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“We’re expected to be human shields”: Teachers are unprotected — and scared

After another school shooting, teachers express fear over the threat of violence in their classrooms.

Teachers For Gun Legislation March Towards Senator Cruz’s Office
After a mass shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, teachers for gun control legislation marched to Sen. Ted Cruz’s office.
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Fabiola Cineas covers race and policy as a reporter for Vox. Before that, she was an editor and writer at Philadelphia magazine, where she covered business, tech, and the local economy.

The day after the mass shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, Elizabeth, a first grade teacher at a school across the state, looked down at the sidewalk to read what one of her students had scribbled in chalk at the entrance to their school: “If you have a gun, get out pleas.” The child’s message, innocent with its spelling error, was decorated with the drawing of a little white heart.

That day, Elizabeth started locking both doors in her classroom. She told her students not to congregate in the hallway, to stop coming in and out of the room all day long, and “if you have to go to the bathroom, go quick and be back ASAP.”

“I don’t care how inconvenient it is,” she said. “If that fourth grade classroom’s door had been locked, the shooter would not have been able to get inside. I have to remember that.”

Elizabeth, who asked to be referred to by her middle name because “it’s a highly politicized issue ... especially in Texas, and I don’t want to put myself at risk,” did all this because she felt ultimately responsible for her students’ safety. “This is by no means normal and anything I want to be doing with my students, but I felt it was the reality of that day, and I did what felt the safest,” she said.

After a mass shooting at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, in May, one first grader wrote a message outside of her school: “If you have a gun, get out pleas.”

Previous mass shootings, like the 2012 one at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut, that claimed 27 lives, haven’t pushed lawmakers to prevent future ones. The country remains awash with guns, and few new burdens have been placed on would-be gun owners to stop future massacres. Instead, the burden of keeping students safe has fallen on schools — and ultimately on teachers.

In lockdown drills, teachers are expected to train their students to hide, and, in some cases, to fight. Proposals from arming teachers to “hardening schools” underscore the message that keeping schools safe is ultimately the responsibility of schools themselves, and of the adults in them.

After the shooting at Robb Elementary, officials in states like Texas have renewed calls to arm teachers. On Monday, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine signed into law a bill that would arm more teachers by requiring them to have at least 24 hours of training to carry guns at school. Previously, Ohio teachers needed permission from their school board and more than 700 hours of training as a peace officer.

“So many of our teachers come to the profession because they love working with children. They love what they do, so they’re already always thinking about how they can help their children. There’s less of a focus on the emotional and traumatic experiences they’re having,” Prerna Arora, a school psychologist and assistant professor of school psychology at Columbia University, Teachers College, told Vox. “We have to consider how trauma impacts a teacher and their ability to be present and be there for their students.”

And if the worst should happen, teachers are often the last line of defense. While police dithered outside, two teachers in Uvalde died while shielding their students from gunfire. Since their deaths, the two teachers, Eva Mireles and Irma Garcia, have been called heroes — a label that does not capture the complexity of what teachers are expected to do and be every day. They’re expected to be counselors, nurses, human shields, and more.

Arnulfo Reyes, a teacher who survived the shooting at Robb Elementary, explained how he went from preparing for a student award ceremony that morning to being shot twice by the gunman and witnessing all 11 of the students in his classroom die. “I tried my best with what I was told to do,” he said in an interview. “It all happened too fast. Training, no training, all kinds of training, nothing gets you ready for this.”

“We have to consider what happens to teachers when part of their job is the expectation that they might have to hug their children under a desk during a mass shooting,” said Arora. “It’s a horrifying visual, the idea of having to shield your students to protect them from gunshots after watching the movie Moana,” Arora said. “This is the only job in the country where someone is basically expected to do this when it’s not part of their job description or what they’re trained for.”

In the days since the shooting, commentators and Texas lawmakers have offered countless thoughts on school shootings, none of which involve gun safety reform. Texas’s Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Sen. Ted Cruz suggested that officials “harden schools,” leaving one entrance in and one entrance out. Others have suggested arming teachers, or training students to fight shooters, or making body armor available at schools for students and educators. Other ideas call for a more imposing physical landscape: taller fencing, tripwires, metal detectors.

Many of the ideas, like positioning “good guys with guns” or arming teachers, have not worked in the past. But they underscore that lawmakers are likely to put the responsibility of keeping schools safe back onto schools and teachers.

“As a former volunteer firefighter, I can tell you that many of these ideas to lock down schools create huge safety concerns,” Josh, a science teacher in Houston who asked that only his first name be used for fear of retaliation, told Vox. “They also don’t address the root causes of shootings, which is access to guns and mental health. We don’t have enough counselors in our school and there just isn’t enough money to actually invest in mental health services.”

He added: “We teachers have come under attack for many things this year. They don’t trust us to put out the appropriate books for our students but they trust us to carry guns in schools?”

Rachel Graves Hicks, a high school career and technical education teacher in a large suburban school district near Fort Worth, Texas, has already spent time that could have been spent teaching on preparing for shootings. She routinely practices safety drills with her high schoolers. She tells them to place big items of furniture at the door, get out of sight, and be as quiet as possible. And should the shooter breach the door, she instructs her students to hurl items at them.

The burden could someday become too much. “The day my district determines that teachers are allowed to carry guns at school, I will no longer work in the classroom. Full stop. I am out,” she said. “We tell them to throw monitors and chairs, anything that could stop the shooter,” she said. “How is this not enough?”

Update, June 13, 6 pm: The story has been updated to include Ohio’s new bill arming teachers.