April 20, 1999, was a beautiful bluebird day in Littleton, one of those days where the Mile High sun reflected off the foothills and warmed the soul. I was standing stone cold on the steps of Littleton High School, while just over 5 miles away chaos was unfolding at Columbine High School. In the end it was revealed 12 students and a teacher died, 24 were injured and countless others were forever changed by what was, at the time, the deadliest school shooting in U.S. history.
The next day in our gym, counselors awkwardly tried to start conversations, but no one knew what to say. The idea of a school shooting was new to us then. I was only a junior but I was hopeful the atrocities of that day would be a catalyst for positive change.
I was wrong.
Years later, as a teacher, I watched students milling about on a normal morning in my seventh-grade classroom when I spotted the words “Celebrate Diversity” on a shirt. Initial feelings of pride were squashed by the accompanying graphic, detailing a diverse selection of guns.
Little, it seemed, had changed. Children’s lives were still being put in danger for a love of guns.
After 15 years of teaching, I was not surprised by the shirt, or by the school administration’s decision to do nothing about it. I have seen many schools turn a blind eye to the culture of violence and guns, not wanting to take responsibility or offend anyone. This year, a teacher in Virginia reached out to her administration several times about concerns that a student with violent tendencies might have a gun, but those fears were disregarded. Later, that 6-year-old student shot her.
And so, frustration surrounding guns continues to escalate, and incidents of violence continue to devastate lives. The Washington Post estimates that since Columbine, more than 331,000 students nationwide have been exposed to gun violence and this number grows daily. According to a CNN summary of a National Center for Education Statistics report, there were 93 school shootings during the 2020-2021 school year.
In the classroom, students are asked to address the problem by watching videos on how to throw things at shooters to distract them, or how to barricade doors so they can’t come into a room or how to reach for an AR-15 to safely disarm a perpetrator. I have crouched with students in darkened rooms, hidden behind tables, trying to keep students from crying while the school’s alarm system screams. And then later, I tried to reassure them that school is a safe place.
I’ve dedicated more than 20 years and two college degrees to becoming the best teacher I could be. I’ve taught in many states, several countries and have gained a wealth of experience. I’ve held hope and compassion for every student I’ve had the honor to teach.
But this year I am no longer teaching. The last straw came when a student at my school — I was teaching out of state at the time — admitted to bringing a gun inside the building. He said he carried it in his backpack all day. His impulsive anger could have easily turned to tragedy. But because no one saw it and we learned about it after the fact, there were no consequences. No support. No future guidance on how to deal with emotions or difficult situations such as this one.
Coming as it did just days after the May 2022 school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, the absurdity of sweeping this under the rug was too much. I knew I could no longer participate in a system that ignored the problem.
Guns continue to be a real concern in today’s classrooms. As a teacher I could choose to leave, but students cannot. They remain in classrooms, sometimes with violent peers, and continue to lock themselves in dark rooms for active-shooter drills. They rely on adults in their lives to make decisions that keep them safe and to prevent guns and violence in schools. These adults are failing.
Students don’t need more armed guards or locked doors. They need a society willing to protect them with common-sense gun legislation. Colorado has made positive moves to help prevent gun violence such as background checks, extreme-risk laws and keeping guns out of the hands of domestic abusers — but more can be done, such as banning assault-style weapons.
We need to reevaluate what it is we truly love.
Important things are happening in schools. Our kids are learning, cooperating and growing to become thoughtful human beings. Inaction on gun policy is impacting these classrooms.
I’m sad that I left the teaching career I loved. But the positive change I hoped for as a high school student shivering in the shadow of Columbine never materialized.
Stephanie Dungan, of New Castle, is a former elementary and middle school teacher, now a student at Western Colorado University.