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A day after the March 27, 2023, mass shooting at The Covenant School, a woman is overcome with emotion in front of an impromptu memorial. // John Partipilo

"It's the guns. It's always been the guns."

What some Tennessee teachers say needs to change for safer schools


By Meghan Mangrum, Tennessee Lookout

Brandy Smith is grateful her students are among the youngest on campus.

Too young to question why she has them stand up against the wall, out of sight of the classroom door, or in the corner of the room on drill days.

Too young not to believe her when she promises to keep them safe. Too young to ask why they do active shooter drills at all.

Smith is a pre-K teacher for Metro Nashville Public Schools.

In the weeks since the shooting at The Covenant School, a private Christian elementary school in Nashville, left three adults and three nine-year-olds dead, she’s had a “lot of ups and downs.”

“It’s a lot of emotions,” Smith said. “I’ve gone from scared and terrified, to kinda just really pissed off. So mad that I could kinda just punch anybody.”

Smith said she is “a lover, not a fighter” though.

So as Tennessee lawmakers have debated – and then failed – to introduce gun control legislation in the wake of shooting or made national news after expelling two House representatives for calling for gun reform, Smith has channeled her anger into advocacy.

"The things we do are about perception, not safety, and while we know what the problem is, we don't have the heart to address it. Everything is performative. It's a shell game. We place the solutions inside the shells and move them around, over and over." — John DeVore, middle school teacher, Chattanooga

She’s among an increasing number of educators joining the thousands who have rallied, marched and protested, calling for change – and begging lawmakers to listen to them.

Whether the lawmakers will ultimately meet for a special session called by Gov. Bill Lee to address gun reform after the regular session adjourned last week is still unclear.

Some educators, like Smith, remain hopeful – but others are wary.

John DeVore, a longtime English teacher in Chattanooga, said the week after The Covenant School shooting he thought back to discussing last year’s shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas and it feels like nothing has changed.

“Nothing ever does,” DeVore said. “[My wife] told me a year ago that she didn’t want me to be a teacher anymore because she was worried about shootings. But leaving the profession won’t protect me or [our son]. We still go to grocery stores, movie theaters, concerts, churches, and college campuses,” DeVore said.

There is a school resource officer on DeVore’s campus – something Lee has vowed to secure for every school in the state through an effort that will likely take years.

But DeVore worries the officer hasn’t made the campus any safer, instead, a few students now have criminal records for infractions like fighting or bringing weed to school.

“The things we do are about perception, not safety, and while we know what the problem is, we don’t have the heart to address it. Everything is performative. It’s a shell game. We place the solutions inside the shells and move them around, over and over, but when it comes time to choose, we always come up empty. The real answer was never on the board. It’s the guns. It’s always been the guns,” DeVore argues.

As Tennessee House Republicans recently moved to pass legislation to arm teachers – before punting it to expedite the end of the session – DeVore joined the educators decrying such efforts.

“I’m a teacher, not a soldier,” DeVore said. He’s not hopeful that lawmakers will listen – or that things will change enough when it comes to access to guns to prevent a tragedy from happening at a school again.

“I will fight someone with a gun to keep them out of my classroom.”

After high-profile school shootings, lawmakers often rush to pass policies or allocate funds to “harden” schools – like adding security cameras or silent panic buttons or more secure entrances – or claim to want to tackle the growing mental health crisis.

A week after the school shooting in Nashville, Lee pitched a $205 million school safety program that would bolster security personnel on campuses but contained nothing about gun restrictions.

"As a teacher, you just have to come to the realization that if I have to, I will fight somebody with a gun to keep them out of my classroom." — Brandy Smith, Pre-K teacher, Metro Nashville Public Schools

Only after another week of protests, did the governor begin calling for an extreme order of protection law that would prevent people considered a danger to themselves and others from possessing guns.

But these efforts don’t address what many are calling for. A majority of Tennessee parents believe background checks should be required on all gun sales and support risk protection laws, according to the most recent Vanderbilt Tennessee Child Health Poll.

Only 35% of the parents polled in the fall of 2022 believed teachers should be armed.

Most teachers also aren’t interested in carrying a firearm and many believe their districts are doing all they can to keep schools safe. Most schools in Tennessee – and across the country – already practice regular lockdown or active shooter drills.

Since the morning a shooter opened fire at Covenant, Smith said she’s often caught herself thinking about her escape plan for her and her students in the event of an active shooter.

“No matter if we’re in the library or the playground or the classroom, I know the steps and every now and then I’ll just catch myself thinking about it and I’ll go over the checklist again in my head,” Smith said.

A man walks his daughter from a school near Nashville’s Covenant School on March 27, 2023. // John Partipilo

“As a teacher, you just have to come to the realization that  if I have to, I will fight somebody with a gun to keep them out of my classroom.”

