The stories and images repeated from places well-known, like Parkland, and lesser-known, like Forest High School in Ocala, Florida, where one student was injured by a gunshot on April 20, have created new challenges for those teaching the students who want to be teachers.
Because school shootings have changed the canvas, those teaching future educators have to paint the picture a little differently when it comes to making sure those future teachers are more equipped in terms of school safety, said Andrea Malmont, assistant professor of education at Shippensburg University.
Like other colleges, Shippensburg University can’t train its students to a specific protocol as each school district will have its own set of policies and procedures. It does, however, train them to ask appropriate questions to be able to see the overall safety picture at a school as early as during the interview for a teaching position.
“What does it mean when we have an active shooter or some type of trauma in a school? What does that look like? And where am I going to go to feel safe or my parents are going to come and find me and have that point of contact?” Malmont said, citing examples.
Teachers must also learn how to talk about the nuances of reacting in a particular situation in ways that are appropriate to the children’s stage of development, said Nicole Hill, dean of the College of Education and Human Services at Shippensburg University.
“How do you answer all the questions that emerge from a child who’s hearing, ‘We’re doing an active shooter training today?’” Hill said.
Responding to students
After Parkland, Shippensburg faculty recognized the questions with which their students were wrestling, and adjusted their teaching to address those issues.
“Right after Parkland, they wanted to know, ‘What do we do? How are we supposed to be prepared for this?’” Malmont said.
Teacher training needs to not only prepare teachers with the basics of what to do in an active shooter situation, but also with the skills to be able to have discussions with children following an event at any school.
Malmont dedicated a class to talking about these issues using a mix of ALICE and FEMA training. A training program created by law enforcement, ALICE is an acronym for alert, lockdown, inform, counter, evacuate. In this training, the lockdown and evacuate portions are just that while alert refers to overcoming denial and becoming alert to the danger. Inform means communicating as it is safe to do so. Rather than fighting, counter means using a variety of actions that would distract the shooter to reduce the ability to shoot straight. Countering is always the last resort.
FEMA training contains the familiar elements of run, hide and fight, with fighting again coming as the last resort.
Neither one matches up perfectly to the school setting, but components do, and these became the basis for class discussions. Malmont and her students talked about the challenges of hiding with children with disabilities or running with a child who is afraid to move, among other scenarios.
Many of the future teachers fear they will say something wrong and scare the children, or they have concerns about children being children — like how do you keep squirming first-graders quiet? Malmont said the key is to use language that is appropriate as they continue to do the drills. Think about the example of a fire alarm. Children know what to do and are not afraid when the alarm goes off.
“If they didn’t ever practice it, they would be very afraid,” Malmont said.
The districts, however, have to walk a fine line between offering enough repetition to reduce fear and desensitizing children to the dangers.
It’s also vital to recognize the additional responsibility being placed on the teachers.
“Teachers have so many responsibilities already. They are really forging and shaping our next generation, so they have so many expectations that they are already carrying,” Hill said. “This is just one other component that I think adds a significant burden of expectation, and really can prevent teachers from really enjoying the role and embracing the role the way that we want them to be.”
In the wake of Parkland, Hill has seen some students reconsider their intention to enter the profession.
“Some of this is so fearful that we’re seeing some of our teacher candidates not wanting to actually go and teach and be in the classroom. One of the reasons identified is the fear about things like this. It’s having a profound impact emotionally,” Hill said.
Wythe Keever, spokesperson for the Pennsylvania State Education Association, said the state has experienced a significant decline in the number of people enrolling in education programs as well as a similar decline in the number of teaching certificates issued.
It’s impossible, however, to trace the reason for teachers leaving the profession to school safety concerns because there is no organization or agency at the local, state or federal level that tracks why teachers leave.
“It’s reasonable to assume that some individual teachers leave the profession due to safety concerns, but the lack of data makes it impossible to quantify how many,” he said.
