Let them lead: Students, not adults, show the way after Florida shooting

Katie Mgongolwa
Katie Mgongolwa

They say teachers should have guns.

On Feb. 20, a new state legislative committee led by Republican Sen. Tim Moore admitted it may consider arming North Carolina teachers as a response to Florida’s school shooting. In a listening session with Florida shooting survivors the next day, Donald Trump supported this notion, stating, “A teacher would have a concealed gun on them ... and you would no longer have a gun-free zone.”

This concept worries me. As a teacher for nearly a decade, I’ve seen the progression of increased mass shootings. I was in eighth grade when the Columbine shooting occurred. When I became a student teacher in Boston in 2007, I was introduced to lockdown drills. When I got my own classroom there a year later, teachers showed me how all classrooms had two doors, with locks, built with school shootings in mind. My current school in Durham is a “locked campus”, with security cameras at the entrances.

For the entire fabric of my teaching career, it has been understood that in this day and age, part of my job description includes being willing to die for my students. To protect them. To nurture them. To love them and notice if something is off. I am willing to do that.

I will not shoot them.

That’s what the gun is for, right? If some disgruntled student shows up with an AR-15, and a teacher is armed, that teacher is supposed to take out the shooter. We pour ourselves into our jobs, loving our students. We cannot do that and, at the same time, be willing to shoot them in an emergency.

We are underpaid, underfunded, and under-appreciated, to be sure. But we are not under-armed. We are not law enforcement, and even if we were, we must also consider that law enforcement is controversial for its bias, violence against black and brown bodies, and its own miscalculations and errors in shooting cases (Tamir Rice, for example). Philando Castile, a beloved school cafeteria employee in Minnesota, was the picture of a responsible gun owner; he was gunned down in front of his child by a policeman who was afraid of him. Cases like Kameron Prescott and Jordan Davis are reminders that when it comes to guns, bias and injustice are always close behind.

Schools already struggle with their own brand of inequities, from funding to opportunity gaps to disproportionate discipline. Do we really want to bring in the violent form of bias associated with gun deaths? (And, side note, it’s insulting to be told there is no money for technology, living wages, or supplies at schools- let alone essentials like universal pre-K or free hot breakfast — but there is enough for firearms, ammunition, and, assumedly, training.)

One of my high school students heard about Trump’s proclamation and worriedly asked me about it. “Any student could just grab or disarm the teacher,” she said, her forehead creased with worry. “That will make students more scared, seeing a teacher with a gun. And what if you try to shoot the shooter, and you shoot someone else? You don’t want that on your conscience.” Then she perked up in her chair. “I’m 18 now, so I can vote. Or maybe run for office!”

Y’all, there it is. If there has been one hope emerging from the tragedy, it is the voice of young folks. Let’s arm them — with a voter registration card, with a platform, with opportunity. Arm them with a school counselor, resources, and a social worker. Compassion and a platform go a long way, as we’ve seen from student responses days after the shooting. This is their fight, they are mad, and we owe them our support. As one student, moved by survivor Cameron Kasky’s town hall confrontation with Marco Rubio, said, “Adults should focus on what people need. Our president needs to focus on what people want. Senators should focus on what citizens want, not what’s good for politics.”

My classes have discussed all the ways students have responded: meeting and confronting politicians, giving impassioned speeches, creating art like the moving song “Shine.” We talked about the walkouts, which several Durham schools participated in; after all, students have a constitutional right to protest. One student told me, “I think it's a good idea that students are doing the walkouts. It shows they care about what happened and want to change things.” Another student called the responses “heartbreaking and empowering”, adding, “their voice obviously mattered, as we saw on TV…. They refused to stay silent, which this time may actually make a difference.” He added that students are taking control because adults aren’t doing enough. Another student, bothered by the news, told me, “Any type of news about killing kind of disturbs me because I’m not ready to die. I wish this world wasn’t so violent.” That was a gut-punch.

I hope that these kids change everything. And I hope we can offer similar support to the young leaders of groups like Black Lives Matter and the Movement for Black Lives, among other POC-led groups. Maybe disproportionate support happens because leaders in BLM — who have often been called thugs — have addressed state violence, which is systemic. It is easier to acknowledge the wrongness of a school shooter.

Our cultural fabric is shifting. Instead of arming teachers, let’s empower all youth.

Katie Mgongolwa is a high school teacher in Durham. You can reach her at katie.mgongolwa@gmail.com.