TW: threats of violence/shooting in school.
The post circulated during lunchtime, which meant that none of the teachers knew about it until class started. I had opened my classroom early, as usual, and enlisted a few students to help with some tidying. They didn’t know either. We’d been laughing at my apparent infatuation with pretty file folders and had no idea anything was wrong. In fact, as the students wandered in, only M’s dry “I assume you know about the, uh, social media, issue?” caught my attention. I sighed.
“What is it this time?”
High school is busy, you know? Last week, it was a mean instagram account where someone was posting pictures of students without their consent. Or maybe there were two accounts? One of students sleeping & one of eating? And one was mocking but one was not? Or maybe I’m wrong. This year alone we’ve had everything from the really bad – sexual harassment – to the really minor – soccer balls should not, in fact, be dribbled down the hallways. I’d love to blame it on the pandemic, but that’s not the truth: high school is always about transgressing rules. Part of my job is deciding which rules are worth enforcing (sexual harassment is NEVER ok) and which aren’t (I honestly do not care if you use the sign out sheet for the bathroom – but don’t tell the kids).
This time, however, “it” was an explicit angry threat to shoot the Vice Principal, teachers and students tomorrow. Or maybe Thursday – because the day of the week and the day of the month in the threat do not match. The note is chilling, but it’s also oddly high school – a few errors here and there; that date mismatch; the assurance that this is NOT a “hoax” complete with the air quotes that drive me around a bend when they show up in formal writing. There were pictures of guns, too, of course.
I’ve taught through a lot: 9/11 in a school in Washington, DC; the sniper who was targeting schools & children (for days we shielded them with our bodies while they boarded the bus home); intruders in the school; a day when a bunch of children reported that they had taken unauthorized pills and were afraid of the results; drills for an anthrax attack, drills for a “dirty bomb”, lockdown drills, evacuation drills; a shooter in the neighbourhood where my own children attend school – while across the city my school was “secured”. I’ve never taught through the threat of a school shooting, but I’m practiced in helping students deal with threats of violence.
So I listened when my students worried, and I told them we were safe for now. I told them about my plan to keep them physically safe – a plan I didn’t even realize I had but which was remarkably well-formulated when I needed it. I told them about times when my students and I have been safe. I made them laugh, then I made them put their phones away – social media only fans the fire – and I assured them that the antidote to fear is focus and made them write. And, because teenagers are amazing – and trusting – they did.
After school, we had a staff meeting – virtual, of course, because this potential shooter is not the only threat we are dealing with. And, while the Principal tried to offer staff what I had offered students, there really is only so much assurance anyone can provide. Someone has threatened to come to school and shoot people tomorrow. They threatened a VP by name; they threatened an “English class” and students. I am an English teacher. That could be my class.
After work, teachers from other schools wrote to make sure I was aware of the threat, to encourage me to stay home or stay strong. Many students will stay home tomorrow and the rest of the week, and I totally understand. I suspect that many teachers will stay home, too, and that also makes sense – what other protection is there, really?
When I chose teaching years ago no one had ever died in a school shooting. Can you remember that? Can you imagine it? There was a time when people who chose teaching did not also choose to put ourselves in harm’s way.
Tomorrow, I will wake up and decide if I am going to work. I will have to decide if this threat is credible, if the school system can adequately protect me. (It cannot.) This is not a decision I should have to make, but here we are.
As I go to bed this evening, I keep thinking about my students. Do they know how much I care about them – how deeply I wish to help them become themselves? I don’t know what else to hope. I don’t know how else to pray. I will pray with love and for love. I will pray that we can continue to create a society and a school system where all children feel valued and supported. I will pray that someday we create schools full of joy.
And I will (almost definitely) go to school tomorrow.