by Scott McGilvray, NEA-NH President
Earlier this month, NEA-New Hampshire released our Legislative Priorities for 2016. They reflect the values we share as an organization and as human beings. Leading our list of priorities this year is a bill that would provide a death benefit of $100,000 to the family of any public school employee killed in the line of duty. This bill is modeled after the one passed by the New Hampshire Legislature following the murder of Officer Michael Briggs in 2006. Michael’s Law provides a death benefit of $100,000 to the family of any police officer or firefighter killed in the line of duty.
Like police and firefighters, educators now find themselves on the front line of violent situations, often putting themselves between an assailant and their students. Since 2013, our nation’s schools have averaged nearly one violent criminal situation resulting in death a week. FBI statistics increasingly show education environments among the top two settings for incidences of mass violence. New Hampshire has been fortunate that none of them have happened in our state, and NEA-NH hopes that this benefit is never needed.
Teachers used their bodies to block bullets in Sandy Hook and falling debris in Oklahoma tornados to protect their students. And yet, there are those who still call us selfish and underpaid. Multiple stories came out of Moore, OK, of teachers putting their own lives on the line to protect their students, just as teachers in Newtown and other schools risked and sometimes lost their lives for students.
During the worst of the tornado that destroyed Moore, teachers shielded children with their own bodies even as roofs collapsed around them, according to educators and parents of children who survived. After initially being told to huddle in the hallways during the tornado, teachers realized it wasn’t safe and ushered students into a closet, shielding them with their bodies as the building’s roof collapsed.
As witnesses recount the horrific crime at Sandy Hook Elementary, one constant is emerging: Even more children would have been killed had it not been for the actions of teachers, a custodian and even the students themselves. The school’s principal was killed while lunging at the shooter as she tried to overtake him. Others did their best to shield students from the impending danger. As the shooter made his way through the elementary school building, teachers — some who reportedly died with their bodies over their students — physically came to the aid of terrified students. One piled 16 first-graders on top of one another in the bathroom. Others locked doors, bunched students together and tried to hide in any places they could before police arrived. As President Obama recounted in his speech, “Some barricaded themselves inside classrooms, and kept steady through it all, and reassured their students by saying ‘Wait for the good guys, they’re coming’; ‘Show me your smile.’” A custodian warned of the gunman by running through the halls, screaming “Guys! Get down! Hide!” His warning also saved lives that day.
At the beginning of each new school year, we participate in lockdown drills, and practice fire and other safety procedures. Every school district has specific plans and procedures to handle emergency situations, and in every case the front line employee tasked with student safety is the teacher. This is more than just an expectation of employment – it is a sacred trust between parent and educator. One that begins when the child walks onto a school bus or is dropped off at school, and a parent says to us “I am trusting you to take care of my most precious child today. Teach her. Care for him. Keep them safe, and return them to me at the end of the day.” From that moment on, educators across the state know what is expected of them, and to a person they keep that promise and guard that trust.
Any training we receive in safety drills only reinforces who teachers are to begin with. People who choose to become educators are special. They begin their careers from a state of caring and wanting to make a difference, and some then go on to find themselves in situations where they literally shield their students at the expense of their own safety.
Charlie Gaare is a high school English teacher in Denver. Gaare’s school went into lockdown after reports of an armed person near campus. Police searched the school for weapons, prompting Gaare to write down her thoughts on how gun violence has affected her life as a teacher.
“Here’s the thing they don’t teach you when you’re going to school to be a teacher; that there will be days where you have to think about how you are going to fit three adult-sized children into a glass cupboard and cover yourself with desks in order to protect the four of you. They don’t tell you in 12 years’ time there will be more school shootings than you can remember or maybe even count. They don’t tell you that you are going to worry consistently about the day when it’s not going to be just a false alarm.
Across America thousands upon thousands of teachers will go to school, and they will be the kind of people who on a bad day will throw themselves in front of our children to protect them. Never in all of the school shootings have we heard about a teacher who ran or fled from a shooter in order to protect themselves.
How many other people have to think about escape routes and safety spots and whether a school desk would protect them from a bullet?
I’m not going anywhere anytime soon because I will always love my kids enough to want to be the one between them and a bullet, but this also wasn’t in the job description.”
Our bill is not about guns or violence. Our bill is about recognizing the role educators play in the everyday safety and well-being of our students; a role that we take seriously, yet one that is often undervalued by those making our laws. As one mother said, “These are people who do some of the hardest work, and the most important work, in our society. They do it in the face of abuse and lack of recognition of their status as professionals. They’re ‘just a teacher.’ And yet they’re the people who stand up and put themselves in harm’s way. Not because they’re well-paid or well-trained, but because that’s who they are.”
What the teachers and principal in Moore and Newton did for the children in their care could win a soldier in a war zone a Purple Heart. But the soldier makes a conscious choice to face mortal danger when he or she enlists. Public educators do not. The danger finds them and tests them in what should be one of the safest places of all. Facing down a tornado, a disaster or a gunman, placing yourself in the path of flying debris or bullets, forfeiting your life to protect innocents in your care. It’s a job description fitting for a soldier, first responder or police officer, but for a school teacher? We all know the answer to that question is yes.
Should the unthinkable happen here, an educator’s sacrifice should be recognized just as we recognize the sacrifice of our police and firefighters.