Something is happening in our country. We are having an unprecedented amount of school shootings. In 2022, there were more school shootings than in any other school year. It has also become a bit of a fad to call in active shooter threats to school districts. The caller identifies the district they are going to shoot up to make it a fun guessing game of where it will actually happen, and then they fire off a few rounds to put some icing on the nightmare cake. It is impossible to trace the calls to determine where they are actually coming from, so the threats are taken seriously, as they should be.
Recently, it was my turn to experience the nightmare of an active shooting threat in my tiny town with less than 10 total schools. During the period before lunch, the intercom came on, and the principal said, “Ladies and gentlemen, we’re on ‘hold,’ which is the Standard Response Protocol for teachers, similar to a lockdown. We were given no reason. No word came through email from the building or district about what was going on. I looked at my students, and they looked back suspiciously then slowly started pulling their phones out of their backpacks. Soon, the texts from their parents started with dings and buzzes.
“Honey, I love you.”
“Baby, I’m going to try to get to you, just hold on,”
“I love you, Sport, try not to die.”
Then the vague district email came that someone called in a threat. Through social media, we found out someone called our regional dispatch center saying they were going to shoot up a specific school. We wondered if it was part of a series of pranks, or was it real?
Long story short, it was a prank. We all made it home, but the trauma of that day was not a joke. We all felt it. The kids who had siblings at the school felt it; they were in tears and asking for reassurance they would have a sibling at the end of the day. The staff who were hiding in their classrooms in that school felt it; they panicked or screamed as police burst into their rooms carrying assault rifles as they cleared the building (no judgment here, it’s what they should have done). The students in that building felt it; some of them wandered into the hall because their classrooms had no intercoms and were greeted by armed officers shouting orders and questions. The staff around the district felt it; we couldn’t leave our buildings, we had no information, and we just had to wonder if everyone was okay and if we were next. And then the parents felt it as they were gripped by panic, having no faith in schools or law enforcement, rushing to the school in an army of SUVs, attempting to retrieve their children. Each of them shouted at police officers who were holding the line, gutted at the thought of their child being in danger inside that building. They were living the worst-case scenario of parenthood and were helplessly watching and listening for clues as to their child’s fate.
In the face of this trauma, surely there was care taken in the following days, right? You might think so, because “empathy” and “compassion” are educational buzzwords right now. But that’s not how it went. The next day, we were directed to conduct “business as usual.” I now understand this is where we agreed to gaslight ourselves and our students. There was no discussion with the staff about what happened, we went through our day like “business as usual.” There was no announcement to students about what happened, they came to school “business as usual.” Just like when Uvalde happened or when Ms. Zwerner was shot by her 6-year-old student, we pretended everything was fine. Just a perfectly normal day.
At that moment, I understood the dangers of normalizing the abnormal. None of us were given permission to cry or scream or ask why or simply have any reaction because it was “business as usual.” Each person that died inside when they got that news, each teacher that wanted to scream but held it together, each crying/panicked/confused kid, each panicked, terrified parent was told, “It’s fine! See, we’re all fine. Perfectly normal.” This must be the exemplar for teaching desensitization.
In the 80s, Tipper Gore tried to warn us of the dangers of desensitization through violent or sexual song lyrics. She was afraid the damage would be kids becoming sexually promiscuous rock star groupies. How glorious that life would be compared to what we’re actually faced with. I wonder about the student who is on the edge of hurting themselves being told that this exhibition of violence was normal. I wonder about the student who is on the edge of hurting others being told that such a threat is perfectly normal. I wonder about the teachers who were in that school and are having nightmares reliving it being told it was just another day. The damage is to our hearts and minds and souls that have been fractured by the reality of going to work and having dress rehearsals for violence and death, our death, and pretending it’s just another day.
When you normalize things that aren’t normal, the damage is real. We are not okay.
Rachel A. is a middle school math teacher who is over the gaslighting of teachers.
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