'I'll Keep You Safe': Teachers' Anxiety Over School Shootings Persists Post-Columbine
By Elise Schmelzer
Elizabeth McCord huddled dozens of fourth-graders under tables in a corner of her darkened Broomfield classroom.
The students, 9 and 10 years old, knew to stay quiet and still. The lockdown alarm had sounded just before the end of the day and there had been no announcement that there would be a drill. Minutes ticked by -- too long for a regular drill. Some students started to cry.
One girl whispered to McCord: "My mom's birthday is tomorrow -- what if we don't get to that?"
McCord didn't know what to say.
Broomfield police soon came to the classroom to let them out. An electrical issue with the alarm system had triggered the warning. But the memories from those minutes under the table remained visceral even two years later.
"All I could tell them was 'I'll keep you safe,' " McCord said in a recent interview. "That's part of our job now. To reassure kids that they're safe."
Teachers are already stressed. But along with testing standards, parent relationships and growing class sizes, teachers and school staff in the post-Columbine era increasingly worry about keeping their students -- and themselves -- safe from shootings and other violence. The added pressure taxes teachers' energy and prompts difficult questions: How far should teachers be willing to go to keep their students from harm? What is an acceptable price to pay to stay in the profession they love?
Such deadly events remain extremely rare, but they loom on the edge of teachers' minds. A survey of 1,000 teachers conducted last year by the National Education Association found that 60 percent of those surveyed worried that a mass shooting could happen at their school.
Some teachers know exactly how many minutes they will have to wait for police response to their building. Others account for every window, assessing the vulnerabilities of their classroom. Secretaries hesitate to buzz strangers through the front door. For some school staff members, it has even created a wariness of their own students.
The fear of violence or the stress involved in preventing it sometimes factors into teachers leaving the profession -- or students from entering it in the first place, said Amie Baca-Oehlert, president of the Colorado Education Association, the state's largest educators union.
Baca-Oehlert was finishing her second year as a teacher when news of the Columbine shooting rattled her. It was the first time she envisioned situations where she would have to put her life on the line for her students.
"That lived with you," she said.
"The straw that broke the camel's back"
Since 1999, 30 school staff members -- including janitors, coaches, security officers and bus drivers -- have been shot and killed in schools across the country, according to the National Memorial to Fallen Educators. Three others were stabbed to death. Hundreds of schools have experienced killings, including at least four in Colorado.
School violence and shootings add to teachers' already high stress levels, said Patricia Jennings, a professor at the University of Virginia who studies teacher stress.
"It's kind of like the straw that broke the camel's back," she said.
Nearly half of all teachers leave the profession within five years of their first day, according to a 2014 Gallup report on education. Another poll by the research firm found that K-12 teachers reported the same level of high daily stress as doctors and nurses.
Stressed-out teachers are more likely to overreact to behavioral issues, Jennings said. That overreaction stresses out students, who are then more likely to act out. It's a destructive cycle, Jennings said.
The anxiety spreads to other school staff as well, said Lara Center, president of the union that represents 4,000 of the Jefferson County School District's nonteaching staff, including custodians, education assistants and bus drivers.
School paraprofessionals -- such as teaching aides and other support staff -- often watch large groups of students in cafeterias or at recess. They also need to have adequate safety training, she said.
Melissa Martinez, a secretary at Denver's Castro Elementary School, is often tasked with buzzing visitors through the school's front doors. She can see the person through the window, but if she doesn't recognize the visitor, she will meet them at the door.
It can be a nerve-wracking walk, she said. She's never had safety training, she said.
"You feel like you're held responsible and accountable if something were to happen," she said.
Student or threat?
After the shooting at Columbine, one question wove its way through conversation: How could people not have known what the gunmen were planning?
Teachers felt that the question, in part, was directed at them, said Elizabeth Hinde, dean of Metropolitan State University's School of Education. Hinde was a high school teacher when the Columbine shooting happened and quickly felt the ramifications of that question.
Policies quickly developed that were meant to help teachers, counselors and other staff identify students who might pose a risk to the safety of themselves and others.
But those policies caused a fundamental shift in teacher-student relationships, Hinde said. Teachers started to see students as potential threats instead of children, she said.
"It created a different lens through which to see students," she said.
