“Would being armed change the dynamic between teacher and student in the classroom?” WBUR’s Deb Becker asked Lisa Graustein, teacher and equity coordinator at Boston’s Codman Academy. Codman is a successful K-12 charter school in Dorchester, a majority minority neighborhood in Boston whose public schools have long struggled to meet the demands of its population. Ninety-nine percent of students at Codman are low-income and of-color.
Graustein’s answer made me stand still. She quietly explained that many, if not all, of her students “…have lost friends or family members to gun violence.” Like her students, Graustein lives in Dorchester. She told Becker that she had lost nine students and a housemate to gun violence. She went on to describe a recent interaction with kindergartners when she read a story to them about East Africa. She had worn earrings from the region.
“After finishing the book,” Graustein said, “I had five kindergartners around my body, looking at the jewelry I was wearing, exploring it, and I think about if I had a gun on me, the entire time I’d have to be worried about is the kid touching it? Are they triggering the safety? Is it going to accidentally go off and shoot somebody? And instead, I was just there with a pair of earrings and a book, and I could just be with the kids, and it was safe.”
Graustein had created an ideal learning environment, where kids felt safe, expressed curiosity, and explored freely. This is the beloved community that expert teachers work so hard to create. Whether in kindergarten or college, students thrive in environments where they are set free emotionally and intellectually to explore and question. Introducing a gun into the mix would not only present a physical obstacle to students. It would also, in low-income communities of color, present potential emotional obstacles, as well.
Race and income have largely been missing in calls to arm teachers since the shooting in Florida at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Valentine’s Day. Like many, I have shivered thinking about the implications of putting firearms in teachers’ hands. I have not heard enough comments such as Graustein’s assertion that “a gun by its very presence is re-triggering of a severe trauma for many […] students.” The dearth of such comments relates to the lack of dialogue around gun violence and race and poverty.
Students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in Florida’s Broward County were lucky that they had not previously been traumatized by gun violence. The high school is relatively high-performing, with a majority white student body. It serves 2,972 students. Niche.com gives the school an A for academics and a B+ for diversity. The site gives the school an A- overall. Sixty-six percent and 72 percent of its students are “at least proficient” in math and reading, respectively. According to greatschools.org, the average SAT score for students at the high school is 1595, about 42 percent take Advanced Placement tests (state average is 23 percent), and the graduation rate from the school is 97 percent (state average of 82 percent). Sixty-two percent of students at the school classify themselves as white. Madeleine Marr reported in the Miami Herald that the city of Parkland was listed as “one of the safest in the country” before the shooting, which is “statistically safer than 85 percent of cities in the entire country.” All of which to say that the grim surprise these students, parents, and teachers experienced Valentine’s Day wouldn’t be such a surprise to many students attending low-performing, inner-city public high schools.
I don’t want to diminish the horror that took place last month at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. At the same time, there has to be a different context or frame within which to understand gun violence and to shape gun control policy. Yes, we need to prohibit access to AR-15s. We also need to be thinking about the ways so many in public schools are exposed to gun violence on their way to and from school, how they experience gun violence at home and in their neighborhoods, and what it would mean to them to introduce even more armed figures of authority into the equation. We have to consider the epidemic – or, is genocide the right word? – of homicides which police continue to carry out with their licensed handguns against young men of color.
If we genuinely care about student safety, we have to widen our circle of concern. All students, not just those of relative privilege unused to gun violence, deserve to live and grow and learn in physical and emotional safety. Thank you, Lisa Graustein, for the visceral reminder. Keep reading to the kids and wearing funky earrings.