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Teachers Share Their Top Safety Concerns


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Later in the program, we'll head into the Beauty Shop, where our panel of women commentators and journalists take on some hot topics of the week, including adult Halloween costume dilemmas. And we'll ask if Jay-Z has another problem to add to his 99 - we promise we'll explain all that.

But first, we want to turn to a much more serious topic and that is the recent spate of violence that we've seen in some schools around the country. Students at Sparks Middle School in Nevada returned to school this week. That's after a 12-year-old fatally shot a teacher, wounded two classmates, and then turned the gun on himself. That boy has now been identified, finally, as Jose Reyes. That was traumatic in and of itself, but then another teacher was stabbed to death last week in Massachusetts. Authorities there have charged a 14-year-old student with her death. Now these tragedies are - or should be - disturbing to everybody, but they hit especially close to home for educators.

So we've gathered a group of educators from different parts of the country and we wanted to check in with them to ask how they respond to these recent events. If they are prepared for them professionally, personally and emotionally. So we're joined now by Lisa Davenport, she's an eighth grade English teacher with the Washington, D.C. public schools. Welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

LISA DAVENPORT: Thank you for inviting me.

MARTIN: Also joining us is Barrett Taylor, he's an assistant principal with the St. Louis public schools in Missouri. Thank you so much for joining us once again.

BARRETT TAYLOR: Thank you for having me on the show.

MARTIN: And Allison Pratt is a kindergarten teacher in the school district of Onalaska, which is in Wisconsin. Allison Pratt, thank you so much for joining us also.

ALLISON PRATT: You're welcome. Thank you for this opportunity.

MARTIN: Now I just wanted to briefly ask each of you, when stories like that hit the news, I have to be honest, I think of my children's teachers, so I wanted to ask if you think of yourselves. Do you think about yourself? Lisa?

DAVENPORT: I think, for me, as soon as I hear those stories I immediately think of my child who's in the seventh grade, and I wonder about her safety at her school and I think about, you know, what kind of procedures do they have in place? If they have anything in place at all, and think about the atmosphere as far as the culture at the school - meaning, how are the kids able - how are they relating to one another? Is there a lot of bullying going on? Are they more compassionate with one another? And I think that's one of the main reasons why I chose the school that I chose for her.

MARTIN: That's interesting. So you think about your daughter, you don't think about yourself? You think about your kids, not yourself first. That's interesting. Barrett Taylor, what about you?

TAYLOR: When I hear these issues, I sort of think about school safety in general, and I think about - that schools are not, necessarily, not any safer. I really focus on the clients that we, as educators, are serving, and I think about how they are constantly changing. I think with schools - I think schools, like everything else in the country, are evolving and we as educators must be more cognizant of our surroundings while in and outside of the workplace to make sure that schools are safe.

MARTIN: OK. Allison, what about you?

PRATT: My first thought goes to the children in my classroom and what the protocols are in my school district for school safety. It is just natural for educators to not think about themselves, but, because we're giving to others, to think about people around us.

MARTIN: I think that's an important thing for people to hear. So, you know, that I think everybody remembers the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings, which happened last year. You know, since that terrible incident, there have been over a dozen additional school shootings. And I wanted to ask each of you if you think your job has become more dangerous over the time that you've been doing it. So, Barret Taylor, I'll start with you on this. Do you think it's become more dangerous being a teacher?

TAYLOR: I don't think it's necessarily becoming more dangerous. I think, unfortunately, the students that we are serving are a little different than they were, you know, 20 or 30 years ago. I think somebody said something about, you know, bullying. When I think about bullying, when I was a kid, bullying happened. But the difference between bullying today and 20 years ago is that bullying does not stop when you go home. It takes place on the social media. Things like Facebook and Twitter. So with the advent of social media, it's really changed the educational landscape.

MARTIN: Allison, what do you think? Do you think it's become more dangerous, being a teacher?

PRATT: It has changed. I have been in this field for 30 years, and families, children, communities, society certainly is different than it was in the early '80s when I began. The schools are required, or asked, to deal with more issues that children face in and out of school. And I think that safety may depend on the place in the country that you are located. It's important that schools have in place crisis plans. It's been a priority in Wisconsin, and in 2009, Wisconsin Act 309 required schools to develop a comprehensive school safety bill. So there are procedures in place and they are reviewed frequently.

MARTIN: I want to hear more about that from you - from you, Allison, in a minute. But, Lisa, what about you? I mean, do you think teaching has changed, do you feel it's more dangerous since you got into the field?

DAVENPORT: Well, when I first started out, I started out in the inner-city, and, to be quite honest, I just think that - I think that as far as students coming in and taking their frustration and anger out on a larger - you know, on a larger population, that part has changed in my opinion. I started out in the early '90s. I think violence has always been there, but it's been more of a one-on-one thing, and it's definitely changed since I was, you know, in school myself. If you were bullied or someone bothered you, usually you would go get your cousin, someone of their - of the same size, same age, in order to handle whatever the problem was and then it was over. But like the gentleman said, it definitely goes beyond. It doesn't just end in school - in the school or in the schoolyard. It goes beyond that with the social media, and that's becoming a big, big problem I think.

