aftermath

‘Emotionally exhausted’ yet inspired by students: A Memphis educator and gun-control advocate reacts to Parkland

Kat McRitchie, at right, appeared with mothers who lost children to gun violence at a rally outside the National Civil Rights Museum. Photo courtesy Kat McRitchie.

By the time America realized the scope of the school shooting that killed 17 people last week in Parkland, Florida, Kat McRitchie was already weary of responding to gun violence.

A Memphis educator and gun-control advocate, McRitchie had spent the evening before at a candlelight vigil for two Memphis teens gunned down near their high school the previous Friday. She’d spent the weekend reeling from that killing.

And as part of a group called Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, she’d spent countless hours lobbying for policies that could stem the shootings that claim dozens of young people in her city every year.

“Honestly, my emotional reaction to Parkland was, ‘Ugh, this is terrible. Another school shooting,’ but I was emotionally exhausted by the weekend,” said McRitchie. “It wasn’t until Friday that I let myself listen to the video that the student in the closet had taken and let myself feel a response to that.”

The response, when it came, was one of familiarity. McRitchie, the daughter of a Memphis trauma surgeon who treated many gunshot victims, helps train teachers through Memphis Teacher Residency after years of working in city classrooms of her own.

“I can imagine what it feels like to be a student in that classroom,” she said. “I can imagine what it feels like to be a teacher in that classroom.”

Now, McRitchie is looking for ways to help Memphis join a national response to the Parkland shooting that appears to be gaining momentum, rather than dropping out of the headlines. We talked to her about those efforts, how her advocacy work intersects with her teacher training, the complexity of race in the gun-control debate, and more.

How teaching opened her eyes to the reality of gun violence in Memphis: “I never had a student who was shot when I had them, but I saw them walk through the deaths of their family and friends. There was this culture of what to do when someone you know gets shot. Here are the people you call. Here’s how you decide what picture goes on the T-shirt. Kids now choose a hashtag. How to pick the funeral colors. There was a process for when a teenager dies in the way that I would have a process for getting ready for prom. This was a big part of me understanding how gun violence is affecting my community.”

On the reawakened debate over whether teachers should carry guns: “Kids deserve for us to think more creatively than just increasing school security. I cannot think of a single public school teacher who thinks arming teachers is a good idea. I don’t know any teachers who would want to have a gun. I don’t know any teachers who think having a gun in this situation would make themselves or their students safer. All of them say the likelihood of an armed person entering their school for the purpose of a mass shooting is terrifying but extremely small. But how many times do teachers get their purses stolen in schools or drop their expensive calculators? If we have teachers with guns in schools, that just creates opportunities for accidents. Most school shootings now are things like that. More guns in schools will only mean more deaths in schools or more guns get stolen and end up on the street. Even the teachers who have a fear of mass shootings, if you ask them, all of the everyday things that can go wrong with guns in schools are scarier.”

On the outpouring after Parkland after seeing Memphis teens’ deaths go unnoticed nationally: “It can feel frustrating when we know that black children are way more likely to die than white children because of guns. But the thing that has surprised me a little bit is that of the survivors that I know in Memphis — who are predominantly women of color who have lost children to gun violence — I would not have been surprised if the response to the Parkland shooting was, ‘That’s sad, but we’ve been out here on the front lines.’ That is absolutely not the response.

“Every single survivor mom I know has posts about praying for Florida families, expressing grief and solidarity for Florida families. We recognize that gun violence affects people differently along race and class lines, just like education, but there’s just this very shared human experience in responding to the toll of gun violence. That’s one of the things that has been most moving in the last week: watching women respond with grief and not resentment.”

How her work as a teacher coach overlaps with gun violence advocacy: “Part of my work last week was to order coffee for teachers at the high school where the [Memphis] students were killed. Coffee and donuts in the teachers lounge seems a little silly, but Memphis Teacher Residency is all about ‘pursuing a vision of restored communities living with dignity and peace.’ Even going to the vigil for the kids last week, there were teachers there, and colleagues and community partners were there as citizens. One of my colleagues went to the funeral of the young man who was shot last week. When going to a funeral is part of our jobs as teachers — we shouldn’t tolerate that in this country.”

