“What are you going to do?”
That’s the question Rebecca “Becky” S. Pringle, president of the National Education Association, has for Congress after Tuesday’s horrific mass shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, that killed 19 students and two teachers and injured 17 other children and adults.
The Uvalde shooting was the 27th school shooting this year and the deadliest school shooting in Texas history. The rampage there by a local teenager who purchased the assault rifles used in the massacre for his 18th birthday the previous week has renewed efforts by educators, parents and students to get lawmakers to reform gun laws. But it has also revived calls by conservative lawmakers to arm teachers, a proposition that research reveals educators widely oppose.
The NEA is one of the largest U.S. labor unions, with more than 3 million educators and school personnel, nearly 80 percent of them women. A former middle school science teacher with 31 years of education experience, Pringle has led the organization since 2020. The 19th spoke with Pringle about whether teachers should be armed, how gun violence routinely impacts children and how her union is working to get legislators to pass comprehensive gun reform.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Nadra Nittle: In the wake of the mass shooting at Robb Elementary School, conservative politicians are again arguing that arming teachers will keep kids safe. They made a similar argument after 17 students and adults were gunned down in Parkland, Florida, in 2018. What’s your response to this idea?
Becky Pringle: The arming of teachers — that’s not going to help change this, and that’s not just us, as educators, saying that. That’s what our students are saying. We know that more guns make our environments less safe. We know that already. We also know that putting that additional burden and responsibility on an educator to make a split-second decision as to whether or not to take the life of someone — that’s not something we have been trained to do, nor should we be responsible for being trained to do. Our responsibility is to teach and nurture and protect our students, and that should never include taking on the responsibility of having a gun to defend them.
Multiple research studies have found that the mental health of students and educators has suffered throughout the pandemic. Now school communities are reeling because of the mass shooting in Uvalde or even the racist rampage in Buffalo before that. Could these atrocities worsen mental health among students and school personnel, and what that might mean?
There’s no question that this has added to the grief, the loss, the overwhelm, the exhaustion of our educators across the country. Not only are our educators fearful, our students are fearful, our parents are fearful. The fear is not only what has happened most recently in our schools but what happened in Buffalo in a market in the community. So that fear of wondering if your child or your loved one will come home at night is very real.
We’ve talked over these last few years about the safety of our students as it is related to COVID, but it’s not only COVID. It’s all the crises it spawned — the increase in the numbers of our students and families who are homeless, how many of our students go hungry every day and have been before the pandemic. So, the issue of safety and well-being for students and the mental health of our students has long been front and center for educators, but the pandemic worsened it. To have these acts of violence, there’s just no question that it is having impact. But let me say this, as I talked to educators over the last couple of days, even as they’re trying to get through that haze of grief and shock and disbelief, they are determined to take action. They are determined because inaction by elected leaders in this country is unacceptable.
Speaking of taking action, many people feel hopeless right now. The Uvalde shooting happened nearly 10 years after the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. People are asking what’s changed since then. What policy recommendations does the NEA have for lawmakers, and how are you all working to foster change?
We are mobilizing our members with information on how they can take action. We’re calling on them to activate their vast network of not only their fellow educators but also community members, parents and civil rights organizations to take action alongside them because we know that the vast majority of this country believes that we should have common-sense gun laws.
Ten years after Sandy Hook, and now we see more of our babies who have been gunned down, so we’ve got to keep the focus on this. Unfortunately, the attention gets diverted to something else. That’s part of what those who are opposing common-sense gun laws are trying to do. They’re trying to distract us from other things like proposing we arm teachers. They’re just distracting us with the debate, and we won’t be distracted with that. We have asked our members to call on members of Congress to take action now, and we will continue that right up until the election because if they don’t take action, then the only thing for us to do is to replace them with somebody who will … at the state level, at the gubernatorial level, at the federal level.
What specific policies around gun control do you want to see implemented to keep students safe?
We’ve been calling for background checks, preventing those people who have long histories of mental illness from having access to guns. Also, assault weapons have no place anywhere. Beyond school shootings, certainly there’s continuous shootings in our neighborhoods, particularly neighborhoods of color in states where guns are flooding in from other places. We want legislation to crack down on the ability of guns to flood our streets, neighborhoods and communities. We are working very closely with our allies and partners in this space — Everytown for Gun Safety, March for Our Lives, the Brady Campaign.
You mentioned March for Our Lives, the student-led gun violence prevention group formed after the Parkland shooting. In light of the Uvalde massacre, students have already started walking out of schools. March for Our Lives organized a protest at the NRA Convention in Houston on May 28 and is also organizing nationwide demonstrations on June 11. What message do you have for students marching to keep their schools safe?
Don’t stop. I can remember when [March for Our Lives board member and Parkland shooting survivor] David Hogg said, “We’re not done yet.” And that needs to be a rallying call until we get the common-sense gun laws that we are demanding. We’re not done until our students are safe. We’re not done, and we won’t stop until that happens. So that’s my message to them, that they need to continue to lift up their voices in every way possible. When they are eligible to vote, they need to be registered and vote. And when they’re not eligible to vote, they need to push their parents and community members and everyone who can vote to vote for their safety. So, don’t stop. Keep lifting up their voices and doing what they must to protect their fellow students.
Students and educators have not only been engaging in activism against gun violence but also against legislation that limits class discussions about race, gender, identity, sexual orientation or so-called sensitive subjects. The spokesperson for the Texas State Teachers Association told me after the Uvalde shooting that it’s been upsetting to see lawmakers spend so much time restricting what educators can teach while relaxing restrictions on guns. What do you think?
Elected leaders are using these culture war tactics to stoke fear and divide us, and they’re doing it in a concerted, intentional and connected way. It’s all connected, including this most recent diversion away from common-sense gun laws to talk about arming teachers. Educators are being literally threatened, verbally threatened, physically threatened, threatened with our jobs to stop us from teaching the true history of this country or giving students opportunities and spaces to have those conversations and develop the critical thinking skills that we need them to have. We know that these bills are all designed to take our focus away from investing in our students and in our communities and our public schools. We are going to continue to talk about that, call it out and demand that those in positions of power stand up to that. If they don’t, then the November [midterm elections] are coming.