Citing a report from the nonprofit Center on Education Policy, Keever said issues like low pay, lack of administrative support, feeling ignored in education policy discussions and frustration with increasing demands are cited as factors influencing teacher morale.
“It’s important to note that this survey was conducted before the recent Parkland, Florida, school shootings, which undoubtedly has affected many people’s concerns about safety,” he said.
Lynn Baynum, associate professor of education at Shippensburg, knows what it’s like to be the teacher in a class moving through trauma. When she was a teacher, a kindergarten student died. Grief counselors were called in, but it was apparent that a week of counseling would not be enough. The support was needed for months following the child’s death.
For Columbine, Parkland and Sandy Hook, the recovery may take longer, as it is coupled with the momentum to make schools safer.
“For those communities, this might not ever go away, but it shouldn’t go away for the rest of our communities either because it’s part of making us a stronger society as a whole,” Baynum said.
Research following the school shootings at Columbine and Sandy Hook showed that support systems helped people move toward recovery. Because of this, support systems can serve both a preventive role as well as a post-incident supportive role to mediate symptoms of trauma, Hill said.
“It’s not enough to have a crisis plan. You need more social workers and school counselors present every day in that building to help see … the triggers that students might be struggling with, to give support before there becomes these problems,” Baynum said.
However, this area of Pennsylvania is not well resourced in that it is not as connected to professionals who are well-trained in relation to trauma and can provide services to communities. It’s an area for which Hill said counselors, social workers, teachers and the community in its entirely need to advocate.
“We have to continue to look at ways that we support youth, we support our schools and we support our teachers to ensure that those learning environments are able to happen the way they are created to happen, which is to prepare our youth to be the future of our nation” she said.
Shippensburg is one of 13 institutions around the state that have partnered to create training in youth mental health first aid. As a certified youth mental health first aid instructor, Malmont will be able to offer eight-hour workshops prior to the student teaching experience. The partnership was created through a grant of the McDowell Institute that is associated with Bloomsburg University.
Youth mental health first aid identifies mental health signs and symptoms and teaches people appropriate ways to communicate using the resources that are present, Hill said.
“It’s one way that we are trying to be proactive in addressing some of these concerns with our teacher education students,” Hill said.
Students who graduate from Shippensburg go into their first teaching positions with a knowledge of what they should see and knowing what they should ask so they can be champions in the process of making schools safer themselves, Malmont said.
That includes asking questions about the options that are available for continual professional development as well as support across the district, especially in regard to mental health issues, Hill said.
According to the American School Counselor Association, the ratio of students to school counselors during the 2014-15 school year nationwide was 482 to 1. Pennsylvania fared slightly better at 395 to 1.
The association recommends a ration of 250 to 1.
Even without such a shortage, teachers need to be able to deal with the different types of trauma students face at home and in the community. They need to learn to recognize the impact of traumatic situations like the loss of a parent, the death of a teacher, natural disasters or suicide, among other issues, and know how to respond.
“How well are we preparing our teachers to address the mental health needs and to be responsive to students struggling with things?” Hill asked.
Schools need to be funded to a level that will provide mental health support including counselors, social workers and school psychologists.
“I don’t think that we are anywhere near where we could be in terms of preparing anyone in the school environment to talk with kids about their grief, to talk to about and explore, examine and support them through fear and anxiety,” Hill said.
She said she knows of a situation in a high school in which a student was murdered by two of her peers. The staff had to advocate for services to help students through the trauma in the face of an administration that didn’t want to talk about the event due to the ongoing investigation and its belief that school was not an appropriate place for counseling.
“From a counseling point of view, that’s the absolute worst thing you can do,” Hill said.
From classroom management to mental health issues to disaster training, Hill wants the collegiate educational experience for her students to prepare them for whatever challenges they may face.
“What I want for our students is that they graduate from our programs and pursue their careers and feel confident and competent that they have the knowledge and the problem-solving skills to be able … to navigate some of these challenges and crises and incidents that we can’t ever really, truly prepare for,” Hill said.