When news broke Tuesday evening about the school shooting that left an 18-year-old dead in Highlands Ranch, Colo., exactly one week after a gunman killed two people at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte (UNCC), I understood all too well what those communities were going through. As a UNCC student said upon hearing about the violence, “Now we are one of those schools.” I’m a professor who was educated at “one of those schools,” and the experience changed not only how students learn, but how many of my colleagues and I teach.
I completed my graduate work at Virginia Tech and was on campus the day 32 people lost their lives to gun violence. It’s a nightmare I cannot wake up from. The tragedy started with an attack on a woman, my wife’s high school classmate, who lived down the hall from a few of my childhood friends in West Ambler Johnston Hall. The tragedy continued later in the morning across campus in Norris Hall, the building next to mine, while a few colleagues and I worked to finish our theses before graduation. The lockdown was excruciating, as we were shut in our offices with little ability to reach out because cellphone lines were jammed and our email servers crashing. Sometimes we could connect to social media, but many times not. The aftermath was even more painful, as I learned that a friend from a neighboring high school was killed along with the cousin of a college friend, among many other loved ones from our communities. As Nikki Giovanni noted in her poem delivered the next day, “No one deserves a tragedy.”
Gun violence has dramatically changed faculty life on our college campuses. Orientations and trainings now include conversations about active-shooter situations or how to profile your students for “odd” or “threatening” behaviors. Buildings are designed and marketed to be better facilities, not because the technology can promote teaching and learning, but because it can work in efficient ways to contain a shooter on campus with systems designed to lock down buildings in an instant.
The gun violence that those of us who were at Virginia Tech and other campuses have experienced has transformed how we teach and support students in other ways.
Each semester we walk into our classrooms and survey the space. We note doors, locks, exit paths, and where the lecterns and computers sit in the room. Sometimes we look ahead at the calendars to schedule when our classes meet to avoid the anniversaries of gun violence or cancel classes on those days if needed. These actions are obviously very different from what we imagined when we decided to pursue our goals of being college professors and teachers.
Every April, or when another campus or school is the scene of gun violence, my friends and colleagues who were with me in Blacksburg often reach out to one another. Sometimes we share coping strategies and how we may have approached a certain situation with a student or a new space we find ourselves in. Pedagogy, or how we teach and support students, has changed to include other conversations once rarely discussed on college campuses.
With the ongoing threat of gun violence, we have students entering our classrooms with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other mental health issues. When a student quietly discloses they may miss class once in a while as a result of high anxiety of even being in a classroom because they or someone close to them were victims of gun violence in schools, I always have to take a deep breath before I respond. I understand those feelings all too well. The questions these students ask are different after I mention our unfortunate connection. These conversations sometimes last for a moment or recur across several months.
This is what education looks like today, and my heart breaks that my students, including my younger brother and sister, could have this be part of their college experience. This is what teaching on campus looks like for many of us, and how our support for students extends beyond teaching the subjects we are experts in during an era of fear that a community will be shook by gun violence.
In the aftermath of the Denver-area shooting, an 8-year-old child said they had never heard a gunshot before but that they recognized the sound when the shooting began; they were trained to expect violence in their school, and more than 200,000 children have experienced gun violence in schools since the Columbine massacre 20 years ago. This does not include the thousands of students who had similar experiences on college campuses across the nation.
If we want to ensure another campus, another community, does not have to face the possibility of gun violence, then we must better fund gun violence research that provides much needed context to identify how these incidents occur and what solutions exist beyond demonizing students as possible threats or transforming our classroom buildings into fortresses. We must invest in community infrastructure, including increasing school funding and expanding mental health services, and create more opportunities, rather than take them away. We must also take a hard look at how our current laws and enforcement mechanisms do not work to prevent these tragedies and why “fighting fire with fire” by arming teachers will not prevent school shootings, either.
We are beyond the point for hard conversations; we need concrete actions to curb the gun violence that can enter our schools and campuses. All of our children’s lives depend on making sure they have the opportunity to pursue their dreams, and part of this starts with making sure their teachers do not have to help them prepare for another tragedy because of gun violence.