parents saying teachers were grooming children for abuse, and fights over everything from mask mandates for students to books they can read, teachers were already at breaking point with nearly 500 arrested even if it meant losing their licenses.
Rasmussen said while watching the news about the Robb Elementary School shooting that left 19 children and two teachers dead, including Gov. Greg Abbott and other heads of state’s press conference, she has the feeling that she has no control over how to react to these mass shootings.
“People who have never taught before, make policies that affect every moment of my day,” she said. “Right now, that’s really what hurts me the most.”
Lakeisha Patterson, an elementary school teacher in Deer Park, said it was exhausting to watch so many school shootings over the years. When Columbine arrived, she said there was a shock wave felt across the country and people came together to demand change and action.
Now she says she is tired of hearing the words “thoughts and prayers” after every tragedy.
“As a teacher, not only am I in charge of the program, but sometimes I have to be a counselor, a parent, a guardian, a cheerleader, a supporter, a nurse, a guard and now I have to be a policeman “, Patterson said.
A day after an 18-year-old gunman opened fire in a classroom in Uvalde, one of Luaren Gonzalez’s students asked him a heartbreaking question.
“Miss Gonzalez, are we safe?” his ninth grader asked him.
Gonzalez, who teaches in the Pasadena Independent School District, felt she needed to be strong for her students who were the same age as those who were killed in Uvalde on Tuesday.
“It really touched me,” Gonzalez said, trying to hold back tears. “It was something that really hurt my heart.”
Even before the horrific shooting in Uvalde, the mood of Texas teachers was one of resignation. Literally.
And that’s on top of a teacher shortage the state experienced before the pandemic that’s now being exacerbated by the back-to-school season forcing Gov. Greg Abbott to create a commission to find solutions.
Public education advocates and teachers themselves fear this latest incident could be the breaking point for teachers who were already considering leaving the profession since the pandemic hit. All while Texas is already facing a teacher shortage.
Teachers have been leaving with the fear of a shooting for years and every time a shooting happens, that fear only gets worse, said Alejandra Lopez, president of the Alliance of Teachers and Support Staff at San Antonio.
“We’re talking about worsening crises,” Lopez said. “We have the lack of funding and resources, we’ve had to endure two years of a pandemic and now the reality of school shootings.”
There have already been more than 200 mass shootings in 2022, according to The Gun Violence Archive, an independent data collection organization. Teachers, whether here in Texas or elsewhere, are feeling the pain of the shootings in their communities, as schools mostly serve as a community center.
Lopez said people need to reject the premise that teachers need to be prepared for these incidents and instead find ways to prevent them from happening altogether. This starts out by making it harder to get guns.
Ron Acierno, executive director of the UTHealth Houston Trauma and Resilience Center, said it’s “nonsense” for people to ask how teachers can be better prepared for this when people should be asking for less gun violence and more gun reform.
“Are we really at that point where it’s a valid question?” said Acierno. “It’s like saying, how can we prepare children to be victims of sexual exploitation or sex trafficking?”
Acierno said that for teachers, fear or trauma can start with the school shooting drills they practice throughout the school year, especially for those who have experienced trauma in the past. .
“They are participating in these drills, many of them having already experienced trauma as part of their lives,” he said. “They deal with the trauma of their students and then you put that on stress levels that are already very high.”
Nicholas Westers, a clinical psychologist at Children’s Health in Dallas, said it’s normal for students to feel anxiety about the mass shooting, but parents should keep an eye out if it continues.
With children already facing behavioral issues because they’re stuck at home during the pandemic, Westers said during this time, parents and teachers need to reassure students that they’ll be safe and their explain how.
“We all have physical needs for food, shelter, water,” he said. “It’s the most important because if you don’t have that, and nothing else really matters and just above that is security.”
Westers encouraged parents to have conversations with their children about how they feel, what they’ve heard and what worries them the most.
Andrew Hairston, civil rights attorney and education policy advocate for Texas Appleseed, an organization that works to address systemic inequities in public education, said the next steps should be a robust expansion of experts in mental health in schools.
“It should be a priority for policy makers to alleviate the suffering of teachers and young people by investing in these mental health resources,” Hairston said.
Rasmussen, who signed her contract for the next school year on the day of the shooting, said she had considered quitting the profession every year for the past two years.
“This year I really expanded my network, posted my CV and did some deep soul-searching about where I want to be this time next year,” she said. “Not from the point of view that I don’t like teaching anymore, but from the point of view of I don’t know if I can live like this anymore.”
This year, many teachers have seen a dramatic increase in behavioral issues in classrooms, as students attending virtual school from their kitchens or bedrooms have had to reacquaint themselves with sitting in a classroom away from home. for more than seven hours.
This increase in student behavior problems is one of the reasons Darrell Nichols, 30, quit his job in April at a charter school in Brazos Valley near College Station after teaching for seven years.
” I was bitten ; I was scratched; I’ve been hit in my line of work over the past two years, with this past year in particular,” Nichols said.
But Nichols, who quit teaching to go into sales, said the past week has hit him hard, especially as he remembers all the active shooting drills he was doing with his own students every few months. Her children are so used to it that they don’t even wonder what they are doing.
“It reminds me of a lot of old feelings because I had to practice what those teachers worked for,” Nicholls said, referring to teachers Irma Garcia and Eva Mireles who were killed Tuesday at Robb Elementary School. “I had my children hidden away from the window, from the door. I leaned against the door with my car keys in my hand as a makeshift weapon if I needed to use them.
He said seeing Abbott and other state leaders come to Uvalde and ask for healing prayers for the community also upset him.
“I did not walk into the classroom, on the one hand, to be accused of treating my students and, on the other hand, to be asked to take an AR-15 clip for them,” said Nicholas. “And no one I know has entered the teaching profession for this.”
Journalist Jason Beeferman contributed to this story.
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