‘Nothing makes me feel safe.’ How Colorado educators and parents are processing yet another school shooting

Teachers recalled painful conversations with their students, and parents described tears during morning drop-off. One educator confided that friends are buying her a Kevlar vest to store in a cupboard at school, in case of an active shooter. Others dedicated class time to reassuring students that their schools, on the whole, are safe places.

In the wake of Tuesday’s shooting at a Douglas County charter school that left one student dead and eight others injured, Colorado school communities are again grappling with how to respond when violence shatters a place of learning.

We want Chalkbeat to be a place where teachers, administrators, parents, students, and community members can come to reflect and sort through tough questions at times like these. We put out a call Wednesday to make your voices heard.

More than 150 people have responded to our survey questions, covering everything from the police and security presence on campuses to how gun violence touches their school communities. Below is a sampling of what we’ve heard. And if you’ve read an earlier version of this post, we’ve put previously unpublished and more recent replies at the top of each section:

What was the mood in school today after the shooting? What conversations did you have about it?

“I am checking on my daughter frequently. She and [slain student Kendrick Castillo] were Study Hall buddies who played cards together. She plans to attend the vigil … I will let my daughter do what she feels she needs to, but my preference would be for her to not go back to the STEM Campus this year and just do her work from home since they are 1:1.”

— Wendy Loloff Cooper, parent of student at STEM High School Highlands Ranch

“It’s hard to separate others’ mood from mine. One of my best friends was Castillo’s elementary teacher. She’s devastated. I’m devastated for her.”

— Judy, high school teacher in Jeffco Public Schools

“I started my day in a circle with my fifth graders, as we start every day. Today, though, we talked about the news. … I thought they would say they were sad or worried or scared — but instead they said, ‘why again?’ ‘why this?’ and ‘OK’ and ‘meh.’ They aren’t upset about this anymore. They expect it as a fact, and that’s even more unacceptable. These kids are growing up in a world where school shootings are routine.”

— Kendall Reiley, 5th-grade teacher, Roaring Fork School District

“Today seemed surreal. My students’ moods varied quite a bit, and I just tried to be what and who they needed today. That meant business as usual in some classes, brainstorming ways to improve school security in others, and tears in almost all of them.”

— Rebecca Jonas, educator and parent, Douglas County School District  

“I saw at least one parent and one staff member talking about it and they were emotional. I also became very emotional after dropping off my child.”

— Elliot Goldbaum, parent of a 4-year-old in a private preschool

“Our young people are putting themselves in front of bullets to save their classmates. They are taking a bullet(s) so that others can have their guns. I am scared senseless to send my daughter to school. I feel that it is not a matter of whether a school shooting will occur, but when. I think about the location of her classroom in comparison to the front doors and exits.”

— Di Ryter, parent of a student, Durango School District, and an educator working in higher education

“Reassured students for the umpteenth time that school is one of the safest places for them to be (after another school shooting)! Do they still believe me? Should they?”

—Mark Sass, high school teacher, Adams 12 School District

“Some students wanted to talk about [it]. The conversation was about how they don’t feel safe and are thinking about home schooling.”

— Mary Hulac, a teacher and parent, Greeley-Evans School District

“Some students have become numb to these events; the incidents have been normalized. But a few wanted to talk about it, and so we did. One of the most telling comments came from a 9th-grade young man. He said, ‘It is scary because do I really have to say goodbye to my mom as if I might never see her again?’ That comment hit me hard this morning. That my students think about saying goodbye to their parents in a totally different way than I ever had to as a student.”

— Stephanie Rossi, high school teacher

Did you notice more police officers or security guards at school today? Did that make you feel safer or not?

“We have had police officers walking through our school today. Even though it’s common for them to do walk throughs, knowing why they were making sure they were present today was depressing.”

— Rebekah, Monte Vista School District administration, parent

“Our administrators made a point about telling us that we have five security guards and a school resource officer, which is more than some schools. Not sure if it made me feel safer, but I believe it was intended to do so.”

— Sarah, middle school teacher, Denver Public Schools

“No. I don’t necessarily feel safe with more police presence — though I understand why it happens. I’m one of a very few teachers of color who aren’t comforted by police presence so was fine with no extra cops around.”

— Andres Martinez, high school educator, parent of a 10- and 17-year-old, Denver Public Schools

“Yes. It was nice to see them there, but they did keep their presence in the background.”

