My students are in the midst of a five-day weekend, and their well-deserved break began at about the same minute that a 19-year-old began shooting ex-classmates and staff at a high school in Parkland, Fla., on Wednesday. It soon became clear that this was another school shooting with multiple fatalities, yet also a shooting in which students had used their phones and social media platforms during the event to document for the world just what a school shooting looks and sounds like.
I’m aware that nearly every media platform has been a forum for gun-control debate over the past four days, and I’m also aware that many students at this Florida high school have been speaking out, channeling their grief toward gun-control activism. It’s a teachable moment, so what does a journalism educator do?
First, you respond to the messages you’re sent. The first journalism student who reached out to me about the shooting sent an email at 1:30 a.m. on Friday. She had stayed up late writing a powerful opinion piece about guns in America. I responded to tell her she had done what she needed to do, which was to get her words down on paper. I followed up with emails to the editor-in-chief and business managers to see if they were interested in adding more pages to next week’s paper, in order to cover this issue. They said they were up for it, and other students began volunteering to write and lay out pages for our coverage. My advice to the writers was to do what that first student had done – write what is on their minds. We’ll have time to do more reporting on this issue in the weeks ahead, but for now the kids seemed to need an outlet for their emotions.
I have witnessed the powerful emotions this debate produces. Twenty years ago, I was a reporter for the Staten Island Advance, and I was assigned to the gun-debate beat. School shootings were on the rise, and so were protests. I traveled with a group of protesters to Springfield, Mass., the home of gun manufacturer Smith & Wesson. The protesters placed pairs of shoes belonging to individuals who had died from gun violence in a local park, then traveled to Smith & Wesson’s headquarters to march.
One of those protesters had lost her husband to a gun murder, and she had become a nationwide leader in the cause. Another had lost her son when a neighborhood child got his hands on a gun left unattended in a home, and accidentally shot the young boy. This protester told me about her commute to work, and how it took her past the cemetery in which her son was buried. She would drive into the cemetery each morning, mourning her son’s death before continuing on her way to work.
I also interviewed gun advocates at the local sportsmen’s club. As they gathered for dinner and fellowship, these avid hunters told me what I’ve heard time and again over the past two decades: Guns don’t kill people; people kill people. I listened, took notes, and thanked them for their time.
The following year, two young men shot and killed many of their classmates at Columbine High School in Colorado, and now school shootings had become part of our national parlance. I interviewed Staten Island students who had been questioned in their schools because they, like the Columbine shooters, wore trench coats. They were confused as to what a coat had to do with gun violence. So was I.
Two months after Columbine, I left full-time reporting for full-time teaching. My working life, since the summer of 1999, has been devoted to teaching first, and writing second. I have taught writing skills to many students, and over the years the classrooms and schools in which I’ve taught have become more and more protected from the outside world. The Newtown, Conn., shootings of more than five years ago led to stricter security in schools across the nation. The school shootings, however, have continued.
At no time during these two decades have federal legislators passed any laws regulating the Second Amendment rights that Americans have. When nothing happened after Newtown, it seemed as though federal gun regulations were simply an impossibility. Now we have Parkland, with Snapchat videos documenting the violence. We have students appearing on the Sunday-morning talk shows to challenge their legislators.
As an educator, my job is typically to keep my own political views out of the classroom. My role is to ask good questions, support students in their journeys of discovery, and remain present for all voices that arise. I’ve had students conduct projects on safe gun use, in which they documented the ways in which they and their parents used guns safely at shooting ranges. I’ve also had students write passionately about the need for stricter gun control. And just a few months ago, I helped a student as she wrote a news story about her peers’ views on gun control, featuring students on both sides of the issue.
When we resume school on Tuesday, I will remain dedicated to helping my students feel safe and protected in finding their own voices on this issue. But I also want my students to feel safe and protected in the literal sense, and that’s where it becomes difficult for teachers like me to remain truly objective on this issue of school shootings and guns. I have a very hard time understanding why we can’t regulate a guaranteed right more closely. Full background checks, a national gun registry and bans on semiautomatic weapons seem like common sense to me. Laws like those passed in Connecticut after Newtown seem completely reasonable, and in keeping with the Second Amendment rights that many Americans treasure.
I’m happy to share those views with students if they ask. But back in the classroom, I will encourage them to talk and listen and find their voices. I am a teacher who views gun control as a must. But I am also a teacher who must support his students. I’ll start by encouraging my student-reporters to go after it, both in their opinion pieces and in their own reporting. Their peers in Parkland have experienced a nightmare, and instead of hiding their heads these teens are inviting us all to a serious and necessary conversation. I’m going to encourage my kids to take part.