Preparing Teachers for School Shootings: What’s the Magic Number?

This column originally appeared in the Richmond Times-Dispatch and is reposted with permission. The views expressed in this post do not necessarily reflect the views of AACTE.

As America struggles to recover from the recent school shootings in Parkland, Florida, where 17 lives were tragically and unexpectedly cut short, we find ourselves embroiled in the same responses that surface after all mass shootings. Vigils, memorials, and protests abound across our nation to try to make sense of these unfathomable events and to demand an end to this violence; and there are reiterated cries for stricter gun laws.

Will 17 be the magic number that moves our nation from dialogue into action?

The discussion has focused on guns and mental illness, but the time has come to expand the conversation to how we prepare new teachers for mass shootings in our schools.

We expect new teachers to be ready from the moment they become the teacher of record in our classrooms. We train them in CPR methods and how to work with students with disabilities. How can they be prepared for an active school shooter, and what would the curriculum look like?

We could empower our teachers, as guardians of our youth, with adequate school violence and intervention training. A course could include emergency preparedness for an active shooter, shelter-in-place techniques, and simulation training. Another could help teachers identify and unearth the overt or covert signs of major mental disorders. Research shows that individuals with major mental disorders, which substantially interfere with life activities, are more likely to commit violent acts.

It is estimated that one half to two thirds of children experience trauma. The curriculum could also include crisis intervention and a trauma-informed framework to better meet the educational needs of students. These elements could help teachers understand the ways in which a family death, stress, violence, victimization, and other traumatic experiences impact the cognitive, physical, and emotional development of children. By understanding the signs of trauma and its triggers, teachers could enhance their efforts in providing students a safe and understanding environment, to promote healing instead of punishment. Some states, such as Massachusetts and Washington, have already undertaken a systemic approach to incorporating these practices into their school systems.

Teachers, students, and staff were praised in the most recent Kentucky and Florida school shootings for the manner in which they followed the drills they had practiced for these situations. It’s a sad commentary that we are praising schools for following directions in a mass shooting, but that has become a national reality.

Modifying teacher preparation programs is just one part of the strategy. If we are to prepare our teachers for mass shootings in our schools, then mechanisms also need to be in place to help them after such horrific tragedies.

Teachers need resources and help, such as therapy options, support systems, and reintegration into the workplace, to heal from psychological and emotional trauma. There is certainly solace in returning to a sense of normality after the deaths of 17 people. But it is unrealistic to expect a teacher to really begin to teach lessons so soon after that tragedy.

The rapidity of school shootings in our nation has raised many unanswerable questions, but those who prepare teachers have no alternative but to incorporate lessons about school shootings into their programs. Teacher preparation programs have rarely considered these questions, but the numbers have forced this issue to the forefront.

If the discussion does not occur now, with 17 recently shattered lives, what, then, is the magic number?

Jane S. Bray is dean of the Darden College of Education at Old Dominion University (VA) and a past chair of AACTE’s Board of Directors.

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Jane S. Bray

Dean of the Darden College of Education at Old Dominion University (VA) and 2016-2017 chair of AACTE’s Board of Directors.

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