Once the magnitude of the latest elementary school shooting became clear on Tuesday, I heard the same single word repeated:
Nineteen children in a fourth grade classroom and two teachers, all killed by an 18-year-old gunman, a high school student who police believe also shot his grandmother and was later shot and killed at the scene.
While we are reeling from the recent shooting in Buffalo that left 10 dead, news comes of this devastating reminder of our vulnerability, of the toll gun violence, at a historic high, is taking on all of us, in a country where armed assailants can walk openly into our schools and shoot innocent children.
Again? Still? Speechless.
It was Fred Guttenberg, an anti-gun activist whose 14-year-old daughter Jaime Taylor Guttenberg died after being shot during the 2018 Parkland school shooting in Florida, who first tweeted the word “speechless,” in reaction. Many others followed.
Hours later, Guttenberg found much stronger words during an appearance on MSNBC. “People failed. They failed our kids,” Guttenberg said angrily. “I’m done. I’ve had it. How many more times? How many more times?”
The Uvalde school shooting became the 27th of the year, the second deadliest in the U.S. after the 2014 Sandy Hook school shooting left 26 dead in Connecticut. Like parents, teachers and students throughout the country, Guttenberg is increasingly outraged. So is President Joe Biden, who declared, in an emotional, televised speech, “I am sick and tired of it.”
“People failed. They failed our kid. I’m done. I’ve had it. How many more times? How many more times?Fred Guttenberg, father, Parkland Florida
So is Jennifer Eve Rich, an assistant professor in the College of Education at Rowan University in New Jersey* who helps teachers talk with children about gun violence and who also found herself at an initial loss for words. Rich told me she felt “broken by the relentlessness” of mass school shootings.
“We ricochet from one tragedy to another: Covid, shootings, the war in Ukraine, more shootings … it feels so hard to catch a breath, let alone know how to fight for what matters,” she said.
The latest horrific shooting comes at a dark time of loss and pain for many Americans, leaving our children reeling and afraid. Many have already struggled emotionally since the pandemic; along with academic lags, their teachers are seeing more emotional challenges, coupled with a decline in social skills forged by pandemic isolation and loneliness.
Mental health challenges are on the rise, as are certain types of crime, violence and inflation. Exhausted public school teachers find themselves drawn into culture wars, censored by Republican legislators pushing laws limiting what they can teach and talk about in class in the name of protecting so-called “parental rights.”
No wonder many of us are looking at America in the mirror, shuddering at the image looking back at us.
Many parents, educators and Democratic politicians are joining Biden’s call for stricter gun control laws, but few are optimistic.
“In the coming days and weeks, Republicans will not be able to hide from the questions that parents around the country are asking: what are you doing to prevent the next school shooting?” Senator Patty Murray of Washington State said in a statement. “What are you doing to protect our children so they can go to school without fear?”
Teachers weighed in as well, demanding stricter gun laws.
“Tragedies like this one keep happening while elected officials do nothing; except, in Texas’ case, make firearms more available,” the National Education Association said, in a joint statement with the Texas State Teachers Association. “How many more mass shootings need to happen before these lawmakers finally take responsibility and address the gun safety issue?”
So, what’s next?
“We need to stop having a reactive approach,” Jaclyn Schildkraut, an associate professor at the State University of New York at Oswego and expert on gun violence, told me. “Rather than having the same dialogue after each of these shootings but failing to making any meaningful change, we need to take proactive measures based on what we know about previous tragedies … that can prevent the next one from happening.”
Meanwhile, Jennifer Rich said she’s still answering questions from her 11-year-old son, who was barely a toddler during the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2014. She remembers delivering a heartbroken explanation to her older son, then in kindergarten.
“We ricochet from one tragedy to another: Covid, shootings, the war in Ukraine, more shootings… it feels so hard to catch a breath, let alone know how to fight for what matters.”Jennifer Eve Rich, professor, Rowan University
“All of these mass shootings later, all of these years later, it doesn’t get easier,” Rich said. “I see the faces of my own children, and notice that their eyes look impossibly young when they are scared.”
And while many teachers call on Rich to explain school shootings, this time, she is fighting the initial urge to remain speechless, because she’s sure she’ll have to talk about it – again and again, until something changes.
“I told my son that it’s true that there was a shooting at an elementary school in Texas. I told him, in response to further questions, that I don’t know why this happened, or why people want guns that can kill so many people,” Rich said.
Then she gave him the same advice she urges other parents and teachers to take.
“I reminded him that the grown-ups in his school will always, always do their best to keep him safe, and that I trust them. I told him that it is my job to worry about this, and he should give his worry to me, if he can.”
*This sentence has been updated to correct the location of Rowan University. It is in New Jersey.
This column about school shootings was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our weekly newsletters.