A Year Without: Building Hope for a Safer Future in Newtown

By Katherine Doerr Morosky

This Saturday, December 14, 2013, pin on a green ribbon and remember the children and teachers who died senselessly a year ago. And do more than just remember … It’s about keeping our future alive.

Newtown’s first snow fell yesterday and I felt the sensation that my year of mourning has waned. For the first time in nearly 365 days, our grey world seemed illuminated and the day seemed to linger, as the ice-trapped light refracted through the soft snowflakes. Although the recent release of an investigative report on the Sandy Hook massacre and the 911 tapes chafed at the scabs, I can look to the future knowing that, though the road to recovery is long, there is light at the end of this dark journey.

Last December 14 was sunny, snowless and fairly warm. I drove to work at 7 a.m., with thoughts of the weekend and holidays. Two hours later, a babysitter walked my two little girls through our backyard to Hawley School. The school day that started happily quickly became a nightmare: a morning was spent in lockdown, listening to sirens screaming past their school to get to Sandy Hook. When I picked them up from school that afternoon, I couldn’t hold back tears when I explained that a bad man went into the school down the street and hurt many, many children. Twenty of their peers were dead, six of their teachers’ colleagues, at least 10 of whom we knew as friends or neighbors, and I had no idea how to tell them this.

I didn’t sleep that night. As dawn broke on December 15, I knew the only way I could get out of bed that day, or any day soon thereafter, was if I devoted myself to helping correct what it was that created this disaster. I soon understood that there was not one easy answer. The investigative report made it clear that the shooter Adam Lanza behaved bizarrely for almost his entire adult life, and that his family was concerned but enabling. While his motive will never be known, his easy and legal access to guns and large ammunition magazines made December 14 the massacre that it was.

United by grief

I took my daughters to Washington D.C., at the end of January, to march and rally on the National Mall. The group of Newtowners who went quickly formed into the Newtown Action Alliance, devoted to strengthening laws to keep guns out of the hands of criminals and the mentally ill. A few weeks later, a bipartisan committee from the Connecticut Legislature was in Newtown, listening as citizens from all walks of life and every political stripe asked for laws to prevent what happened to us from happening in another town. Around the same time, I worked  with 10 other teachers from across the country to collaboratively write the VIVA Idea Exchange report, “Sensible Solutions for Safer Schools. We all had very different backgrounds and opinions, but we found consensus because our common sense priority was keeping children safe.

A graphic in the Brady Campaign 2013 State Scorecard shows that states with the toughest gun laws have the lowest rates of gun death.

A graphic in the Brady Campaign 2013 State Scorecard shows that states with the toughest gun laws have the lowest rates of gun death.

The Connecticut Legislature was able to pass major gun violence prevention measures in early April with bipartisan support.  Twenty-one other states, including Florida and Texas, enacted some sensible legislation in 2013.  The effects are real. A graphic in the new Brady Campaign 2013 State Scorecard: Why Gun Laws Matter, clearly shows that states with the toughest gun laws have the lowest rates of gun death.

The tipping point begets a cultural shift

For awhile, it seemed that the massacre at Sandy Hook School would be the “tipping point” that would compel even the U.S. Congress to act.  Members on both sides of the aisle wore green and white Sandy Hook ribbons during President Obama’s State of the Union address. As the Senate Judiciary Committee held hearings on expanding background checks and bans on assault weapons, high capacity magazines and straw purchases of guns, I called congressional offices around the country, telling them about my family, friends and neighbors’ intense grief at losing our innocent loved ones.

We all had very different backgrounds and opinions, but we found consensus because our common sense priority was keeping children safe.

It was discouraging when the federal bill failed in a cloture vote on the Senate floor, but we were not very surprised. The journey to making our country safer so that kids can grow up without being shot will be a marathon, not a sprint. It’s as much, and probably more, about changing our culture as changing our laws. We are making incremental and significant changes. When Starbucks became a magnet for “open-carry enthusiasts” this summer, CEO Howard Schultz changed company policy and requested that patrons not bring their guns into its shops. NASCAR recently rejected NRA sponsorship of its races, and the NFL has refused to air a pro-gun commercial during the 2014 Super Bowl.

Will it take another elementary school massacre for Congress to move beyond business as usual? Safety from gun violence goes beyond the partisan divide: 80 percent of the American public supports background check legislation. This Saturday, December 14, 2013, pin on a green ribbon and remember the children and teachers who died senselessly a year ago. And do more than just remember. Speak out. Call or write to your members of Congress and tell them to act to reduce gun violence.  Remind your neighbors, family and friends why you care. It’s about keeping our future alive.

