I trained to be an educator, not a sharpshooter

I am rare in that I am an accidental academic. I never aspired to hold a Ph.D. or to have a fancy title. However, I loved being part of a research team and after years of doing just that I had an opportunity to attend graduate school. I chose the special education program because I believed it would give me additional tools to serve some of the most marginalized people within our society. I wanted to be as effective as possible in helping youth who were struggling as they moved towards adulthood.

My program at the University of Oregon promised I would, “Learn from the best researchers in the field of special education” and prepare me for:

  • Research and teaching positions in higher education
  • Policymaking positions in state and federal government
  • Consultation positions in professional education

Notice it does NOT mention that it would prepare me to take down an active shooter! The idea that as educators we must be ready to go into combat in our classrooms is shameful to our nation and absurd.

Both as an adjunct faculty member and a research scientist at universities in Seattle, I was provided information to prepare in case of an active shooter event. The universities provided us with some basic tips and a link to a 5:55-minute video “Run. Hide. Fight. ® Surviving an Active Shooter Event

Think about that for a minute!

Before I could teach at the university level or apply for my federal research grants, I had to study for over NINE years (post-high-school). And although, I like to believe that some of my work has saved people’s lives it certainly isn’t as immediately evident as preventing a mass shooter from killing my students!

Considering how many years I spent learning to conduct a research study, write an academic paper, and design a course — How in the hell would a 6-minute video or a few hours in a workshop prepare me to manage an active shooter situation?

Active shooter realities.

My brother is a combat veteran, although I do not know all the details, I know that over a 20-year period his training was intensive and ongoing. I also know I would never receive that level of training as an educator. Matt Martin, combat veteran, describes exceedingly well why arming teachers is an “asinine idea.” Matt describes how even the best-trained individuals may not be able to react as trained when bullets are flying. He shares his own experience of being shot in combat and the medic freezing. He further puts things in perspective by reporting a statistic from the FBI — police officers who engaged the shooter were wounded or killed in 46.7 percent of the incidents!

How am I, as an educator, supposed to take down an active shooter if police officers who constantly train for these situations are wounded or killed damn near half the time?

Even if I did have the “correct training” there are many reasons to not pull out a gun during an active shooter situation. The carnage at Umpqua Community college is case in point. John Parker, a 36-year-old Army veteran, was on campus (in the veteran’s center) and had his gun with him during the shooting. He and several other students did not respond to the situation because (a) the shooter could have killed them (b) law enforcement was already on the scene and could have mistaken them for a shooter (or thought there were multiple shooters).

In hindsight, he says, “If we would have run across the field, we would have been targets. We made a good choice at the time” It should also be noted that Umpqua College is NOT a gun free zone. There goes that argument as well.

This tragedy hit especially close to home as my daughter has several friends that attended Umpqua Community College and heartbreakingly one of her friend’s mom was among those killed that day.

Family discussions about being shot at school.

My daughter was attending, and I was teaching at universities in Seattle when the Umpqua shooting occurred. After every school shooting (mind-boggling that that is plural), I had to help my children process and feel safe (or brave?) enough to go back to school.

I thought of all the youth that my colleagues and I served in schools where high poverty, violence, and trauma permeated their existence. My mind raced with questions. How could we expect students to focus on their studies and excel academically when they were afraid of being shot during their school day? These students already suffer disproportionally because of poverty, institutional racism, and inadequate school funding. Add to this a fear of being shot at school, how can we not see that these factors directly impact their learning? And why is the safety of children not a top priority in the US?

All of this intensified after the Umpqua shooting. It was too close to home. I was a single mom — what if I was killed while teaching? Who would take care of my children? When I was young, I took a lot of risks and moved through areas/situations that weren’t exactly safe. Now my kids needed me and my choices prioritized my safety and their well-being.

It was absurd that I had to ask myself if teaching at the university level in the US was too big of a risk.

That term I had a student that tried to bully me into increasing his grade. He emailed obsessively, talked to me about it after almost every class, and stopped by my office. What if he snaps? I thought.


While dealing with all this worry of safety, I was also struggling to make ends meet financially. Like many other “adjuncts” my position was always temporary, low paid, and without benefits. The university I worked for was adamant about keeping the unions out so that we did not have the bargaining power to remedy the situation.

Also, like many of my peers, I worked multiple jobs to support my family. To keep my research position, I was required to fund my salary by writing grants. Combined — this situation is very stressful. Repeatedly we are told these conditions are necessary because of “the lack of funding.”

Lack of funding in K-12 schools is also the reason routinely given for why class sizes are so large; there are few school counselors and nurses; there aren’t enough textbooks (or current ones in the classrooms); specialized instruction isn’t possible; art, music and PE programs are being eliminated; ethnic studies programs aren’t feasible, and teacher pay is low. Now the 45th president of the US, says there should be pay bonuses for teachers who carry guns to class!!

There is funding for that?


The real issue isn’t whether the US has the money to fund education. The real issue is priorities. The absurdity of arming teachers and providing pay bonuses for them exemplifies this perfectly. It isn’t a matter of not having enough money; it is an issue of who gets the money. The US allocates over 50% of its budget on the military and only 6% on education.

Additionally, the gun industry invests enormous amounts of money to influence US government officials. According to the Center for Responsive Politics during the 2016 election, the NRA and its affiliates spent a record $54m to secure Republican control of the White House and Congress, including at least $30.3m to help elect Donald Trump. In addition, the US is the top arms exporters in the world, accounting for 33% of the world’s arms exports (Stockholm Peace Research, 2017). In the fiscal year 2017, US arms sales reached $41.93 billion an increase of 25% from the previous year.

Step out of the way and let the youth lead.

We have failed our children and youth. The adults in the US have not prioritized the education or safety of the children. The youth are pissed. They are finding their voices. The youth are ready to lead. We must not get in their way.

We must instead ask youth how we can help and what they need from us. We must be their strongest allies.

We are the past, and they are the future.

We have left them with a hell of a mess to sort out. It is time we get out of their way. Support them as they rise up! Let them lead the way.

This requires a monumental shift in our mindset from adults as the experts to adults as youth allies.

Join us in this work ­– Allies for Teens and Young Adults

Originally published at robinharwick.com on March 3, 2018.

Written by

Author, Educator, Researcher, Survivor, and Youth & Family Advocate. robinharwick.com

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