Before classes started this morning, teachers and school staff in Amity, Darien, East Haddam, Marlborough, Manchester, Stamford, West Hartford, and elsewhere throughout the state gathered in their schools’ parking lots and snowy courtyards in a show of support and solidarity for communities ravaged by school gun violence.
Teachers organized the statewide early-morning Walk-Ins for School Safety as a way of reflecting on tragedies as close as Sandy Hook and as recent as Parkland—and calling on Congress to help stem the tide of gun violence. Through their walk-ins, educators lent their support for student activists, many of whom participated in mid-morning walkouts today to honor the victims of school violence and to press for change.
“We are proud to unite with our local chapter of the United Public Service Employees Union as we join in this national movement pushing for legislation that will keep children safe in every school across the country,” said middle school band teacher and East Haddam Education Association (EHEA) President Zach Blain. “We take our role as teachers seriously: sacrificing, advocating, and fighting for our students on a daily basis. We will continue to do that until we are able to put an end to gun violence in schools.”
Blain remembers a moment years ago when two of his students, who have since graduated, came into his band room for their flute lesson. They found their young teacher crying.
“I had just learned of the shooting at Sandy Hook,” he recalls.
Blain explained that East Haddam teachers, with the full support of school administrators, coordinated the walk-in as a way of showing students and colleagues here and across the country that they are just as committed to school safety now as they were in the aftermath of Sandy Hook.
“We stand in solidarity with the communities of Parkland, Sandy Hook, and others that have been affected by gun violence,” said Blain. “We are uniting together to create safe schools; to call on Congress to pass commonsense gun and school safety regulations, similar to those in Connecticut, that will help keep children safe in every state; and to ensure adequate funding for school resources and mental health services. Everything we do as teachers and school employees is done to provide our students with the brightest possible future, and we will not stand for national policies that make it so easy for that future to be instantly taken away.”
The 17-minute program, timed to commemorate Parkland’s 17 slain students and teachers, opened with high school language arts teacher Bridget Erlandson telling her colleagues, through tears, “It is evident that we are a team of upstanders. Today we stand up; we engage; we call for action.”
Fellow language arts teachers Paula Stevens, Meg Dedman, and Jaime McNamara read from selected poems that included William Ernest Henley’s “Invictus,” Shel Silverstein’s “Where the Sidewalk Ends,” and Maya Angelou’s “Still I Rise.”
“We will rise from this,” McNamara pledged.
Elementary school library media specialist Lisa Chlebowski praised Parkland student Emma Gonzalez and others for their persistence and outspokenness and pointed to the fact that similar demands for change resulted in Connecticut lawmakers enacting strict changes to our own state’s gun laws, dramatically reducing the number of deaths attributed to gun violence.
Third-grade teacher Lisa Cahill also praised Emma’s courage and observed, “In her speech were the underpinnings of things she learned about being a good writer. These are things she learned in school. These are things she learned from teachers—teachers like us. Somewhere out there is her first-grade teacher listening to her speak and write so eloquently and thinking, ‘I had a part in that.’ Somewhere out there is her fifth-grade teacher listening to her find her writer’s voice, thinking, ‘I had a part in that.’ And somewhere is an AP Gov teacher listening to her say, ‘You must study, or you will fail,’ and listening and looking on with pride at her words and actions.”
Cahill added, “How powerful to be in a profession where we literally teach students how to stand up and be heard, and how to write with passion and persuasion. This is our job, and we celebrate when our students show courage to stand up for what is right. We support them, as we are doing today, for taking a stand for what they believe in. We encourage them to find their voice, speak up, and speak out in order to bring change. This is our job. This is our profession.”
She went on, “We must become involved in any way we can to show our students that even if no one else is listening, we are there for them. We must act together; we are so many strong. We must join together and use the power of our union to push Congress for commonsense laws that protect our students and our colleagues. We must use the power or our numbers. The NRS has so many members, but so does the NEA.”
Special education teacher Sheila Delaney added that school massacres such as Parkland have been carried out by young people with access to firearms who “used those weapons to kill other children and adults at their own school—the one place in a child’s life that is supposed to be stable, secure, and predictable.”
