'In the line of fire': Central Texas teachers share safety concerns as students head back to school
The first day of school is just days away for many students, teachers and staff in Central Texas. They are returning to campus just months after a gunman shot and killed 19 children and two teachers at Robb Elementary in Uvalde on May 24.
The massacre prompted a renewed focus on school safety over the summer. It also underscored the growing number of roles teachers are asked to take on in their classrooms: educator, counselor and protector.
KUT asked Central Texas teachers to share their perspectives on school safety ahead of the new school year. Here's what they had to say.
Franchesca Mejia, Hutto ISD
Franchesca Mejia, the orchestra director at Farley Middle School, had long taken pride in her ability to stay grounded and console others in the wake of school shootings across the U.S. The 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School had happened the first year she was a teacher. But a decade later, she was not prepared for how hard the mass shooting in Uvalde was going to hit her.
“It was a lot of the things that happened, the details — the police waiting outside, the shooter being in the classroom with kids, some of them still alive, for so long — that really shook me,” she said.
Normally, Mejia would talk with her students immediately after a tragedy like the one in Uvalde, but this time she needed a couple of days before she could speak with them about it openly. She had started having nightmares.
“I was seeing dead bodies, like kids’ bodies in the morgue,” she said. “And then I was seeing my kids’ faces, and that’s what really hurt.”
When she and her students did finally talk about the shooting at Robb Elementary, one student asked what would happen if someone came into the classroom with a gun.
“I’m looking at these kids and I’m thinking to myself, 'I am in no way shape or form qualified to do anything,' but what came out of my mouth was, ‘You leave it to me. I’ll take care of it,'” she said. “But in my brain, I’m like, ‘You’re crazy!'”
She said she's not qualified to take down a shooter but she feels that nowadays teachers are expected to put themselves in harm's way.
"I am in a profession in America that is in the line of fire," she said.
At the end of the day, Mejia said she's willing to do anything to protect her students.
“We should be protecting our youth,” she said. “I don’t know if that’s a personal, spiritual thing for me. I don’t know if other adults feel it, because it’s been an ideology I’ve been toying with now because of these shootings.”
But she’s afraid other adults, especially politicians, are not prioritizing children’s safety.
“That is the scariest part, because I know that there are adults who could make change and they are not, and they are choosing not to,” she said.
August Plock, Pflugerville ISD
August Plock, an 11th grade U.S. History teacher at Pflugerville High School, was a young teacher when the 1999 shooting at Columbine High School happened. It was an eye-opening experience for him.
“All of a sudden you had this realization that this is something new that we’ve not seen in our country where students were willing to come to school and commit acts of violence against their classmates and teachers,” he said.
Plock, who has been in public education for 24 years, said school security is top of mind for him and other teachers, especially in the wake of Uvalde. He thinks schools are going to need to reassess how they operate.
“I’ve already been thinking about it this summer that you almost need to have a teacher that has a duty that every class period, a teacher, or a group of teachers, has designated doors that they go and check to make sure that those doors are locked and secured," he said.
Plock said he thinks Pflugerville ISD takes school safety seriously and he expects the issue to be front and center throughout the school year. But he points out a lot of schools were built between the 1970s and 1990s, so the buildings have vulnerabilities, even with increased security measures.
“I see where schools are trying to strengthen themselves, but if somebody really wants to get in, I have a feeling there’s going to be a way for them to get in,” he said.
Despite growing concerns about safety, Plock said he is committed to being a teacher. When he was 16 years old, he knew he wanted to be either a park ranger or an educator, and he chose to be a teacher.
“I’m probably the last person that they’re going to have to pry out of that school to get them to leave, because this is my chosen profession," he said. "I’m going to stay. I’m going to make sure that we have schools for our children. Somebody educated my generation, and I will be there to educate the next generation.”
Roscoe McCormick, Austin ISD
Roscoe McCormick, who has been teaching at Kealing Middle School for the last 15 years, is determined to help students understand the real-world applications of math. But, he says, students cannot thrive if they feel unsafe.
“I can teach them everything that they need to know concerning curriculum and so forth, but if they’re not safe, they’re not going to learn anything,” he said.
It’s always been important to McCormick to make safety routine for his students. It’s an approach he picked up from his parents and from serving in the military.
“When [students] come back to school on [August] 15, that’s the first thing I do: I go over procedures for safety,” he said.
McCormick lived through a shooting himself in 1969, when the National Guard stormed his college campus. He was attending North Carolina A&T State University, a historically Black college in Greensboro. A series of protests over the treatment of Black high school students eventually spilled over onto the campus. The mayor alerted the National Guard, which raided dorms.
“My dorm was Scott Hall," he said. "My room was 2102. And bullets were going down the hall all night long and tear gas until the next morning."
Now as a teacher, McCormick pulls from his own life experiences to prepare his students for life beyond the classroom. He encourages them to be mindful of their environment.
“Teaching concepts is fine, but you’ve got to teach about some life experiences, too, that you’ve had. You’ve got to share with the students,” he said. “And they’re receptive to it.”
McCormick said it’s also important to him that students enjoy school and don’t constantly worry about safety. He incorporates games, the occasional dance contest and soothing music into his classroom.
“I can’t have you focusing on what if a shooter comes in here,” he said. “You’re not going to be good to yourself and you’re not going to be good to your education.”