Sarah Lerner is painfully familiar with how teachers in Uvalde, Texas must have felt as a gunman attacked their elementary school and fatally shot 21 people on May 24. In 2018, Lerner kept 15 students safe in her classroom at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., while a teenager armed with an AR-15-style rifle shot and killed 17 people on the campus.
“We get into education because we love children, we love our subject matter, and we love teaching. None of us go into education to be human shields, and to be bodyguards, and makeshift police officers,” says Lerner, who still teaches English at Marjory Stoneman Douglas. “But when those kids are in your charge, no matter how old they are, even my 18-year-old seniors, you are responsible for them.”
As efforts to pass comprehensive gun-safety legislation continue to stall, many educators who survived mass shootings feel like they’ve been left to deal with the problem on their own—forced to protect their students from the recurring threat of gun violence in schools.
When she heard the first reports out of Uvalde last week, Abbey Clements, hoped that maybe the gunman had only barricaded himself inside the school and that there might not be any casualties. When she learned about the death toll, she fell to the floor and grabbed a colleague’s hand.
“I just lost it,” says Clements, who on Dec. 14, 2012 huddled with 17 second-grade students in her classroom when gunshots rang out at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut. She recalls how she read a picture book about polar bears and tried to sing holiday songs to keep her students calm. “How do we continue to function when kids are killed in an elementary school?”
She thought about the two teachers and 19 students who were killed last week. “Your mind goes right to that time and you think about those teachers and those poor students,” she says. “I’m so sorry for them that we did not fix this.”
In the wake of the shooting at Sandy Hook, Clements says she relied on teachers who had survived the 1999 shooting at Columbine High School, who could relate to the trauma she had experienced and could offer perspectives on whether to move to a new school or whether to keep teaching at all. She plans to reach out to Uvalde teachers to offer similar support. But the fact that that’s necessary has become tragic proof of the country’s inability—or unwillingness—to solve this problem.
“I mostly feel shame. I also feel outrage,” says Clements, who now teaches fourth grade at another public school in Newtown, Conn. “How pathetic is this that we let this go on this long, tragedy after tragedy?”
In December, Clements and Lerner and New York teacher Sari Beth Rosenberg launched Teachers Unify to End Gun Violence, an initiative aimed at amplifying the stories of educators who survived school shootings and advocating for solutions to stop the epidemic of gun violence across the country.
“In the almost four and a half years since it happened at my school, how many other shootings have happened, both in school and elsewhere?” says Lerner, who has been teaching for 20 years. “It’s so, so tragically sad that this happened, but that it keeps happening.”
‘This is my cause’
Lerner says the Parkland shooting changed every aspect of her life. Four years later, she remains acutely aware of exits in any room she enters. She doesn’t sit with her back to the door. She was teaching 1984 to her students when the shooting began, and has not taught the book since: “I don’t know if and when I’ll be ready to do it again.” She still hates the sound of fireworks.
Lerner now teaches students who weren’t on campus the day of the shooting; many were on lockdown in a nearby middle school. And she is clear with them, on the first day of school, how seriously she takes their safety. “It’s your safety and mine,” she tells them. “And you will follow all of my directions and do whatever I tell you to do, without question.”
The American Federation of Teachers (AFT) launched a renewed gun-reform campaign on Tuesday, calling on lawmakers to pass legislation that could prevent gun violence. “This is a public health crisis,” AFT President Randi Weingarten said in a statement. “Educators deserve to be able to teach and not be forced to be human shields to protect their students.”
Also on Tuesday, a group of teachers protested outside the Austin office of Texas Sen. Ted Cruz. “Cruz’s response to the slaughter of children—pushing for more armed school staff—is not only opposed by a vast majority of teachers, but also is an illogical idea that has not proven to be effective,” the Texas branch of the AFT, which led the protest, said in a statement. Instead, the group said, new restrictions on guns must be enacted.
Lerner is advocating for safe-storage laws and strict background checks on gun purchases. She would also like to see age restrictions that prevent those under 21 from buying handguns, and laws that limit access to military-style assault rifles—like the ones used by the gunmen in Uvalde and Parkland.
But Republican leaders in Texas and in Congress have made clear they’re not interested in pursuing gun-control measures and have, instead, suggested arming teachers, redesigning school buildings with only one entrance, and increasing the presence of law enforcement officers in schools. In his early remarks about the shooting, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott focused on praising law enforcement officers’ “quick response” and “amazing courage,” while barely mentioning the teachers who shielded and died beside their students in two classrooms at Robb Elementary.
Yet the way police officers responded to the Uvalde shooting is now the subject of intense scrutiny, as new details show officers waited more than hour to enter two classrooms where a gunman killed 19 children and two teachers, because the school district’s police chief believed the gunman was no longer a threat, as students repeatedly called 911 for help. Abbott later said he had been “misled” by law enforcement and was “livid” about what happened.
And while many Republicans see arming teachers as a possible solution, many educators, who already feel overworked and underpaid, see it as a proposal that would only increase the burden on them to defend the lives of their students in a crisis. “It’s impractical. It’s absurd,” Lerner says. “Putting more guns on campus isn’t going to do anything to keep anyone safe.”
As she advocates for gun-safety legislation, she’s motivated to prevent another cycle of teachers and students from having to experience the same fear, anguish, and grief that she and Clements did.
“These politicians offer their thoughts and prayers, which doesn’t do anything. We want policy, we want change, we want action—because they offered thoughts and prayers after Sandy Hook and after Pulse and after Parkland. And we’re still here,” she says.
“This is my cause for the rest of my life. And I will talk about it until I have no breath left.”
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Write to Katie Reilly at Katie.Reilly@time.com