KMoroskyKatie Morosky teaches high school science in Wilton, Conn. She was a member of the VIVA NEA Writing Collaborative on school safety.

Creating a safe environment… always a collaborative effort

By Nancy Hahn

On June 18, the Obama administration released a Guide for Developing High Quality School Emergency Operations Plans. The report stirred up some talk, worried some, had parts most people agreed with, and parts that raised some uproar. It made people think and talk. Pretty much the job of any report, if you ask me. My view of the report and its recommendations were colored by an amazing experience I had last winter and spring. I was part of a group of over 100 teachers who posted our opinions online during the VIVA NEA Idea Exchange on creating safer schools. Eleven of those teachers, including me, without ever meeting in the same room, worked and shared and discussed and agreed and disagreed and compromised and wrote Sensible Solutions for Safer Schools. This report was prepared for and presented to both the president of NEA and Secretary of Education in Washington, DC, in April.

When I read the Obama administration’s report there were certainly recommendations I agreed with and others I didn’t, so much. More about that later. I am most excited and pleased about the process for planning that the report recommends. There are six steps outlined for developing and implementing a plan for your school. The first step was to form a collaborative team. The report details who should be part of that team – representatives of all stakeholders in the school. For me, the collaborative team is the most crucial part of the process of creating a plan. Believe me; it has taken me a long time to really accept the importance of collaboration. It is critical. If the teachers alone come up with a plan, they will love it. The administration won’t. Students won’t. Parents won’t. If parents create a plan; they will love it, but… I guess you see the pattern.

In a truly collaborative process everyone gets a chance to speak… and to be listened to. Listening in a group may mean inside my head I’m thinking, “How can you be a reasonable person and believe that?” But if I ask questions, I might learn that there are some good reasons for that thinking. Example: Our group of 11 teachers had widely differing views of the value and appropriate use of school resource officers. There were many questions. “You wouldn’t want them in an elementary school, right?” We discovered that some people were picturing scary, stern, unfriendly armed guards. Others thought of the police officer who interacts with children in conversations and activities. THAT resource officer becomes the positive face of the justice system to children who may have only a negative image. “Are you kidding, my 6-year-old loves Officer Jim! And knows she’s safe when he’s there.”

In a collaborative process, even though everyone won’t agree completely with every choice and decision, it’s okay. You understand that you have been listened to. Some of your ideas are included.  There are reasons for all the choices made.   Everyone has agreed to the final shape of the decisions and has a real stake in both the process and the product.

Now, about the White House recommendations that are getting the most talk – and one that isn’t. There are two big points of contention.  First, the report does not recommend arming teachers.  Period. Second, there is a recommendation that safety plans should include teachers considering confronting a shooter, if there are no other choices. I am not full of emotion about either of these recommendations. Both are for the most extreme of situations – an armed shooter in the school. Rare. Horrifying to imagine, important to consider, but really rare. Not arming teachers, I’m fine with that. Our group of 11 teachers could not come to agreement on the issue. There is passion and good reasoning on both sides. My feeling is when first responders arrive to take down the shooter, I don’t want the first person they see with a gun to be the math teacher. Confronting the shooter? Oh, gosh.  At less than 5’2”, 106 pounds, and no training – I would not be useful using force. I would have to talk him out of his gun. I think the recommendation is designed to empower – to encourage staff and students to say “I will do something.”  An Education Week article on the White House report discussed fighting when all else fails. I can buy that.

The piece of the report that isn’t receiving a lot of talk is about ‘school climate.’ School climate, the report explains, describes conditions that influence learning and feelings of safety and well-being. A positive school climate means students, parents, and all stakeholders feel the school is safe, fair, and does a good job educating students. Students and staff feel valued and respected.  They are working together. They are listened to.  In the very many schools where a school shooting was stopped before it happened, students cared about their school and found an adult to talk to. Young people talk. Really. They always talk. The student planning acts of violence talks. Really. Other students hear. If the school climate is not positive, students may view teachers and adults as ‘the other’. They may not feel they are listened to, so they don’t tell. If the school climate is positive, students share what they have heard. It leads me back to collaboration, again. Learning, teaching, creating a safe environment, getting involved, and growing… always a collaborative effort.

An abridged version of this post was published on the Commentary page of Education Week’s Aug. 21, 2013 edition.

Nancy Hahn teaches Language Arts, Read 180, and Writing Intervention to seventh and eighth graders in Jeffco, Colo. She has been teaching for 15 years. She was a member of the VIVA NEA Writing Collaborative.

