By Ed Brennen
Growing up in Cambodia, Kunthyliza Leng wasn’t aware of the concept of school shootings. It wasn’t until Leng moved to the United States five years ago, when she took part in her first active shooter drill in middle school, that she realized someone could burst into her classroom with a gun and start killing.
“It was surprising at first. I didn’t understand why we had to do the drill,” says Leng, now a freshman political science major in the College of Fine Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences. “But no matter how many drills we did, the school shootings kept happening.”
Hoping to learn why a country as educated and powerful as the United States could suffer from an epidemic of school shootings, Leng was among the 160 students and community members who attended the College of Education’s 23rd Panasuk Symposium on Educational Research, Policy & Practice, “Voices for Action: Confronting Gun Violence Against Kids.”
Designed to shed light on national issues of educational importance, the biannual symposium is named for Emeritus Prof. of Math and Education Regina Panasuk. This semester’s event featured a keynote address from Peter Cunningham, former assistant secretary for communications and outreach for the U.S. Department of Education during the Obama Administration, as well as a panel discussion with a dozen policymakers, educators, community organizers and local high school students.
Eleanor Abrams, dean of the College of Education, says it’s critical to include students in the conversation about gun violence and school shootings.
“Student voices are equally as important as the teacher and faculty voices, because the students are the ones affected by this,” Abrams says.
Given the College of Education’s mission of promoting social justice, Abrams adds that addressing the topic of gun violence “allows us to see how we can educate our teachers, our leaders and our scholars to help schools be places of learning and well-being.”
As a future educator, junior math major and UTeach member Emily Jenkins attended the symposium hoping to learn what she could do to curb gun violence in schools. In the aftermath of February’s mass shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., Jenkins says the issue has become more pressing, both for the country and for herself personally.
“This is something as a future teacher that I have to consider,” says Jenkins, a native of Bourne. “If there’s an active shooter, what would I do? How would I protect not only myself, but my students?”
While President Trump suggested arming “well-trained, gun-adept” teachers following Parkland, that idea was roundly denounced at the symposium.
“Teachers have no role in carrying guns in school,” said Chancellor Jacquie Moloney, who earned her doctorate from the College of Education in 1992. “That is not your job. That is not your responsibility. It is our responsibility as a society to figure this out and do what we know is right, and that is to get guns off our streets.”
Panelist Graciela Mohamedi, a physics teacher at Brookline High School and organizer of the March for Our Lives Boston event following Parkland, added that as a former Marine, she is “adept” with a gun.
“And do you know the number of times I’ve left my keys in the bathroom at school already this year? Too many times to count,” Mohamedi said. “Can you imagine what would happen if I came to school strapped?”
Mohamedi became involved with March for Our Lives after her former school, Rockland High, was put on lockdown — the day after Parkland — because of a school shooting threat.
“I sat in a classroom with 27 scared 17-year-olds, telling them to sit down low, away from windows and doors, and to be quiet and wait,” Mohamedi recalled. “That was the longest 20 minutes of their lives. They didn’t know if it was real, if it was going to be them.”
That feeling of fear was echoed by several of the student panelists, including Peter Finch, a senior at Greater Lawrence Technical School in Andover.
“Every time I see a news report about a school shooting, I have a single thought: I’m next. And that terrifies me,” Finch said. “I don’t want to live in a world where that becomes the norm, where the first thought I have when I walk into school is ‘Where is the closest exit?’ I shouldn’t be afraid to go to school. I’m a human being, not a target.”
Before the panel discussion, Reading Public Schools Superintendent John Doherty received an alumni award from Prof. Anita Greenwood, former dean of the College of Education. A Double River Hawk, Doherty received a bachelor’s degree in biology and a master’s degree in curriculum and instruction.
Now in his ninth year as Reading superintendent, Doherty is also co-chair of the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education Safe Schools Commission. He shared how integrating social and emotional learning into the curriculum has helped create a safer environment in Reading schools.
“We’ve also done things to improve the physical safety of our buildings,” he said. “But schools are not fortresses. They are meant to be places of learning, where students work together with adults.”
Much like the work that took place at the symposium.
“This is a chance to get our heads, hearts and minds around this challenge,” Moloney said. “We must stand strong with our teachers and with our students, who are facing this every day.”