Educators nationwide join the fight to keep students, nation safe from gun violence

by Brian Washington

When initial reports about the deadly shooting at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, began to surface, Pam Simon, a retired teacher with 22 years in the classroom, immediately felt sick to her stomach.  During those first few hours, as the nation tried to get its mind around how a gunman could open fire on small children, 6- and 7-year-olds, Simon said she already knew.

“It could happen so easily,” she said.  “It’s one deranged person able to get hold of enough firepower to take out a lot of people in a very short amount of time.”

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Simon knows because she was shot in 2011 by a gunman suffering from mental illness who opened fire at a grocery store in Tucson, Arizona.  Jared Loughner used a Glock 19 semiautomatic handgun to shoot and kill six people and seriously wound several others, including Arizona Congresswoman Gabby Giffords.

“The shooter in Tucson had two 30 round clips and he was tackled before he was able to reload,” said Simon, who told Education Votes the bullet entered her chest after piercing her wrist and traveled down to her hip, but miraculously missed all of her vital organs.  “If he had been able to reload, instead of six deaths and 13 wounded, it would have been much worse.”

Simon (seated) and family outside a tribute to AZ shooting victims
Simon (seated) and family outside a tribute to AZ shooting victims

Simon, who is no stranger to politics after working in Giffords’ legislative office and, before that, as an activist on behalf of students, educators, and public schools, is now fighting to stamp out gun violence.  She has joined Mayors Against Illegal Guns and stars in a commercial for the group in which she is demanding that lawmakers come up with a plan to prevent gun-related tragedies like the ones in Tucson and at Sandy Hook Elementary School, where Adam Lanza, a 20-year-old authorities suspect suffered from mental illness, shot and killed 20 children and six adults before taking his own life.

“I have been given more time on earth, and the feeling is I have to make a difference,” said Simon, who believes Newtown was a “tipping point” and that the country is ready to talk seriously about gun safety.  “It’s on every newspaper and all the talk shows.  It is the subject to be discussed right now.  The important thing is to keep the conversation going.”

Simon is not the only educator joining the conversation and taking a stand.  The California State Teachers Retirement System, also known as CalSTRS, one of the country’s largest pension funds, recently voted to divest itself of firearms holdings in response to the schoolhouse shooting in Newtown.   Other states with similar retirement systems for educators, including New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts, have expressed interest in following CalSTRS’ lead.

The 3 million teachers, education support professionals, and higher education faculty that make up the National Education Association (NEA) have recently joined forces with other education groups to make a series of recommendations on gun violence prevention to U.S. Rep. Mike Thompson, the chair of the Congressional Gun Violence Prevention Task Force.

AZ teacher Dennis Van Roekel
AZ teacher Dennis Van Roekel

Arizona math teacher Dennis Van Roekel, who serves as president of the NEA, recently discussed gun safety at the White House with Vice President Joe Biden, who is heading up a task force that will be making recommendations to President Obama on Tuesday.

Van Roekel recently called the National Rifle Association’s proposal to add more guns in our schools to keep students safe “out of touch.”

“Their proposal misses the fact that in many schools across the country, we have school resource officers and yet tragic incidents like Newtown, Chardon, Columbine, Paducah, and Jonesboro still have occurred,” said Van Roekel.

You can also add to that tragic list Taft, California, where a 16-year-old high school student is in critical condition after another student on Thursday walked into his class and shot him.  The suspect was taken into custody after a teacher and another staff member convinced him to put down his shotgun.

However, despite the momentum toward sensible gun laws, the rich and powerful National Rifle Association is not backing down.  NRA membership is up by about 100,000 since the Sandy Hook shootings, and representatives for the group recently stormed out of a White House meeting on gun violence claiming the Biden task force represents an attack on 2nd amendment rights.

President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama visit Simon at the hospital following the shooting.
Simon and family with President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama

But those fighting for real preventive measures and commonsense legislation are just as determined.  For example, Giffords and her husband, Mark Kelly, have just announced a new political action committee to counter the NRA.

Meanwhile, educators like Simon see this fight as a mandate.

“I do for many reasons.  The main one is that I took a bullet to the chest and survived,” she said. “I was in the classroom when Columbine happened, and I have been in the classroom long enough to see the threat of gun violence become an issue that kids worry and talk about.”

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