by Brian Washington
Colorado art teacher Katie Lyles hoped her students would be spared from the sort of dark specters that haunt her memories of high school.
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But during an emergency “lock down” drill at her elementary school, while crammed into a storage room with about 24 second graders, one student, a 7-year-old named Anthony, reached for her hand in fear. At that moment, her hopes began to fade.
“My heart broke for Anthony and his classmates—that they have to learn these types of drills at such a young age, if at all,” Lyles recently admitted during a public hearing in Denver on curbing gun violence. “I thought to myself: ‘This is a result of the Columbine shootings. This is my reality, and now it is theirs too.’ ”
When it comes to gun violence, Lyles has a unique, though unenviable, perspective. She’s witnessed its impact as an educator and up close as a student. Lyles, who’s been teaching for less than a decade, is a survivor of the 1999 shootings at Columbine High School, where 12 students and one educator died after being brutally gunned down.
“My story about Columbine is that I ran out of the school after the shooting started. We had to scatter into the neighborhood,” said Lyles, who also told Education Votes she sometimes experiences “survivor’s guilt” and a range of other emotions around April 20th, the anniversary of the shooting. “Sometimes, I am like, ‘Oh, I am fine.’ And then that day will hit you like a ton of bricks.”
But this year may be different. For the first time in about 14 years, Lyles is speaking publicly about the day that changed her life and this nation forever.
Spurred by the tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut, where a gunman killed 20 young children and six educators in December, Lyles is talking to local and national media and meeting on Capitol Hill with U.S. Senators, who have begun debating a package of gun safety measures, including comprehensive and enforceable background checks and effective approaches to securing schools and keeping students safe.
My ultimate goal is that I want change to happen, and if I can be a vehicle for that change, I am ready to be a resource.
On Wednesday, the U.S. Senate failed to pass background checks for gun purchases. The vote was 54-46, but the measure failed to get the 60 votes needed to pass–despite an intense lobbying effort by the families of the 20 children and 6 educators killed in December at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.
In a statement reacting to the vote, NEA President Dennis Van Roekel said the U.S. Senate “caved to special gun lobby interests, ignored the cries for help from Sandy Hook families and other victims of violence, and failed to protect children from gun violence.”
“Educators like Katie Lyles will not be deterred by today’s outcome,” Van Roekel added. “Educators will keep fighting for simple, common sense steps to help prevent future tragedies.”
“I am passionate about this. I see our kids come into our school and they expect this to be a safe place of learning,” said Lyles, who says she doesn’t know if she would be this outspoken if she weren’t an educator. “We need to fulfill this promise to our students. I definitely gather strength from my students. They need this.”
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