Try to save the world
As school shootings have increased in the U.S., Tennessee has made gun ownership without restrictions easier. The least Gov. Bill Lee can do is call a special legislative session.
Flowers and stuffed animals piled in a memorial to victims of the March 27 mass shooting at Covenant School in Nashville. (Photo: John Partipilo)
Last January, after a year and half of working as a school administrator, I came back to teach in my hometown district at my old high school in Jackson, Tenn.. My entire professional career has been spent in some form of education, but the way education has changed in the last few years is shocking.
The biggest changes for me, however, don’t have much to do with curriculum or even a post-pandemic learning environment. The biggest changes, by far, have been the emphasis on school safety and the protocols put in place to make sure students and teachers are being protected from unnecessary violence.
When I left the classroom nearly two years ago, our local school district was just beginning to transition back to full-time, in-person learning after two years of hybrid education due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Since I’ve been back in the classroom, people have asked me if I can tell the difference between the students I’m teaching now compared to the students I taught pre-pandemic. There are certainly differences — a little more apathy, inconsistent attendance, and a slightly raised collective anxiety, but nothing I wasn’t expecting.
What dawned on me, though, was that the biggest shift in education wasn’t post-COVID malaise in students. I came to the realization after the Covenant School tragedy in April that gun violence in schools and across the state has been steadily increasing in recent years and school districts like mine have been enacting protocols to keep students safe — while Tennessee legislators have simultaneously been loosening gun laws since 2008.
School districts have been preparing for the inevitable all along while lawmakers have ignored the potential of a horrific tragedy.
Fifteen years ago, the confines built around responsible gun ownership in Tennessee began to disappear. Tennesseans with a gun permit were finally allowed to carry their handguns into bars and restaurants despite pushback from restaurant and bar owners.
A few years after that, handguns were allowed to be legally carried by any gun owner in Tennessee in their personal vehicle. The next year, Tennesseans with a gun permit were allowed to carry their handguns into public parks and playgrounds. In 2016, permitted Tennesseans who were faculty members on a higher education campus could carry their guns to work with them on their respective campus. A year later, gun-carrying Tennesseans could take their guns with them on public transportation.
By 2021, Tennessee no longer required gun owners to obtain or show a permit in order to carry a gun into a public space. The systematic destruction of common-sense gun legislation was complete leaving Tennesseans more vulnerable than ever.
According to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, there were 414 murders in the state of Tennessee in 2008. Of those, 54.9% were committed using a gun. Of those 414 murders, nearly 73% were cleared, meaning the murders were solved and a suspect was arrested and/or convicted.
In 2021, according to the TBI, there were 708 total murders in Tennessee with 84% committed using a firearm. Only 49% of those murders were cleared.
The correlation between the dismantling of gun laws, the increase in violent crime with a gun, and the decrease in clearances cannot be ignored. What also can’t be ignored is the recent news that guns are the leading cause of death for children ages 1-18 in the United States, and that Tennessee ranked in the Top 10 in the nation in homicide rate.
Statistics can draw a clear and sharp contour of an issue, but often those numbers only serve as an outline; the color and the filler come from personal stories and human experiences. As a parent and a teacher, gun violence is something that has been hovering on the periphery of my life until recently; a wolf at the door waiting to pounce.
In 1999, I was a college sophomore and working at an after school care program. I was at church on a Wednesday night when the news about the Columbine shooting spread through Wednesday night supper like wildfire — 12 students and one teacher murdered in a school shooting. I can remember people crying, people in shock. No one could fathom someone murdering innocent people within a school.
For the next several months at my after school program, we were hyper-vigilant when it came to watching our students; every car that drove by or any person we saw at a distance made our heart rates speed up just a bit.
Since Columbine, there have been 376 more school shootings with each of these incidences varying in deaths and in media coverage. Prior to Columbine, school shootings were nearly unheard of.
