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For Our Kids and Our Schools, Let’s Make Teaching Shooting Survival Skills Obsolete


By Beth Swanson, Vice President of Strategy and Programs

Earlier this week, a New York Times piece explored what’s next in the post-Parkland gun debate. It’s a question we’ve asked ourselves as a nation after each mass shooting tragedy. Yet, on the heels of the hundreds of March for Our Lives rallies across the country, this time feels different.

Perhaps it’s the energy of the teenagers driving this new movement that makes me more optimistic this time around. Or maybe it’s the return of that optimism in my own kids who have been inspired to effect change to save lives.

Days after the Parkland shooting, I was having dinner with my family when my 12-year-old daughter posed a question that left me speechless. She wondered aloud if a similar shooting happened at her school if her brother would be able to survive. Her younger brother is a curious, active 9-year-old bursting with energy. In school, they’re taught that during a shooting they should find a safe place to take cover, be out of sight, still and silent. It’s a game of hide-and-seek with life and death consequences that she wasn’t sure he could win. 

“What if he can’t stay still? What if he can’t be quiet?,” she asked.

The weeks that followed brought equally tough conversations, ones that left me struggling for answers even though I don’t come to the issue of school safety uninformed. As a former Chicago Public Schools administrator who also wrestles with questions around gun violence in my role at the Joyce Foundation, I’ve had many conversations about safety issues, read incident reports, run through scenarios of how to respond. I watched that preparation in action as my friend and former colleague, Broward County Superintendent Robert Runcie had to guide his community through the slaughter of 17 students. But my daughter’s comments swiftly sharpened my lens on this issue and for maybe the first time, caused me to focus on the issue first and foremost as a parent.

My three children – 9, 12 and 15 – are coming of age in the era of mass shootings. School shootings in particular have become part of this generation’s educational experience.

I do my best to equip my kids with the life skills they need to be safe. I teach my oldest daughter, who commutes on public transit to her high school, to be cautious and aware of her surroundings. “Stay alert, no ear buds while walking and text me when you get to school,” I tell her, thinking that my job is done once she makes it safely to school.

But it’s not. And it hasn’t been since she entered pre-K 12 years ago. The Columbine school shooting happened almost 20 years ago. Since then, all American school children – and their parents – have lived with the threat of school shootings.

In the past few weeks, as I’ve thought about how I can help my kids be safe, I realized one of the best ways to help all kids be safe is by empowering them to use their voices. The March for Our Lives has been so inspirational – and transformative – because the young people have been leading the way. 

It is a movement that has also gained power because of its inclusivity – joining young people that have faced gun violence in their communities throughout their childhood with students just beginning to understand the threat guns pose to their schools and in their lives. 

And as the tone of the dinner table conversation in my home changed from fear to action and my high school daughter donned her March for Our Lives shirt to wear to a local demonstration, I sensed a shift in the movement that feels real.

Thousands of young people registered to vote at the marches, with many more pledging to keep up the fight. This generation is engaged on gun safety in ways we’ve never seen before. And they need adults to give them the space to continue their critical work while helping to amplify their collective voices.  

We all have a responsibility – to our children, to ourselves – to do our part to end gun violence. We do that by pressing our elected officials to keep gun violence prevention at the forefront of the national agenda – and by holding them accountable to that agenda at the ballot box. Together, we can redefine the American education experience – so that shooting survival skills are no longer part of the lesson plan.