This year, our school has had four days off to recover from incidents of gun violence. That’s three more than the number of snow days we’ve had. In September, a ninth grade child was shot in the crossfire of a fight that broke out half a block from our school building. Shortly afterwards, a swatting incident that we believed to be a real active-shooter left our community reeling from an intense police response.
A period of relative winter calm was shattered in February when 16-year-old Luis Garcia was shot in his car while parked in front of our school. A few weeks later, Luis died.
So on a Wednesday in March, just four days after Luis’s funeral, I felt a numb resignation when our school once again descended into lockdown. I knew it was real, and I felt very little.
I was rummaging through old school newspapers in our historic clocktower trying to find articles that my students could use to commemorate Women’s History Month when I heard the sirens. Isolated and alone in the clocktower I could see far too much of the action below.
Seeing stretchers quickly loading into ambulances helped me understand the nature of the crisis. I later learned that it was two of my colleagues and friends whom I saw transported to the hospital with gunshot wounds. At the time, I was fixated on the Latino Students’ Union assembly taking place in the auditorium. I knew that there were more than 1,000 students gathered for that celebration and I feared they may have been targeted.
As I spent the next two and a half hours in the clocktower, I reflected on my situation and felt both lucky and guilty for being so far away from the children. My wife, an English teacher at the same school, was texting me updates on her struggles to keep the 45 students in her small classroom calm. Meanwhile, I joked with her that I was turning into Quasimodo locked up in the clocktower.
Before even knowing what had actually happened downstairs in the dean’s office, I understood that the event was gaining national media attention. My phone blew up with texts from concerned friends and relatives and I assured them all I was physically okay. They seemed to know more than I did, so I turned to online news apps for information. I learned that two deans had been shot by one of our students during a search. I watched the mayor, police chief, and superintendent of Denver Public Schools give a press conference, all while I was hiding up in the clocktower.
Having been through similar crises recently, I was well aware that I was not actually fine. The various events at our school have left students and teachers traumatized. My own children, aged 6 and 9, were at the nearby elementary school in their own lockdown. Once again, I had to find the words to explain to them what had happened and assure them that both their parents were safe. Now we are somewhat familiar with how we experience the trauma in the days and weeks after: the rollercoaster of emotions as we oscillate between wanting to abandon the community we love, and staying to fiercely defend it.
As a Brit in America, my sense of anger is compounded by the reality that I chose this community. At times like this, it feels like it was an absurd decision. Thinking back to 2008, when my wife and I wrote pros and cons lists to decide whether to live in the UK or in Colorado, the risk of gun violence didn’t factor into our decision. It really should have. Having seen first hand how gun restrictions in the UK helped to bring an end to school shootings, the solutions seem almost too obvious to me.
Every event that we experienced this year should have made national news. Our student being shot and killed was seen as less newsworthy as it happened in front of the school on city property rather than inside the building. Far fewer media outlets recognized the trauma caused by swatting incidents. In various schools across our city, students have been found in possession of guns this year, a fact which is rarely reported. Clouding our understanding of the issue of guns in schools is the fact that until a weapon is fired inside a school building, events do not qualify as particularly newsworthy. Of course, if every gun found in a school and every incident of violence in a school community made the nightly news, then that would be the leading story every day. Perhaps it should be. Crisis in schools has become dangerously normalized.
For now, traumatized educators are once again expected to heal traumatized children. With little understanding of how it impacts our own brains, we are faced with the gargantuan task of rebuilding a sense of stability and safety in which students can learn. We are exhausted. Teachers understand that predictability and stability are essential in the classroom and that turmoil destroys a learning environment. We don’t just need to feel safe at school – students need to be able to depend on the routines and structures of school to be successful.
Spring break allowed us some time to begin to heal. But the routine nature of crisis events means that we’re braced for more. No one can let their guard down, and that takes its toll.
Matthew Fulford lives in Denver.
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