My daughter was born nearly eight years after Columbine. When she was 18 months old, she moved to Texas with her mother after our divorce and in 2012, she started kindergarten there. Even though I lived in Tennessee, I exercised parenting time every other weekend in Texas. I volunteered in her school; I knew her classmates. I knew her teacher.
On Dec. 14, 20212, a gunman walked into Sandy Hook Elementary School in New Jersey and murdered 26 people — 20 of those children who were roughly the same age as my daughter.
I wasn’t scheduled to have a call with my daughter the night of the shooting, but I still can’t explain the need I had to communicate with her that particular night. I just wanted to hear her voice. Even though the shooting took place nearly 1,500 miles away from her, I wanted to know that she was okay. As a father, I needed to hear my 6-year-old daughter on the other end of the line and know she was still existing in the same world I was.
As the years progressed and school shootings continued to happen at an alarming rate, my school district began to enact procedures and policies to make sure our students were protected. During a teacher inservice at the beginning of a school year, my principal organized an active shooter drill in partnership with our local sheriff’s department. The lead trainer of the drill helped the school put together a plan in case a shooter penetrated the walls of the school building. We had a code word to announce over the intercom; we had an off-campus location to meet. That morning we gathered in the foyer of our school building to simulate what would happen should an active shooter situation occur in our school.
The faculty split up and went to different rooms as local law enforcement officers fired blank rounds from their weapons while they walked down the halls shaking door handles to get in rooms. I was in my room with another teacher. She began to cry; her leg shook nervously. We could hear the shell casings pinging off the floor. We knew this was a drill; we logically knew we weren’t in any danger, but her reaction was understandable. Humans aren’t designed to live in that kind of danger
Just over two months ago, gun violence in schools hit as close to home for me as it ever has — and I hope ever will. My friends lost their daughter in the Covenant School shooting. Much like Uvalde a year earlier and Sandy Hook a decade earlier, this shooting sent reverberations across the nation, but this time the epicenter was Tennessee — a state chipping away at the parameters surrounding responsible gun ownership and was now reaping the consequences of freedom in the name of the Second Amendment.
The political aftermath of the tragedy at Covenant was predictable — both sides vowing to protect children and schools in their own ways. But then two Democratic lawmakers were expelled after they protested demanding action from the state legislature on gun laws.
The conversation shifted abruptly from children to politicians. One thing that could be agreed upon, however, was funding for School Resource Officers in every school across the state…except that hasn’t happened either.
My daughter lives with me in Tennessee now; she’ll be starting her junior year in high school this August. Her school is just under a mile from our house. The school where I teach is also under a mile from our house, but in the opposite direction. We leave the house every morning, literally going our separate ways, and meet back up every afternoon.
But I still worry about her. I worry about her as much as I did the night I wanted to talk to her so badly after Sandy Hook. I worry about what happened at Covenant happening at her school. We can only harden our schools so much; we can only place so many trained officers in educational settings. When all types of weaponry and ammunition are available to anyone, safety protocols and procedures have their limits.
As a parent of a high school student in Tennessee and as a teacher of high school students in Tennessee, I am pleading with our state lawmakers to enact extreme risk protection orders and keep firearms out of the hands of people who are mentally or emotionally unfit to have weapons that can be used to kill innocent people.
I’m asking Gov. Bill Lee to call the special session that he has teased for two months, to take action on an issue that is long overdue. It’s the least our elected representatives can do for a state that is pleading for some kind of action.
I’ve been listening to Jason Isbell’s new album on repeat since it was released. Tucked at the end of the first half of the album is a song called “Save the World”. Isbell directly mentions a school shooting and how it affects him as a father. The chorus is filled with angst and anger and tries to soar above the heaviness of the topic but never quite breaks the clouds:
Swear you’ll save the world when I lose my grip
Tell me you’re in control
Swear you’ll say the word when I start to slip
‘Cause you’ll be the first to know
We’re all starting to lose our collective grip here, and I’m not asking our lawmakers or governor to save the world. I’m just asking them to do the minimum task possible which could literally save lives. And, maybe that’s the start of saving the world.
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