DE PERE – Spend just a few minutes with associate professor Erica Barnett-Southworth, and it’s not long before her passion for helping others learn to be teachers shines through.
You hear excitement in her voice as she talks about a recent St. Norbert College graduate who became a teacher several years ago and now plans to pursue her doctorate, like Barnett-Southworth, in education.
She’ll tell you how energizing it can be when a recent graduate lands her first job and prepares to head off into the real world, ready to shape young lives.
But there’s a non-required course that she’d rather not think about — though the course was her idea. It’s part of the Knight Educator Program, a collection of non-academic trainings for undergraduates.
It’s a unit where students, on this bucolic college campus in a city with very little violent crime, learn what to do if the real-world school where they land is suddenly faced with someone carrying a gun and looking to cause harm.
“We started having active-shooter drills” for St. Norbert faculty, she said. “I thought ‘the students should know where the (knowledge) is, too.'”
That was in 2017. Five years later, she and the college still offer it as part of the Knight Educator Program.
She believes St. Norbert is the only Wisconsin college that includes the elective along with the rest of the school’s education courses.
Can school shootings happen here? Several have already tried
The odds of having your child slain in a school are extremely low. David Ropeik, a retired Harvard instructor, risk communication consultant and author of “How Risky Is It Really?” put the probability at 1 in 614 million in a Washington Post column after the 2018 attack at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.
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But even in northern and eastern Wisconsin, there have been incidents involving students who brought guns to school and fired them, or had manufactured explosives they planned to use against their school.
- A Marinette High School freshman, 15, held two dozen classmates at gunpoint for several hours in November 2010, for reasons not publicly explained, and shot objects in the room with one of the two guns he had brought to school. He fatally shot himself as armed police rushed into the room.
- An 18-year-old Antigo High School student shot and wounded two students with a rifle outside the school’s prom in 2016. Friends said the teenager had been bullied by peers. Police shot and killed the teen.
- Three former Green Bay East High School students had plotted a “second Columbine” attack on the school, planning in the fall of 2006 to use weapons ranging from guns to homemade napalm. But one student who had been told of the plot confided in East’s former principal Ed Dorff. Dorff notified police, who raided the students’ homes and confiscated weapons and explosives. They were sent to prison.
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“There’s no way to predict where it will happen next,” said Jedd Bradley, a community service officer with the De Pere Police Department and a consultant who since 2014 has led training sessions on how to survive an active shooter. His clients — including Green Bay Packaging, Schreiber Foods, Robinson Metals and Bellin Hospital — are a “Who’s Who” of Green Bay area businesses.
“The shooter has a plan,” Bradley said. “So you need a plan.”
Some physical elements help make schools safe: Doors with locks. Photo IDs. School resource officers who, in some districts, are armed. Metal detectors. Phones in some classrooms. Adult supervision of a student doing something as complicated as lab work with chemicals, or as simple as being outside with other classes at recess.
But who protects the students if a person enters the school intending to use a gun?
It’s often falls to the only adult in the room. The teacher.
“When you’re a teacher, these are your kids,” said Jamie Fonder, a veteran teacher at De Pere’s Heritage Elementary School. “I would do anything to protect them — but I never thought (protecting them from a gunman) is what my job would be.”
Time to act because ‘elected officials aren’t going to listen to us’
A light went on for Barnett-Southworth after she and some other St. Norbert faculty were trained in the basics of how to respond to a shooter, or potential shooter, in 2017. She realized the school had no actual course for students training to be future teachers.
The next year, with an OK from her department head and a blessing from Steve Jakups, now St. Norbert’s senior director of campus safety, she began teaching an elective on how not to become a shooting victim.
The training was based on the “ALICE” approach — alert, lockdown, inform, counter, evacuate. Future teachers learn how to respond to an emergency, with a focus on pro-active steps to reduce the chance that they — and their students — don’t become victim, even if that means they flee, barricade the room’s doors with cabinets and other heavy furniture or, as a last resort, fight the person who is the threat.
A recent St. Norbert graduate, who took Barnett-Southworth’s school-safety course, said such teacher-training courses will be necessary at many more colleges unless something is done to reform existing gun laws.
“As I refresh the news and hold my newborn tightly, I’m devastated for all the parents and family members of the children who won’t be coming home,” Mary M. McConnaha, who is leaving teaching this summer and plans to attend graduate school, wrote in an Education Week column days after the Uvalde, Texas, school shooting. “There is only one way to honor all the children and school staff who have lost their lives to gun violence—inside and outside the classroom—and that is with gun reform.”
There were 93 school shootings in the United States in the 2020-21 school year, more than any year since the National Center for Educational Statistics began collecting data. The high numbers are despite the fact that some schools offered a remote-learning option for at least part of the year because of the COVID-19 pandemic, NCES reported in June.
Of the 93 incidents reported in 2021, 43 involved at least one death. Twenty-two people were killed and 17 wounded in an attack on Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, May 24 — overall, the 309th mass gun-killing in the United States this year, per statistics from the nonprofit Gun Violence Archive.
From Uvalde through the July 6 shootings of four people in Chicago, gun violence killed another 108 people, according to the archive. More than 500 were injured.
“In a world where the policymakers would rather put a gun in my hands than address the (school-shooting) problem, it’s pretty clear that the elected officials aren’t going to listen to us,” Barnett-Southworth said. “Fortunately, we still have students who really want to be teachers. Students in their 20s are still full of hope.”
That leaves her with mixed emotions when she thinks about the future.
“My goal for every class, every graduation, is to see every teacher thrive,” she said. “But as an educator, I wish with every class — with every fiber of my being — that this class (on preparing for shooters) was never needed.”
Contact Doug Schneider at (920) 431-8333, or DSchneid@gannett.com. Follow him on Twitter at @PGDougSchneider.