A recently published report in USA Today, said Delaney, noted that our youngest Americans, “born during the first few years of the 21st century…have never known a world without school shootings.”
“I feel sad, angry, and frustrated,” she said. “I just want to teach. That is why I am here. A well-known first lady wrote a book called It Takes a Village. In my mind, we are the village, and these students are all our children. I believe that I have a responsibility not only as a teacher but as a mother and a member of this community to every young person who walks in the door of this high school. My sense is that I am not alone in this belief. My hope is that together, we can make this stop.”
The ceremony closed with a moment of silence, after which teachers walked into the school building along with arriving students to welcome a new day.
Manchester holds multiple walk-ins
Further north, in Manchester, Illing Middle School teacher Ryan Parker told a crowd of approximately 50 teachers and students, “This walk-in is a testament to youth leadership, youth genius, youth power, and the youth’s call for unity. Today I am proud to be a Manchester educator not only in alliance with my Manchester youth but in solidarity with their desire to unite in honoring those we lost in Florida.”
Illing joined Manchester High School in a morning Walk-In for School Safety attended by more than 100 teachers and students districtwide.
Manchester Education Association President Kate Dias, responding to a television reporter’s question about whether students should be learning in their classrooms rather than protesting outside, put it this way: “I think it’s a tremendous opportunity to learn about social activism and civic responsibility. We want students to learn how to send a message, how to participate, to learn that their government is theirs. I think if we wait until students are 18 and ask them to engage as voters, we’ve missed the real learning curve, so I would argue that this opportunity is just as powerful a learning opportunity as anything we offer in a classroom.”
Robertson Elementary School fourth-grade teacher Regina Gatmaitan pointed out that while parents entrust her with their children’s safety, she fears for her students and their generation, knowing that tragedy can happen anywhere. More mental health resources are needed, she said—a sentiment echoed by Manchester school counselors Colleen Green and Denise Batista, who called on more supports for early intervention.
“When there are concerns, teachers collaborate with us, but that is not always enough. We need support for parents and families too.”
Manchester social studies teacher Quinn Austermann was a student at UConn when her younger sister was a second-grader in Newtown—a day she will never forget. “I thank the students of Manchester for moving forward,” Austermann said. There are no excuses for students here in the U.S. to be at greater risk of gun violence than in any other civilized country. There is no excuse to turn our schools into fortresses or penitentiaries.”
One hundred strong in Darien
At the other end of the state, near the southernmost tip of Fairfield County, close to 100 teachers and support staff made their own pledge for safe learning communities for all students. Teachers gathered simultaneously at Darien High School and Middlesex Middle School for their own solemn walk-ins.
Darien Education Association President Joslyn DeLancey led off with a moment of silence before thanking her colleagues for coming together in the early morning hours.
Darien High School Spanish teacher Allyson Power shared an initiative she is working on with her students that centers on the idea of “walking up.” The walk-up concept is one where students are encouraged to engage with peers who may not have an easy road through their school days. Students are encouraged to strike up conversations, smile, and rekindle old friendships with classmates who may be socially isolated or overlooked.
Elected officials lend support at West Hartford walk-in
At Hall High School, West Hartford Mayor Sheri Cantor and Senator Beth Bye addressed approximately 70 teachers, thanking them for their dedication to children and the guidance they provide to their students.
Noting that in the past five years more Connecticut teachers than public safety officers have been killed in the line of duty, Senator Bye denounced plans to fortify schools with more guns and criticized the additional burden that would put on teachers.
West Hartford Education Association Vice President Dave Simon asked for a moment of silence to remember all the student and staff lives lost in school violence, after which teachers formed a procession into the building.
Stamford: ‘We have grieved too long’
CEA helped coordinate multiple walk-ins, including several in conjunction with the Stamford Education Association (SEA).
“As educators, we have grieved too long and too often for the innocent children lost, for their families, and for our heroic, dedicated colleagues who helped save lives and, in some instances, lost theirs,” said SEA President Diane Phanos. “We are encouraged by the collective action and voice of Stamford’s teachers and remain hopeful that their strong show of support, as well as support from numerous other communities across Connecticut and the nation, will be the catalyst for action to make sure every child in Stamford’s, Connecticut’s and the rest of our nation’s public schools has a safe and secure learning environment.”