American schooling is broken if six-year-olds are now threats

That students and teachers must fear guns in first-grade classrooms reflects on a failed school system.

Messages of support for teacher Abby Zwerner, who was shot by a 6 year old student, grace the front door of Richneck Elementary School Newport News, Va. on Monday Jan. 9, 2023. The Virginia teacher who authorities say was shot by a 6-year-old student is known as a hard-working educator who’s devoted to her students and enthusiastic about the profession that runs in her family. (AP Photo/John C. Clark)
Messages of support for teacher Abby Zwerner, who was shot by a six-year-old student, on the front door of Richneck Elementary School Newport News, Virginia, on Monday January 9, 2023 [John C. Clark/AP Photo]

When I heard that a six-year-old child in Newport News, Virginia, brought a gun from home into his school and then shot his first-grade teacher in the middle of a lesson last Friday, I felt something shift in my worldview as an educator.

In the United States, we know that school shootings have mired the teaching profession in an ongoing state of crisis. We know that our state and federal politicians refuse to do anything about it beyond offering useless thoughts and prayers.

We know that a vocal portion of the population would rather see teachers and students die violently in their classrooms than imagine a nation without guns, often citing incoherent and antiquated arguments about our right to a well-regulated militia. These groups conveniently forget that the Second Amendment was introduced when the most dangerous weapons at our founders’ disposal were muskets and flintlock pistols.

We know that safety concerns are among the reasons teachers are leaving the profession in droves, with the Wall Street Journal reporting upwards of 300,000 public school teachers and staff jumping ship between 2020 and 2022. We know that conditions for teachers and students alike are irrefutably abysmal across the country. We know, we know, we know.

While none of these realities is new, this most recent shooting, facilitated by a child barely out of toddlerhood, shows us just how much the state of the teaching profession in the US is worse than any of us dared to imagine.

The 1999 Columbine High School massacre, carried out by two of the school’s students, is often cited as the event that brought the horror of school shootings, now an epidemic, into the American consciousness.

Yet with Columbine and other similar instances, a narrative emerged where we came to view school shootings, particularly those committed by students, as typically a concern of secondary schools.

Before this tragedy in Virginia, shootings committed on elementary school grounds were largely perpetrated by adult-aged outsiders, as with the Robb Elementary school shooting in Uvalde, Texas and also that which occurred at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. The one exception was in February 2000, when a six-year-old shot dead his classmate in a Michigan elementary school. Of the 14 mass school shootings since Columbine, all have been committed by teenagers or adults.

In the absence of meaningful legislation, keeping campuses free from guns has become a focus across the country, from some school districts requiring students to carry only clear backpacks to others banning backpacks entirely. School authorities have been forced to turn to what they can control, some turning their attention to more elaborate systems of surveillance.

Of course, efforts to keep schools weapons-free are not new. In the 1990s, when I was a high school student in Brooklyn, New York, our administrators would make each of us walk through airport-style metal detectors guarded by a large group of security personnel. Every morning for four years I’d wait in line before it was my turn to sling my bookbag onto the conveyor belt and walk through the metal detector, a machine sensitive enough to sense items as minor (but potentially dangerous) as metal nail files.

Worrying about safety was normalised in most New York City public high schools. We didn’t share those same concerns for our city’s elementary and middle schools. But the trajectory of schooling in the United States now seems to dictate that teachers, staff, families and communities no longer have even that luxury.

As the details emerge about the school shooting in Newport News, I wonder how many of us ever imagined that a teacher would receive life-threatening injuries at the hands of a six-year-old child occupying a tiny desk in the classroom. Thankfully, the teacher, Abby Zwerner, is now out of danger.

It’s a question that continues to shape my perspective, and even my ability to do my work. As a teacher educator for those pursuing their K-12 licenses, I’ve yet to figure out how to incorporate lessons on dodging bullets into my curriculum or how to view young children as potentially dangerous. The very idea that my work requires this shift in thinking is repulsive and maddening. I have never been more enraged with our government’s abject failure to remedy a problem that other countries seemed to figure out long ago: Australia, for instance, bought back 650,000 guns in the 1990s, leading to a sharp decline in mass shootings.

Now when I work in schools, I take note of the nearest exits before I even make my way to my seat in the classroom. Classrooms with only one entrance cause me enough anxiety to initially lose focus on the purpose of my visit, which is to facilitate the work of student teachers who are learning to teach. When one school I was in recently went into lockdown without offering any details, I immediately texted my husband, wondering whether I was going to make it home.

A single alarm, loud bang, or errant shriek in a school hallway in the US is enough to wonder whether the school you’re in is on the brink of tragedy. I don’t know how much my students worry about this, and I don’t want to share my fears with them, as that doesn’t seem fair.

But this latest incident shows that school life in America has become unsustainable. And in a country where primary school teachers aren’t even safe from armed six-year-olds, we’ve done it to ourselves.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.