The pressure to notice potential warning signs can feel overwhelming, said John Gallagher, a school psychologist for Denver Public Schools. But teachers should not be expected to handle every troubled or traumatized student, he said. Instead, they need to be able to recognize the signs and refer to the correct mental health professional.
"They don't need to be hyper-vigilant, they need to be hyper-responsive," he said. "You don't have to be an ER doctor to call 911."
But that's not always possible in school districts where counselors and psychologists are overworked or nonexistent.
In rural southern Colorado, one counselor tends to the needs of more than 200 students at Monte Vista Middle School, where history teacher John Camponeschi works.
In rural areas, law enforcement can be few and far apart, he said. Schools can't rely on local sheriff's offices to be able to respond to an emergency quickly. And they often don't have security officers embedded in the schools. When Camponeschi's school performs lockdown drills, sometimes federal wildlife officers help because they're some of the few law enforcement nearby, he said.
Camponeschi said he is often hyper-aware of his surroundings: who is in the building, where the exits are, how many windows are in each room. Vigilance has become his modus operandi.
"That level of alertness, that level of attention to your environment and your student and your lesson -- that is so taxing," he said.
The day after a former student shot and killed 17 students and staff members at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., Camponeschi proposed forming a safety committee within the Colorado Education Association union. At the vote to create it, nearly every teacher supported it.
"People who spoke in favor of it had tears in their eyes," he said.
Yarrow Sullivan watched dozens of unsuspecting teachers stampede down Broomfield High School's central hallway as a trainer fired a gun -- filled with blanks -- at the panicked crowd.
Sullivan, an education student at the University of Colorado Boulder, had been in active shooter training all morning at the high school, where he planned to complete a semester of in-school placement. But the trainers had not announced this ambush.
Sullivan scurried into a nook in the hallway with a staff member. He heard the footsteps of the trainer advancing toward them. Was he responsible for the other person hiding with him? He could hear the gun casings clink on the school's hallway as they fell.
He dashed for safety, but heard the gun fire. If this were a real shooting, he would have died.
The 23-year-old had envisioned how he would respond to a school shooting since middle school. But after the drill at Broomfield High, such a situation seemed less hypothetical. It cemented in his mind vivid images of fleeing teachers and of a gunman in the hallways.
"That was my 'Oh, shit' moment," he said. "After that whole thing, I wasn't sure if I wanted to do teaching anymore."
"I have 40 years of teaching in front of me," he said. "It doesn't seem unfathomable that it would happen to me."
Most undergraduate students studying to become teachers now are too young to remember the Columbine shooting. Some weren't even born yet.
Many grew up practicing drills and lockdowns, but the fear becomes more intense when they are placed in schools and charged with caring for the lives of their students, said Hinde, the Metropolitan State University dean. After high-profile incidents such as Parkland, some student teachers fear returning to their classroom placements, she said.
"It's a teachable moment," Hinde said. "How are you going to handle this?"
High-profile school shootings such as Parkland and Sandy Hook always prompt intense, frank conversation among students at CU Boulder's School of Education, said Liz Meyer, associate dean for students at CU Boulder's School of Education. It's a good opportunity to help students think critically about the realities of their future career.
"It's really, really important for them to understand that these are real children whose lives are in your hands," Meyer said. "It's a heavy burden."
Teacher preparation programs have evolved rapidly over the past two decades, Hinde said. Instead of strictly teaching curriculum and basic classroom management, future teachers now learn about recognizing trauma, building healthy relationships with students and caring for their own needs. The goal is to help future teachers address the underlying issues that sometimes prompt shooting: isolation, mental illness and abuse.
"We're teaching them to say 'What happened to you?' instead of 'What's wrong with you?' " Hinde said.
The teachers who remain in the field said they feel a deep calling to the profession, despite the stresses and challenges. Teaching is a direct opportunity to create good in the world, they said.
For McCord, the music teacher, her joy in watching the "little lightbulbs" go off in her students' heads makes the stress manageable. She beams watching them bloom.
"Once you're in front of your kids and teaching, it all kind of falls away," she said.
Sullivan, the CU student, still plans to become a teacher. He will move to New York City in the fall to begin his career. He hopes to pursue alternate philosophies of teaching. Something different.
"Not everyone needs to be a soldier," he said.
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