We were all shocked to learn that a 6 year old student shot his elementary school teacher in Richneck, Virginia on Friday, January 7th. The very next day, NEA hosted a small convening of educators from around the country, including GEA member Deborah Gatrell, to discuss Gun Violence Prevention in schools. While the event was scheduled well in advance, the Richneck incident gave it even greater urgency.
Gatrell was surprised to be invited to participate given her position as a classroom teacher, but her work speaking out on education and school safety issues since 2018 caught national attention and her experience at Hunter High, where a shooting between students just off campus during lunch took one of her students just last year, made everything personal. Her military experience made her insight even more interesting to NEA as a unique perspective on the topic.
This convening was a direct result of a National Business Item (NBI) voted on by the NEA Representative Assembly (RA) in July 2022, including GEA’s delegation, requiring the NEA to “issue a National Call to Action to ensure that all students, educators, schools, campuses, and communities are safe from gun violence.” The first step in the call to action was “a cross section convening of national, state, local leaders, and staff to create a unified, national set of strategies and tactics at every level of the association that keep the threat of gun violence to our students and educators at the forefront of policy discussions until we can ensure the safety of our communities.”
As part of a panel of educators sharing their experiences responding to gun violence, Gatrell talked about the 2018 Utah Safe Schools Commission and the hope, then, that things would change and her frustration that things did not improve. She spoke about the horror of losing Tiavani Lopati to gun violence when a school fight moved off campus and escalated last January. She also expressed hope, stating “Some people are on the extremes, but most are somewhere in the middle” and we need to engage them in meaningful dialogue to build support for meaningful solutions.
Other panelists came from across the country and represented a range of experiences. Zachary Martin, a social studies teacher from Columbine High School in Colorado, was a freshman at Columbine in 1999 when the “first” school shooting (we remember) happened. Now he is involved with the local chapter of March for Our Lives. Ovidia Molina is the president of the Texas State Teachers Association and was heavily involved in the aftermath of the massacre at Uvalde last year. Kevin Marvin is a Michigan Education Association staff member who was deeply involved in supporting staff members impacted by the shooting at Oxford High, MI in 2021.Mary Jane Cobb is the Executive Director of the Iowa State Education Association and was also involved in responding to a drive by shooting outside a high school in Des Moines, IA.
It will take all of us. None of us can do everything, but all of us can do something, and together, we can change the world. Whether it is meaningful conversation and positive social media action as an individual, school-community narrative development at the building and local level, or more direct actions to advocate for specific policies from the local to the national level, this work is essential. What we’ve been doing obviously hasn’t been working, so it’s time for deliberate action to change things for the better. We owe it to our students, ourselves, and our communities.
You can read more about the convening in the NEA Today article “Help Us Stop the Attacks:” Educators Urge Action on Gun Violence. This work is just getting started, and Deborah is working with GEA and UEA on some action plans. Stay tuned to learn more ways you can engage in the work through your association.