Another view of students, teachers, guns and schools…

By Charlene Mendoza

In the wake of school shootings that have plagued us at least since the late 1990s, the debate about protecting students and teachers while at school rages.  In my home state of Arizona, one possible solution being bandied about is arming teachers – or just the principal.  After all, having a single armed adult on campus, rather than many is safer, right?  If there are too many teachers with guns, students might gain access to them, increasing the likelihood of accidents.

Then, there are all the logistical considerations of having armed personnel in school.  Safety protocols would seem to necessitate gun safes and separate lock boxes for ammunition, as well as questions like what to do with your weapon when you have to go to the bathroom.  I don’t mean to make light of this, but, really, what am I to do, leave it in the top desk drawer with the spare pencils and dry erase markers?

Another suggestion is to assign an armed posse member on campus to help ensure students and staff are safe.  Is this the Wild, Wild West of old movies? (Although, in my recollection, posses were put together after a crime had occurred, in order to assist the law enforcement personnel in catching a suspected criminal.)

I continue to be amazed that suggestions such as these merit discussion among logical, thinking people.  I believe that everyone is intent on making schools and college campuses safer.  Nevertheless, these suggestions, and others like them, generalize and objectify real, live human beings in a way that is all too common today.

I have been a classroom teacher since 1998.  During that time, I have helped real, live students process and cope with a litany of tragedy: the Columbine shootings and others that followed; 9/11; wars; a classmate being shot and killed in front of her own home; the January 8th shooting in Tucson; a classmate committing suicide with a gun; a family member of a student killing another family member with a gun and then himself; and innumerable accounts of youths witnessing or being victims themselves of domestic violence, gang activity and sexual assault — many of which involved a gun.  Still, even in the face of these challenges, the great majority of these young people have shown an amazing capacity for resilience, remaining focused on academic achievement and optimistic for a future full of bright possibilities.

It’s difficult for me to imagine those same faces being so hopeful surrounded by adults who are armed with guns.  For a lot of us, guns don’t make us feel safe, guns make us feel scared.  Guns are objects used to intimidate and inspire fear, not create security and safety.  Guns are used to hurt, not help.

Thinking back to my own training, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs comes to mind.  In order to be able to reach and teach youth, their basic needs must be met.  These include adequate food and sleep, as well as the ability to feel safe and open to learning.  The proposition of arming the teachers and administrators on school campuses runs the risk of making sure school is not that safe and secure place for teachers and students.

Put that in the context of placing trained, armed posse members on campus.  The tragedy of Trayvon Martin’s death and George Zimmerman’s trial should give us all cause to consider if this is a wise or practical solution.  When we know that trained professionals can make mistakes and might observe something that is not what it appears to be, I can’t help but worry about more people with guns on school campuses.  My concern goes back to the fact that for many of us, men and women with guns are dangerous to us.  Sometimes those people are criminals intent on committing heinous acts of violence.  Sometimes they are well-intention human beings who make a mistake.  As we have all learned, a mistake made with a gun is nearly impossible to correct, and the effects are life-altering for us all.

I am a teacher!  I say that proudly with the faces of my students, current and past, running through my mind.  When I imagine myself faced with the proposition of a person on campus who is armed and bent on harming the students and teachers with whom I have the honor to work, I know I would do whatever I could, whatever was possible to protect them.  I believe this is true of all of the teachers I know and many I don’t.  However, when I imagine myself or any other educator armed with a gun in the name of protecting the children, I know it is time to speak out.  These are not common sense solutions.  We can do better.  We must do better.

Charlene Mendoza teaches AP English Language and Literature at an Arizona charter school. She’s been a teacher for more than 15 years, and was a member of the VIVA Arizona Idea Exchange Writing Collaborative.

Teacher Talk on School Climate: Armed and Pedagogical?

By Kori Milroy

The recent Sandy Hook school massacre has brought about a nationwide focus on school safety and security.  Ideas for improving security range from an across the board ban on assault weapons and high capacity magazines, to placing an armed guard in every school building.  Some groups have called for teachers and/or administrators to be armed with guns or Tasers. What do teachers think about all this? [Click to download]  Are they ready and willing to be armed?  The nation’s two largest teachers’ unions released a statement opposing arming teachers, but some teachers have embraced the idea, filling up free firearms training sessions being offered in Ohio, Utah, and Texas.

On this episode of Teacher Talk, Chicago Public Schools teachers Conor Fitzsimmons and Jennifer Christiansen share their opinions on school safety and security, and the prospect of teachers carrying guns. Download the episode here or stream it below. to listen in on Kori, Conor’s, and Jennifer’s conversation about the vision, and add your own voice to the mix by leaving a comment here on the VIVA Teachers website, below this post.

This is the third installment of Teacher Talk, an ongoing series of conversations between teachers talking about education policy.