Smith considers herself lucky that her four and five-year-old preschoolers typically follow directions without much explanation, but she never imagined she would spend so much time worrying about school safety when she first became an educator.

Though experts caution more and more not to make drills too realistic (some in the past have been surprises to both teachers and students or included rubber bullets and someone acting as an intruder) because of the mental health impact it can have on students, kids today have never known what school is like without such drills.

“We would have more time for a lot of other things if we didn’t have to do lockdown drills and our kids would be safer if we didn’t have people being able to buy guns so quickly and just to go to school and to shoot it up,” Smith said while apologizing for crying during her interview.

Even private schools and daycare facilities have bolstered security measures in recent years. Law enforcement even praised the Covenant staff who quickly locked down the school and ushered children to safety on the day of the attack, but six lives were still lost.

Anna Voorhees works at a church-based daycare not far from Covenant. She regularly finds herself thinking about what she would do if an active shooter got to the infants she works with, some as young as eight weeks old.

“How would I protect my students?” she’s been asking herself, she said. “Are we going to attempt to hide and try to find something to barricade the door with, or are we going to climb out a window and pass babies through it?”

‘Come visit these schools’

Laura Boyd, a Spanish teacher at Poplar Grove Middle School in Franklin, said the shooting at least served as an unfortunate wake-up call to be more mindful of the things teachers and school administrators do have control over, like locking classroom doors and paying more attention to student tips.

Even with the added attention, she still fears school staff can only do so much. Her school, which shares a campus with an elementary school, doesn’t even have its own school resource officer despite readily available funding. There just aren’t enough applicants, she said.

She’s been calling on lawmakers to actually visit schools and spend time in classrooms to understand what teachers need to feel safe instead of throwing money toward more SROs or considering arming teachers.

"It's just concerning to me that the priorities of those in power don't seem to have educators’ best interest at heart. It seems like there's a political agenda that puts other priorities in front of the safety of children." — Daven Oglesby, special education teacher, Metro Nashville Public Schools

“They don’t trust me with a book choice, but they would be okay equipping me with a firearm,” the former middle school teacher of the year said. “I just feel like my cup is full.”

Daven Oglesby, an exceptional education teacher at Lakeview Elementary Design Center in Nashville, echoes Boyd, and questions what gun control efforts lawmakers would actually consider.

Just days before the Tennessee House expelled Reps. Justin Jones and Justin J. Pearson, Oglesby paid a visit to Capitol Hill. As part of the organization, Tennessee Educators of Color’s annual Day on the Hill, Oglesby – who is Black – joined peer teachers and met with lawmakers to discuss the issues like the new third-grade retention law and teacher diversity.

Daven Oglesby // LinkedIn

But days later, he watched the expulsion hearing and subsequent protests play out in the same space.

“It’s just concerning to me that the priorities of those in power don’t seem to have educators’ best interest at heart. It seems like there’s a political agenda that puts other priorities in front of the safety of children,” Oglesby said.

He said he’s been most troubled by those pushing legislation to allow teachers to carry firearms – a bill that has been proposed in some form several times before.

“What type of alternatives were considered prior to the decision being made for teachers carrying firearms,” Oglesby said he wants to ask lawmakers. “We’re not charged with serving and protecting students. We’re charged with educating.”

Oglesby already worries about the stress lockdown or active shooter drills have on students, many of whom are easily disturbed by changes in their routine or environment, like suddenly turning off the lights or being forced to be still and quiet.

He doesn’t think lawmakers realize these aspects when crafting school safety and education policies.

“Come visit these schools that you’re making these laws about and ask educators, parents and administrators, ‘What are your thoughts?’” he said.

And if lawmakers won’t do that, Oglesby said it’s his responsibility to speak out and amplify those perspectives along with his students’ voices.

“It’s not enough to just be a teacher. It’s not enough to just sit in the classroom,” he said. “I have to take what I’m learning in the classroom — not just teaching my students, but learning from them as well — and spread that knowledge outside of the classroom.”

Because in the end, Oglesby believes change is possible.

Smith agrees. Despite participating in the “sickout” just ten days after The Covenant School shooting that ultimately fell on the same day as the marathon expulsion hearing, she’s been cautiously optimistic.

Despite clear dividing lines between politicians when it comes to tightening gun control, she doesn’t think those rallying will let lawmakers off the hook this time.

Meghan Mangrum has covered education and children’s issues for more than seven years. Most recently, she worked for The Dallas Morning News, but before that she wrote for The Tennessean and The Chattanooga Times Free Press.

Now more than ever, tough and fair journalism is important. The Tennessee Lookout is your watchdog, telling the stories of politics and policy that affect the people of the Volunteer State.

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