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President's Perspective

Time for common sense on guns

New York Teacher

We’re living through an amazing moment. It’s clear that our elected officials in Washington, D.C., have abdicated their responsibility when it comes to gun violence, but students are taking the lead to advocate for their own safety amid this epidemic.

On March 14, taking their cue from the Parkland student leaders, an estimated 100,000 New York City students walked out of class to honor victims of gun violence including the most recent casualties, the 17 students and faculty murdered at Marjory Stoneman Douglas HS on Feb. 14. And on March 24, students took to the streets — alongside public school educators and parents — for the March for our Lives in Washington, D.C., New York City and elsewhere to demand sensible gun laws to keep weapons out of our communities.

The students are clear: They don’t want to live with fear, and they are tired of waiting for Washington, D.C., to stand up to the National Rifle Association. I was proud to stand with some of the students as they made their voices heard.

It’s no surprise that UFT members feel strongly about this issue. Not long after the shooting, I was in Florida, meeting with hundreds of our retirees who were eager to help keep the pressure on elected officials. We know how to mobilize for maximum impact on the issues that affect us and our students. We will continue to work with advocates and students across this country to make needed changes happen.

Already we are seeing small, but noteworthy policy shifts. The student survivors from the Parkland, Florida, shooting lobbied hard in their home state and won concessions from Gov. Rick Scott and a state Legislature historically averse to any gun restrictions. Florida’s new law raises the minimum age to buy rifles from 18 to 21; extends a three-day waiting period for handgun purchases to include long guns; and bans bump stocks, which allow guns to mimic fully automatic fire.

We know that stronger gun laws are not enough. We need to create safe school environments and to train educators in how to recognize and deescalate potentially violent situations. At a recent mayoral forum on school safety, our students expressed concern about school climate and creating safe spaces where students and staff respect each other. These are issues we know something about — and have experience with.

The Positive Learning Collaborative, a joint program of the UFT and the Department of Education, has shown us there’s a way to create positive learning environments by providing educators with strategies to respond to and head off challenging student behavior. Every employee in a school building is trained in how to recognize and de-escalate situations before they trigger suspensions, or worse.

One of the inane ideas that federal lawmakers pitched as a solution to gun violence was to arm teachers. But teachers should be marking papers, not being trained in marksmanship. Our time should be spent preparing our lessons, not learning how to reload a gun.

Nobody countered this ill-conceived idea better than teachers themselves. They immediately rebutted it on Twitter and Instagram, using the hashtag #ArmMeWith, to educate legislators and the general public about what they really need in their classrooms to help students learn and to address the seeds of violent behavior.

Teachers said to arm them with a range of things: smaller class sizes, textbooks, libraries, nurses, counselors, anti-bullying programs and mental health resources. Many discussed the need for more time for classes, afterschool programs and one-on-one discussions with their students. One teacher tweeted #ArmMeWith “resources to take them on educational trips that won’t cost the amount of a week’s groceries.”

And there’s no way to get around the need to invest nationally and locally in school mental health services. Some of our students are in real crisis and need clinical mental-health interventions. Getting clinical services to students promptly can head off tragedy.

If we can keep the focus on what our schools need to succeed, we have a chance to bring some common sense and workable solutions to school safety.

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