How Memphis Teacher Residency prepares teachers for violence in their communities: “We do have a counselor on staff. That’s one of the greatest services that MTR provides that our teachers and alumni are able to use. Lockdowns are fairly common — actual lockdowns — because of shootings in the area. I know he has walked teachers through, how does it feel going through your first lockdown, going through the death of students. We as coaches would like training about how to do that better when a school is touched by gun violence.”

On “red flag laws,” which would allow law enforcement to seize guns from people who haven’t actually broken any laws: “Moms Demand Action works really hard to promote common-sense gun policies. The thing that I’ve learned in this movement is that me complaining to my like-minded friends about something doesn’t change anything and just makes us angrier and doesn’t make us safer. But we all want our kids to grow up safe; we all want American schools to be safe places — we can actually agree about these things. By having solutions-minded conversations and pushing for evidence-based gun policy, we can reduce the number of Americans that die of gun violence.

One of the most common conversations that I had with teachers in the last week was, ‘Oh, I know who that kid would be.’ I could tell you from my own teaching experience that if something like that happened, it wouldn’t shock me. Teachers know kids. One option that would empower teachers with their specific knowledge is ‘red flag laws.’ We also know that they reduce suicide by guns.

“I would love for people to know that when the response is, ‘We knew that that person was dangerous,’ we can actually have more potential to stop mass shootings. This would be a great thing for teachers to know about and advocate for.”

What comes next: “Having kids leading the response to this particular moment is incredibly powerful. When kids are leading change, the sky’s the limit. Young people are more engaged and more creative than their elders. and I’m incredibly excited to follow the leadership of young people and to support them.

“And to listen to educators about how to respond to school shootings is imperative. Overwhelmingly, what educators are telling us is not what policymakers are telling us. And we should listen to educators.”

Kids eat free

Colorado could expand lunch subsidy to high school students

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post
Bernadette Cole serves food to students at Prairie View High School in Brighton.

When Colorado expanded a school lunch subsidy to middle school students, the number of sixth- through eighth-graders eating lunch at school went up in districts across the state.

Twenty-sixth percent more middle school students ate lunch at school in the Greeley-Evans district, where a majority of students live in poverty, but even in the more affluent Littleton district in Denver’s south suburbs, 11 percent more middle school students ate lunch.

For school nutritionists and children’s advocates, these kinds of results make the case for extending this same lunch subsidy to high school students.

“We know the co-pay is a barrier because of the large uptick in participation when it goes away,” said Erin Miller, vice president of health initiatives for the Colorado Children’s Campaign.

The “co-pay” is the 40 cents per meal that families who qualify for reduced-price lunch — but who make too much money to qualify for free lunch — are responsible for. The federal government picks up most of the cost for these lunches, and since 2008, Colorado has covered the 40 cents for the youngest students, rendering those lunches free to their families. This program has gradually expanded, reaching middle school students in legislation passed last year.

A bill that passed out of the House Education Committee Thursday would cover the 40-cent cost difference for high school students, a longtime goal of advocates.

“The state of Colorado has been trying to ensure that kids in poverty have access to food for a decade,” said Danielle Bock, nutrition services director for the Greeley-Evans district and a public policy and legislative consultant with the Colorado School Nutrition Association. “This is the final step.”

Miller said hunger affects children in school not just academically but also emotionally, with hunger even associated with higher suicide rates. Advocates have pushed to expand the state subsidy because participation in school lunch goes down as children get older, even as their caloric needs go up.

Currently, households that earn less than 130 percent of the federal poverty level, or $32,630 for a family of four, qualify for free lunch through the federal program. Families who earn between 130 and 185 percent of the federal poverty limit, or up to $46,435 for a family of four, qualify for a reduced-price lunch. It’s children from that second category families who will benefit if this bill becomes law.

