I sit cross-legged on the floor of my parents’ living room. In my lap is a three-ring binder that’s too full to properly close. On the front of the binder, underneath the thin sheet of plastic, is a single piece of computer paper that has been colorfully decorated with clipart of smiling children on a school bus and WordArt reading: “Amy Kathleen Rooker’s Portfolio: Volume One Preschool-2nd grade.”
Tucked within the archive of finger paint masterpieces, handprint turkeys circa Thanksgivings passed and a certificate that “Officially Absolutely Positively Certifies That Amy Is A Super Kid” is my Kindergarten report card – it says that I could count up to 129.
Since then, I’ve learned to count higher.
I can count to 337 – the number of school shootings that have occurred in the United States since Columbine in 1999; the number of school shootings since I first enrolled in preschool.
Now, despite being out of school and with no children of my own, the ever-present threat of school gun violence has not yet released me from its paralyzing grip. While parents send their children off to school this fall, I send my mom off to school.
I’m the daughter of two public school teachers, one of whom is still teaching. My mom – a sixth grade social studies teacher – started her career in 1984. She’s one of those one-in-a-million teachers for whom teaching truly is a calling, a foundational part of who she is.
December 14, 2012, was the day I first started to see cracks in that foundation. The final bell rang, releasing me from Advanced Desktop Publishing. I turned the car radio on to learn that a gunman had killed 20 children and six adults in an elementary school. My mom cried a lot that night. In the decade that followed the Sandy Hook massacre, I’ve watched as gun violence has eroded her passion for teaching; school shooting incidents crashing into her with increasing frequency, “thoughts and prayers” nothing more than an ineffective retaining wall.
“I love teaching, but it makes me angry,” she tells me, as she aggressively crushes Oreos into her emotional-support ice cream. The discussion makes both of us uneasy. “I feel like I was very well prepared to teach my curriculum, but I was not prepared to teach kids how to differentiate the sound of a balloon popping from a gunshot, or how to barricade a room.”
The threat of school gun violence really hit home on November 30, 2021, when a mass shooting killed four students at Oxford High School in Michigan. My family and I had been there plenty of times before, having competed against the Wildcats in volleyball games and track meets when I was younger. We passed it on the way to my aunt’s house the other week - my mom fought back tears in the car.
Oxford High School is 29.3 miles from the middle school my mom works at. It’s about a 45-minute drive with no traffic – less time than a gunman spent inside Robb Elementary School on May 24, 2022 in Uvalde, Texas, killing 19 children and two teachers. My mom’s district shut down because of copycat threats.
Being the daughter of two public school teachers has its perks (letting me into the school after hours on more than one occasion because I forgot my homework in my locker), and its downsides (your mom asking her teacher friends if your date is a good student).
Wondering what my mom might do if a shooter entered her classroom is definitely the worst downside.
“You hear stories about the teacher who died, but they were a hero,” she says. “And I’ve sat and thought ‘Would I put myself in front of my students?’ but I don’t know. It’s a horrible situation to have to consider.”
There’s no commandment etched into stone that teachers must sacrifice themselves for their students, but the feeling that they should is as palpable as it is suffocating. In many ways, teachers are their students’ protectors and advocates, charged with their wellbeing and education until the school day ends. But there’s no bell that dismisses my mom from her role as my greatest champion. My fear is not only against some senseless gunman but against an unspoken and assumed responsibility that my mom has to be a hero.
“I know this sounds awful,” I tell her. “But I don’t want you to be a hero, because I still need you more.” It’s a hypothetical we both hate.
I don’t imagine the “what ifs” are any easier for parents, but there are children like me who worry about our loved ones, too. No matter how many times I run the simulation in my head, no matter how badly I want her to be the hero, I always arrive at the same conclusion – I still need her more.
I flip through the binder in my lap again. It’s volume one of three. How many spelling tests, report cards, and art projects might have been lost to time had my mom not been there to carefully archive my school years? How many parents won’t have the opportunity to document these little artifacts for their children? I close the binder and return it to the bookcase.
The consequences of gun violence in our schools and communities are far-reaching. More than 311,000 students at 331 schools in the United States have experienced gun violence in their schools since Columbine. New data released this month by the City Health Dashboard and Everytown for Gun Safety show that firearm homicide rates in cities increased approximately 18 percent from 2010-2020, with a steep increase in 2020; and deaths by suicide with a firearm increased by approximately 11 percent for the same period. This violence is increasingly affecting younger and vulnerable groups; in 2020, firearm-related injuries became the leading cause of death among children and adolescents in the United States.
337 school shootings since Columbine. My mom was in school for all of them.
Through it all – the violence, new responsibilities and a pandemic – my mom continues teaching, always saying she’ll teach “one more year.” But with every “one more year” comes more worry and risk, and every fall another school year starts without meaningful gun control legislation.
City Health Dashboard and Everytown’s research shows that cities and states with weaker gun control policies have higher rates of both firearm homicides and suicides. On July 29, 2022, House Democrats passed legislation to reinstate a federal assault weapons ban. The number of mass shooting deaths in the United States declined from 1994-2004 while the ban was in effect; however, the bill is not expected to pass a vote in the Senate – a decision that will fail students and their teachers. Yet, I still have hope for progress. The federal government is finally able to fund gun violence prevention research and groups like The National Collaborative on Gun Violence Research are funding and disseminating non-partisan research that can inform fair and effective gun policies.
After a career in public education spanning almost 40 years, this fall my mom started what she swears is actually going to be her last year. There was an active shooter drill on day six. Active shooter drills in our schools are nothing new, but nothing about this drill felt normal.
“It was just different this time,” she says. “There was not a sound, you could tell the kids were taking it very seriously. It was the first time I’ve ever felt like my class really understood that this was something that could really potentially happen to them. I just kept thinking about those poor kids and teachers in those classrooms in Uvalde and how long they had to stay there, knowing there was an active gunman and no one was coming in to get them. I just kept praying that the drill would be over soon.”
She took slow, deep breaths in the dark classroom to calm herself down, not wanting to get visibly upset in front of the kids. And me? I’ll be holding my breath until June, hoping that I won’t have to count higher than 337.
About the Author
Amy Rooker holds a Master of Public Health in Epidemiology and a Certificate in Injury and Violence Prevention from the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health. After a gunman killed 17 people and injured another 17 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida on Valentine’s Day 2018, Ms. Rooker decided to focus her Master’s studies on gun violence. She has been involved in gun violence research and outreach with researchers from Columbia University, the University of Washington Harborview Injury Prevention and Research Center, Harvard University, Northeastern University, and the University of Michigan Injury Prevention Center.