— Shelly Steveson, preschool assistant 

What makes you feel safer in school? What makes you feel unsafe?

“What makes me feel safe are learning environments and school cultures that are inclusive, celebrate diversity, and provide supports to students who need them most. What makes me feel unsafe are schools that do not prioritize creating a safe and welcoming school environment.”

— Andrea, parent of preschoolers 

“Unsafe: unannounced lockdown drills. Safe: the rare times that admin insists that every adult checks in the front office.”

— Jamie, second-grade teacher in Denver Public Schools

“The idea of arming teachers (as a teacher myself, and a parent) makes me so deeply uncomfortable. And so scared. I am scared by our consistent inaction, that the NRA is more powerful than American parents and scared children, that kindergarten students were exposed to this, that the Colorado Department of Education can’t study gun violence, that there are more guns than Americans in this country.”

—Allison Corbett, high school teacher, Denver Public Schools

“Nothing makes me feel safe.”

— Diana Herrera, pre-kindergarten teacher, Lakewood

“Having a school resource officer all the time who is very present and has a great relationship with staff and students helps me to feel safer. Today, something that made me feel unsafe was an unexpected announcement. I’ve never had that issue before, but when the PA system came on, for a brief moment I panicked, because I thought we were being put on a lockdown.”

— Alexandra Ham, high school teacher, Thompson School District

“Trusting our public safety staff to keep us safe. Working with our behavioral wellness staff to identify kids and families who are struggling — connecting them to resources so they can get the help they need not to hurt themselves or others.”

— Katie Winner, parent of a 12- and 9-year-old, Jeffco Public Schools  

“The ‘security entrances’ at school do not make me feel safer. It’s not strangers who shoot up schools, it’s people who everyone knows. If someone wants to do damage, they will do damage. If they are somehow kept out of a school, they can do damage in the parking lot, or drop off lane, or at recess, or at the grocery store, or movie theater, or sports event, etc.”

— Chris Johnson, Steamboat Springs parent

“I am not sure anymore. After Sandy Hook, I thought that people would be moved enough to bring about necessary changes. I thought that the general public’s rage about these events would bring about meaningful change. Now, I think that the rage of the people is only good for pointing fingers at those they disagree with. No real changes have taken place to prevent the shootings. Children still have access to fire arms. Children still have untreated mental illnesses. Children’s families still have poor access to health care. Children and their schools have become an acceptable target for people’s rage and violence. The police have done a better job of responding to these events, but the politicians and government officials have done little if anything to prevent these events, and we the people are not demanding that they act. Our culture is sick and I no longer know what will make us feel safe in schools again.”

— Rob, seventh- and eight-grade teacher, St. Vrain Valley School District 

What do you think schools should be doing that they are not doing already?

“We need to be kind to one another. Teachers should be allowed to teach and inspire. They shouldn’t have to be on the front lines.”

— Tracy, parent of three at the STEM School Highlands Ranch

“I worry that every day I kiss my kids goodbye, it will be for the last time.”

— Jennifer, Littleton parent of a 12- and 15-year-old

“This is not on our schools. It is on our government and us as citizens to demand from our government necessary and fundamental changes. Public schools are already drowning financially just to educate our children adequately without having to worry about making sure everyone lives to see the next school day. Our government must enact changes to our constitution. Our government must put better mental health systems in place. We as citizens must demand these changes. Common sense gun control. And we must lift up the victims and the heroes, and leave these perpetrators nameless.”

— Ashley Renz, parent of a 9- and 10-year-old, Jeffco Public Schools

“We need to be addressing mental health more in our education system. Counselors not cops!”

— Megan Ostedgaard, high school educator, Cherry Creek School District

“I think unfortunately we lack the resources — time, money, etc. — to run a better PR campaign about the much greater safety that schools do provide as a predictable, known, and relatively source of stability in the lives of our children. The teachers are known to the students, we show up compassionately, we are trained professionally, and have chosen the profession because we care about the success of young people and helping them grow and reach their full potential.”

— William Daniel, high school educator, Littleton Public Schools

“Schools should be training staff on how to disarm someone. Perhaps some martial arts training from police officers would help empower us.”

— Andrew Burns, 8th-grade teacher

“My district is doing everything they can with limited resources. They tried to pass a bond for increased security at all schools but the community didn’t support that. They are going after it again. The high school isn’t a secure campus. They have 19 points of entry and not all are locked. That’s terrifying to me as a parent.”