Bock said the vast majority of school food service agencies in Colorado have unpaid lunch debt that, under federal law, they can’t just write off. School districts either pick up the costs out of their general fund or try to collect from parents, which sometimes leads to the controversial practice of “lunch shaming,” in which schools serve less nutritious and appealing alternative lunches to students whose parents owe money.

Lawmakers started out wanting to ban lunch-shaming, but school nutritionists convinced them it would be better to have the state cover some of the extra lunch cost for families who are struggling to make ends meet.

When Denver ended the practice of serving “alternative” meals to families who hadn’t paid for lunch, the amount of lunch debt skyrocketed, with a large portion of it coming from families who had not signed up for subsidized lunches and might have the means to pay.

According to a fiscal analysis, Colorado plans to spend $2.2 million on lunch subsidies this school year. Expanding the program to high school students would cost an additional $464,000 next year, with that money going into school food service budgets.

pass the microphone

This Memphis senior was kicked out of three high schools. Here’s how he got on track to graduate.

PHOTO: Gillian Wenhold, The Social Exchange
Despite what John Chatman calls a “really tough childhood” where he was often left on his own, he’s on track to graduate from alternative school G.W. Carver College and Career Academy this year.

In front of more than 100 people, John Chatman recalled the bullying he endured as a child for having a stutter.

Chatman was one of seven educators and students who took the mic at Chalkbeat’s February story storytelling night. The stories centered around school discipline practices, a topic we recently covered in this special report.

“Growing up in the area I grew up in, it’s hard to deal with that,” said the 18-year-old. “You’re an outcast. … It made me hate school, because I never could enjoy it. I may answer a question and stutter, [and other students would] get to laughing and cracking jokes.”

Kids stopped making fun of him in middle school when Chatman became a star middle school football player in Memphis — but the prestige that came with playing football disappeared when he was injured on the field.

“I took my injuries and replaced them with the streets,” Chatman said. “Throughout my ninth-grade year, I was starting to lose myself. … By 11th grade, I didn’t know who I even was.”

During that period, Chatman said he was kicked out of three high schools and eventually wound up at G.W. Carver College and Career Academy, an alternative school for expelled students, housed in former Carver High School.

“This school changed my life forever, Chatman said.

To hear more about how Chatman’s life changed, watch the video (or read the excerpt) below.

The storytelling night was hosted by Chalkbeat Tennessee, Spillit, and The Knowledge Tree. The video was filmed by Gillian Wenhold for The Social Exchange, a pay-as-you-can public relations and content creation firm for nonprofits, and businesses owned by women and people of color.

My 11th-grade year was the time I decided I had to change. The change was when I finally got kicked out of school. Well, I’d been kicked out of school but this was the kick-out-of-school that kicked me in my back real hard and said you only have one strike left. If you mess this up, this is it. It’s over with. You’re not going to see the light of day. Due to that, I ended up going to Northeast, and it still didn’t get better. In fact, I’m going to tell y’all the transitions of my schools. It started at ninth grade at Central, couldn’t come back to Central and I had to go to East , got kicked out of East and went to Northeast. Got kicked out of Northeast and now I’m back at Carver.

I’ll tell y’all, this school changed my life forever. I wouldn’t be here right now if it wasn’t for that school. It happened like this. There was a guy named Roger. We used to run together during the same time period. …

[During a presentation of past Carver graduates], an image of Roger popped up clear on the screen. It wasn’t up for nothing bad, he was on the road to making a six-figure [salary]. I was like, ‘This was the same person I used to shoot dice with?’… Now he’s living a life and I’m stuck here. I’m still doing the same stuff I’ve been doing and not getting no different result, and that’s called insanity… I took it, and I told myself if he can do it, I know I can.

Spillit, storytelling
PHOTO: Xzavier Bonds
Chatman speaks to a packed room during Chalkbeat’s storytelling event.