The Signal

Serving the College since 1885

Wednesday September 27th

“Am I strong enough?”: School shootings instill fear in future educators

Laura Walter at her current student teaching experience in Hamilton (Photo courtesy of Laura Walter).
Laura Walter at her current student teaching experience in Hamilton (Photo courtesy of Laura Walter).

By Victoria Gladstone
Managing Editor

Their professor decided they should shelter in place and locked the door. Someone in their class had gotten a text message that a gunman was leaving the woods by Lake Sylva wearing a camouflage outfit and holding a large object, allegedly a gun. 

For approximately 10 minutes, junior history and secondary education major Olivia Williams’ class was tucked in the corner of their classroom in the Social Sciences Building during her history reading seminar on April 3.   

Many classrooms like Williams’ were extremely confused within this short time frame as rumors of a gun on campus spread quickly. Due to the alleged gunman’s appearance, students believed they were a possible threat which triggered the incident. 

Quickly after the alleged gunman had been approached by campus police, it was revealed they were a student wildlife photographer who was holding a tripod. 

“The whole camo thing is what got them,” said Williams. “I was like ‘Guys he’s looking at the lake’. If you wear camo, you wear camo. I don’t think that a school shooter dresses up as a certain thing. If anything it would be all black. I would never assume camo. I don’t think that camo automatically makes me think of a school shooter.”

Fortunately, the situation was de-escalated as the day resumed but panic surrounding school shootings still lingers throughout the campus community. 

Earlier that same day, Rider University had received an active shooter threat that caused campus-wide panic about a possible shooting in the area. With Rider University’s campus being less than a 10-minute drive away, many students were on edge. 

Gun violence has become a heightened concern for college students as schools nationwide are targets for mass shootings and death. According to EducationWeek, there have been 18 school shootings this year that resulted in 29 injuries or deaths. Last year, there were 51 school shootings with injuries or deaths. That was the most in a single year since 2018. 

Many education majors at the College are becoming concerned about the safety of their future work environments. Their current in-school experiences have opened their eyes to what a classroom looks like during a time of heightened school shootings in similar schools. 

Junior history and elementary education major Laura Walter has had two practicum experiences in elementary schools in Trenton and Lambertville and is currently student teaching in Hamilton. 

With gun violence on the rise in schools, Walter has begun to think critically about her career plans within the education field.

“I have definitely questioned if I want to be an educator recently,” said Walter. “I’m not as confident as when I was coming into the education program and if I want to pursue this as a career for the rest of my life.”

After learning about the recent mass shooting in Nashville, Walter felt the impact a little too close to home as the victims of the shooting were elementary school students and teachers. 

“I knew that the kids who passed away were nine years old and my kids in my classroom are nine,” said Walter. “That is so scary to me.”

The day after the shooting in Nashville took place, Walter taught in an elementary school. 

“I was like looking at these kids and I saw those kids in my students and that's just terrifying,” said Walter. “That’s really chilling to think about. That a parent sent their kid to school in the morning and that their kid looked like one of the kids in my class. And they didn’t come home.”

Sophomore early childhood education and English major Darby Penven has had two practicum experiences in East Windsor and Lambertville. Penven experiences a similar outlook on her future career; describing the current level of mass shootings as “not only terrifying but career-altering”. 

“Many of the measures taken to ‘prevent’ school shootings now are not in fact preventative measures but actions are taken in response to the threat or reality of a school shooting, including bulletproof rooms in classrooms,” said Penven. “Not only do these measures in no way take preventative action but they are reminders of the reality of the gun problem in America, and the fact that children and educators are risking their lives just by going to school or going to work.”

When starting to think about where they want to work, college students have reported that they are avoiding certain regions of the country based on levels of gun violence.

“I definitely think the south is pretty much off of my radar because of the gun violence and I think they’re a lot more relaxed there,” said Walter. “It’s easier for minors to get access to guns without a full background check.”

While some states are statistically more likely to have gun violence, there has been an overall increase in shootings nationally. 