—Allison Williams, second-grade teacher, Eaton School District

What do you wish people knew about how gun violence affects the experience of going to school today?

“As a parent, it’s beyond my comprehension that my children could actually be gunned down in their school. It saddens me more than I can say that they have drills to practice what to do if someone comes into their school to kill them with a gun. They actually practice hiding in their classrooms, hiding in closets. Their teachers, who should be singularly focused on teaching and nurturing their students, have to also think through what they would do if someone came into their classrooms with a gun to kill them. What have we become that this is something that happens on a regular basis? I don’t think anyone who doesn’t have children who go through these drills and face this reality can possibly understand what this is like. I send my children to school each day expecting that they’ll be safe there. Usually, they are and they come home happy and healthy. When a shooting happens, though, I’m reminded that their safety could very well be an illusion.”

— Karen Herbert, parent of an 11- and 16-year-old, Denver Public Schools

“Just how terrifying it is. How I have to take a deep breath before I send [my children to school] after incidents like this. That my 5-year-old has nightmares for a week every time they have a lockdown drill. I hear her screaming ‘don’t hurt me’ in her sleep.”

— Lorna Mclean-Thomas, parent of a 4- and 5-year-old, Denver Public Schools

“Five-year-olds, who often cannot even read or write yet, are learning how to hide under desks and in closets during school shooter drills. They’re crying during drills because they’re scared. Their teacher has to explain what a school shooter is and why they are practicing hiding. High school classes are having conversations about what we would do if a shooter entered our classroom. If we ran, where would we meet to reunite? If we hid, where would a shooter likely not find us? If you’re a student and you happen to be in the bathroom or hallway during a shooting, where should you go to be safe? A group of students initiated a conversation on their own about if someone entered our room right now with a gun, who would distract them so that others could tackle and disarm them? Teenagers and children should not have to have these conversations. Kids who can’t even write their names fully yet should not have to learn how to hide and be quiet if someone shows up to try to kill them at their school.”

— Kim Skarns, educator at a charter high school and at Pikes Peak Community College

“Taking away guns will never solve the problem. Guns are instrumental but not causative in these tragedies. I do not oppose gun control of some kind, but I also don’t believe it will do anything to solve this particular set of problems.”

— Jeff Buck, high school educator, Denver Public Schools

“When I was in school we practiced cowering under our desks in the case of nuclear attack. I don’t remember feeling particularly scared by it. Today, the prospect of a school shooting is much more real and visceral.”

— Lisa Elliott, a former teacher whose grandchildren are now in school

“As a survivor of school gun violence, I wish that more people understood the impacts their callous words have on healing communities. This spring has been especially difficult as we’ve dealt with increased security, vague but credible threats, enhanced access control to our school site and remembered our own losses. Today’s students have grown up with active shooter drills, like students had ‘duck and cover’ drills during the Cold War. This is their new normal. This drill is my most hated day of the year as the ‘forced reliving’ of my personal horror is real. I typically end that drill in tears, angry, and frustrated that this has become normal for my own son. He’s had to grow up knowing both his parents experienced something horrific, and now has to practice how to hide in school.”

— Cheryl Mosier, high school teacher, Jefferson County

“The issue is not with the guns — it is with the people with the guns. Too many kids nowadays do not know how to deal with feelings and frustration, largely due to electronic media (games, Facebook, Instagram, etc.). They would rather bury their heads into an electronic device than talk and interact with another person. Kids are not being raised with the skills to deal with confrontation or other ways to handle emotions … We adults need to find the happy medium of also interacting with our kids and talking to them about appropriate ways to handle frustration and confrontation with others.”

—Liann Holmes, first-grade charter school teacher, parent of a 9- and 10-year-old

“Regardless of what’s in the news, there is not one morning that goes by when I drop off my little girl that I don’t think about how there could be a shooter. It adds to a family’s stress level in a world that is already stressful enough. Not to mention the incredible levels of anxiety it causes in many children.”

—Alisa, parent of an 8-year-old, Thompson School District

“This is the first generation who has PTSD, anxiety and panic attacks due to unsafe situations at our schools. We have gotten to the point in our society where students either have normalized the level of violence they face, or they have PTSD, regular anxiety and panic attacks. Preschoolers have to practice lockdown drills and teachers give them sucker to help they stay quiet while there is an ‘unsafe person’ inside or outside the building.”

— Andy, Boulder Valley School District administration