The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion We must safeguard our schools from predators

Eva Mireles, left, and Irma Garcia were teachers at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Tex. They were both fatally shot during a mass shooting at the school on May 24. (Courtesy of Lydia Martinez Delgado; Courtesy of Jose Garcia)
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In the early days of reporting about the elementary school massacre in Uvalde, Tex., news stories typically led with 19 children slain followed, almost parenthetically, by “and their two teachers,” as though they were afterthoughts.

It is possible that I, too, have been guilty of this unintentional slight and wanted to take a moment for them.

Irma Garcia, 48, and Eva Mireles, 44, deserve our sorrow and outrage, too. Both veterans of the classroom, they taught fourth-graders together for the past five years. Garcia was finishing her 23rd year at Robb Elementary School; Mireles, her 17th. They, and the children they tried to protect, had just two more days before the start of summer vacation.

Garcia left behind a husband, Joe Garcia, and four children. And now her husband is dead, too, leaving their children, including a seventh-grader, to a future without parents. Two days after his wife was murdered, Joe Garcia died of an apparent heart attack. Mireles, described by friends and family as a “warrior” for her students, leaves behind an adult daughter, a husband and three pets.

That’s not much to say about two women who had dedicated their lives to the noblest profession. As though we don’t ask enough of teachers in addition to their daily lessons — parenting, health care, counseling, feeding and nurturing — we now seem to expect proficiency in hostage management, violence mitigation and, now, a willingness to die.

Our children are our most precious asset, and we don’t have them for very long. If we are to be a nation of universal education, then we need to be able to count on our public officials to make sure the schools we send them to are safe. And we need to be sure that the invaluable teachers we ask to guide our children’s educations aren’t living under a death threat.

When teachers die in the line of duty, it is a heartbreaking tragedy. But when children die, it is too much to bear. There is simply no way to adequately process this atrocity. I feel like I’ve been screaming inside my head ever since the news broke.

We can talk about the lone gunman with mental problems. We can attest to the millions of responsible gun owners and the many other variables when we discuss our singularly U.S. mass-murder problem. But consider this: Over Memorial Day weekend, gun violence, including at least 12 mass shootings, left 8 people dead and 55 injured, according to the Gun Violence Archive.

But we don’t have a gun problem?

Here’s more: As of 2018, there were more civilian-owned guns in the United States than there were people. That means that every man, woman and child could own a firearm and we would still have 67 million left over, according to the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva. And you know the numbers have only increased since then.

Listening to NPR shortly after the killings, I heard a woman from Uvalde call the dead children “our babies.” That’s the way townspeople had begun referring to them, she said. And I said aloud, “They’re my babies, too.” Every child belongs to all of us. And, if I were dictator for a day, any crime against any child would be designated a crime against humanity. Our humanity as well as theirs.

By definition, a “crime against humanity” is committed by the state, usually against civilians. And, obviously, the state didn’t kill the children of Sandy Hook, Parkland, Columbine or Uvalde. But when the state fails to ensure the safety of children at a public institution, is it not fair to suggest that the state is guilty by proxy?

If the state can enforce truancy laws, ought not the state be held liable when the school attendance it requires results in a student’s murder?

I realize I’m treading into a minefield, but like you, I can’t stand it anymore. I can’t stand the mass murder of children, of teachers, and movie- and concertgoers, of grocery shoppers, gay nightclubbers, and church and temple worshipers. My God. Have I left anyone out?

Adding to the trauma, we have learned that more of Uvalde’s children might have survived if police had acted sooner. Instead of confronting the gunman, police forces waited an hour, thinking that the situation was contained, they have explained. It was contained, all right. Two classrooms contained a crazed high school dropout wearing a tactical vest and toting an AR-15-style rifle, or “America’s Rifle,” as the NRA put it in a January 2016 blog post.

We can’t protect every building or every venue with concertina wire and sharpshooters. Nor can we ensure that 100 percent of gun owners are of sane mind. But the very least we can do is make sure every school in this country is safe from predators, no matter the cost. And, yes, train and arm the teachers who are willing. No more fooling around.