VIVA Teachers leader Xian Barrett in Education Week

Channel Student’s Energy to Social-Justice Projects

Commentary By Xian Barrett

Imagine your own beautiful child in a moment of anger, miscommunication, or poor judgment. Imagine if instead of a scolding, loving redirection, or a discussion of how to make better decisions, your pride and joy was handcuffed, whisked off to jail, and denied any likelihood of college or future gainful employment. In Chicago, for many parents, this is the daily reality.

On the other hand, imagine students directing that energy for youthful indiscretion toward surveying and working to improve our communities. Imagine students collaborating with other young people and allies on projects for social change. What difference could that make?

Click here to read the full commentary on Education Week

One Teacher’s Take on How to Stop the Violence

VIVA Teacher Leader Karon Stewart is a middle school math teacher in one of the toughest neighborhoods in Chicago. Her students face significant challenges, not the least of which is surviving the violence in the neighborhoods. Stewart talks eloquently about the violence and how it affects her students and herself. It was the centerpiece of her speech when she was invited to introduce Secretary of Education Arne Duncan at a recent meeting of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

One of Stewart’s students was shot  while Duncan still served as head of the Chicago Public Schools. She reminded him of that incident and told the audience of Duncan’s personal response to her email asking for help in getting information about the condition of the student, who at the time he was presumed dead. After his speech, Duncan asked Stewart to share her ideas for combating the overwhelming and seemingly intractable challenge of ending violence against youth in America. This is what she told him:

Dear Secretary Duncan,

It was an honor to introduce you to the “Teacher Voice” conference participants.  At that time, you charged me with the task of suggesting ways to stop the violence in the Chicago. I really wish I had the answers. We feel each other’s pain. I am always devastated by the level of violence I see. Unfortunately, I cannot allow my emotions to sidetrack me from what I am paid to do: teach middle-school math. Even in saying that, I am in danger of becoming as anesthetized as my students, and I applaud you for always bringing this travesty to the forefront.

I will share my opinion.

Urgent /Long Term

Parents are the key factor and we have to find ways to support them in their efforts to raise their children.  I also believe that when students have chronic behavioral or discipline issues, their parents should be mandated to attend regular conferences that include a community service component. Finally, something has to be done to help children in homes with parents who are substance abusers. It appears that children who commit violent acts are more likely to be in this demographic.

Short Term

Expand the Chicago Park District programs, but you have to make it a safer place in some areas. Increase police presence in more positive ways. For example, have Police District teams challenge teams of teachers from the schools in their district to bi-annual basketball games. The “MVP’s” from these teams would then play student stars.

Expand the G.R.E.A.T program (Gang Resistance Education and Training). It was very effective at my school. The woman officers squashed a really violent series of altercations between about 16 7th and 8th grade girls.

Bring back Camp Hastings, the YMCA camp that gave students a chance to get out of the neighborhood for a week and participate in a plethora of outdoor activities.

Mentoring Programs

One of my students was selected in the Barbie I Can Be…Mentee Search and attended the White House Project awards ceremony in New York. She returned more purposeful. She became a classroom leader and inspired several other students to be successful.

I have also heard very good things about the Steve Harvey program. That program offers a Mentoring Weekend to break the misguided traits of manhood and introduce role models who provide positive examples of manhood.

Socio – Emotional Learning and Arts Programs

Parents, students, and teachers in challenging communities need to participate in programs that include an effective conflict resolution component.

Empower Communities

Campaign to end the “Snitches get Stitches” mentality so people will not be afraid to fight against abusive conditions. Utilize veterans in these programs. They are not afraid of the gangs and they push back!

Challenge potential gang members to make a positive impact on their communities. Penalties for petty crimes should include more extensive community service options, like cleaning vacant lots, assisting victims of violent crimes, etc. Many students, unfortunately, identify with a gang without actually participating in criminal activities. I understand this, but the gang mentality has to be replaced with something positive.

Update on my student who was shot:

My concern for this student began right after I added a picture of him and  two other boys to my Donors Choose web page. Another teacher said he was going to be a hoodlum. Unfortunately I understand why the teacher said that. But my student was facing major obstacles. His mother was sick (she has since died and while his family was at the memorial, his house was robbed) and he had an enormous amount of unsupervised time. This is the biggest problem with children in depressed areas. I began tutoring that student and another Bond alumni every Wednesday, after school for three years. I, along with several other teachers in the building began rewarding them with gift cards when they received good grades, and eventually, making the honor roll.  They were successful at a school that was voted one of the worst schools in the US.  I am very proud of him. He overcame tremendous obstacles and setbacks, but it took THE WHOLE VILLAGE.


Karon Stewart, National Board Certified Teacher