School shootings have become more frequent and deadly in schools in states like New Jersey where guns are more strictly regulated. There were at least 9 incidents of gunfire on school grounds, resulting in 4 deaths and 5 injuries in New Jersey since 2013, according to Every Town Research.

While some college students note that gun violence is not nearly as high in New Jersey as it is in other states, students like Penven know that this is still unacceptable workplace conditions. 

“Although New Jersey has one of the lowest gun violence rates in the United States, I still feel that America as a whole desperately needs stricter gun laws,” said Penven. 

Gun violence has become the leading cause of death for children surpassing car accidents and cancer. When future educators like Williams was a grade school student roughly 10 years ago, the percentage of children who died from guns was around 12%. The percentage has climbed to 19% in 2023 with motor-vehicle crashes coming in second  at 18% of child fatalities. 

Williams grew up in a school district with a high school layout that was a warehouse broken into classrooms with wall separators. She attended high school with her twin and younger brother in the same building. 

During her time at her local high school, Williams grew up practicing active shooter drills and lockdowns in case of emergency. While the intentions were to prepare students for any situation, Williams experienced high levels of anxiety during these drills so much so that it caused her to have panic attacks. 

“Lockdowns scared me so much because I was always scared where my sister or where my brother was,” said Williams. “I think every time we had a lockdown I was crying.”

Williams, now a future educator, still experiences stress when being prompted to practice drills and plan for dangerous situations in her own classroom. 

When she thinks about how she will respond to active shooter drills as a teacher, Williams is fearful that she will be triggered by her childhood.

“I would be crying because I would be so worried for them,” said Williams. “They’d have to text me afterward or I’d have to go to the guidance counselor to calm down.”

Williams explained that her thoughts grow more intense as time progresses about how she may approach a dangerous situation as a teacher. If there was an active shooter situation, Williams stated she would do her best to be defensive.  

“There are times where like I’ll think about what I would do in that situation and I’m like ‘OK, I’d always go toward [the students] and I’d always have scissors with me,” said Williams.

While she tries to mentally prepare herself for any situation, Williams acknowledges that her fear of school shootings makes her hesitant about becoming a teacher. 

“I’m going to have multiple classes so I’m going to be worried where my students are,” said Williams. “I’m just so scared of that. It just makes me just not want to go into schools. Ever since I was little I have always wanted to be a teacher but I don’t want to.”

At a time in history when gun violence is on the rise, college students look to their mentors for answers. Dr. Emily Meixner, who is an education and English professor at the College, has taught in the English department since 2003 and has been the Coordinator of the Secondary English Education program for nearly 20 years. Before this, she worked in high schools teaching English and French and now operates in local middle and high schools observing college students in their clinical placements.

No professional can ensure that teachers have nothing to worry about when it comes to their safety, but they can offer advice about how to actively make change within the government. 

“There isn't really any way to be encouraging about this,” said Meixner. “It's a horrific reality teachers and students and parents live with day in and day out. I just encourage students who want to be teachers to actively vote for legislators who are willing to act on gun safety legislation.”

While Meixner acknowledges that protective drills including fire and weather drills have been a part of the student experience, active shooter drills are different because they “regularly breathe fear into students and teachers' lives.”

Meixner has also practiced active shooter drills many times and recognizes the toll it takes on teachers and students.

“I've huddled in the back of dark classrooms with middle school students, sat with teachers after they've locked their doors and pulled their window shades down and I've been locked out of buildings when these drills are taking place,” said Meixner. “Every time, the drills feel real and they take an emotional toll that accumulates over time.”

Active shooter drills are key preventative strategies to inform students of how to protect themselves in dangerous situations. Unfortunately, Meixner is now seeing these drills becoming part of student routines as gun violence has become more common than in the past when she first started teaching.

“I heard a story recently about children who now incorporate active shooter drills into their play -- when they play ‘school,’ they do things like put dolls and stuffed animals in closets because this is what school is like,” said Meixner. “Imagine this.” 

With the future of safety in schools will most likely be determined by lawmakers nationwide and unable to be changed quickly, young adults looking to become educators are certainly scared for their futures.


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