MARTIN: Could you talk a little bit more about that? You're saying it kind of follows these kids at home. They can't leave it at school or - it's never over. Is that...

DAVENPORT: Because they're basically belittling, degrading, mocking one another in the media, on Facebook, Instagram, and I forget - I'm not sure about all those other types of social medias out there. But they - it goes way beyond that. And I think that communication is going back and forth and it just keeps things going as opposed to just ending it. And I think we're in a society, in my opinion, where our students - they're dealing with issues on a greater level, and I feel that they need - a lot of them don't have the coping skills...

TAYLOR: Agreed.

DAVENPORT: ...To deal with the problems that they're facing. I think that has changed, definitely, since I was, you know, in school. But I think them being able to cope with their problems is a huge problem as well.

MARTIN: I can totally see your point on that, particularly I'm thinking about mobile phones, because when I was growing up - and maybe when you were growing up - our parents controlled the phones. So they decided who we spoke to at home at night, you know. They answered the phone, and if they didn't want you to speak to whoever was there, you weren't - you were not talking to that person. And whereas now, kids often, particularly as they get older, tend to have their own phones, and so they control their interactions with people unless their parents take them - take them away. So I can see your point on that. So, Barrett Taylor, you were saying - you were agreeing with Lisa Davenport. You're saying that a lot of kids don't have the emotional resources to handle some of the things that are thrown at them. You want to talk a little bit more about that?

TAYLOR: With the shootings that happen in school and the shootings sometimes that happen in the workplace, the one - in some of the cases, the one common denominator that seems to be coming up is these individuals have mental health issues. And, from my vantage point, it seems like mental health issues, and diagnosing those issues, and getting those people services seems to be the elephant in the room, because I think we really need to be more aggressive about if someone needs help, getting them help before it gets to a situation where they come in and do something that can potentially harm innocent individuals.

MARTIN: But haven't people, Barrett Taylor, always had mental health problems if we think about it? I mean, the fact that we have language for it now and maybe a greater understanding and ability to diagnose things or to understand what they are, maybe has - what's changed. So what's changed in the school environment? You just think that kids are more willing to act out, or what do you think? Or people are less willing to intervene? What do you think has changed now?

TAYLOR: And this is more outside of the school, but I was thinking about, you know, I used to play video games when I was younger and I always had parents who would talk to me about what was going on in these games, and it seems like the kids today have more access to these violent video games where they're going and, you know, they're online and they're shooting and killing people. And kids really do not understand what death is, and so, I just wonder sometimes, how does - what's the correlation between violent video games and kids committing acts of mass violence, such as school shootings.

MARTIN: Well, that's one of those topics people fight a lot about in academics, and intellectuals and people who research this question fight a lot about it. I don't think we can resolve it here. But so - what I would like to ask each of you - and if you're just joining us, we're talking about school safety with a roundtable of educators. We're joined by Barrett Taylor, that's who was speaking just now. He's an assistant principal in the St. Louis public school district. Allison Pratt's also with us, she's a kindergarten teacher with a school district of Onalaska in Wisconsin. And Lisa Davenport is with us. She's an eighth grade English teacher with the D.C. public schools. I just want to mention, they're all here on their own time because they all wanted to talk about this. I just feel that that's important to note. So, Allison, I think you wanted to say something.

PRATT: Yes, I would like to address the topic of self-worth and how children feel about themselves. I think it needs to be talked about in this mental health issue and where their worth comes from. Self-worth should come from within, and all of the video games, and material goods, and everything that children have access to is making their worth come from outside of themselves. And so they don't have the social emotional health that they need, and they don't know how to deal with the feelings that they have. And it becomes aggressive. Many of these violent people who have gone into schools don't care. That is their worth - that is their last hurrah. They're going to go out in, may I say, a blaze of glory, and if we address where that worth is coming from and that social emotional health in a different way, I think this will change.

MARTIN: I wanted to ask in the time that we have left - and we have about six minutes left - I'd love to hear from each of you about this. What do you think would help you, as educators, to address these issues? I mean, you've all made the point that - it's interesting to me that all of you, when I started asking about you, you all talk about your kids. You all talk about the kids first. So what would help you help them? Do you think you have what you need, Lisa?

DAVENPORT: No, I do not think that I have what I need. I think more training in dealing with mental health, how to address it, identify it - I think that definitely will help me as a regular educator. I'm not familiar with a lot of the, you know, mental health issues and how to identify it. Of course, teaching for a while, you can - after, you know, working with students, you can pretty much tell, you know, what's wrong, as far as if they have an academic type problem or a learning disability, I should say. As far as mental health, sometimes you can even determine that, depending on the child, but I would love to have more training as far as how to deal with my students with emotional and mental problems. And being able to have those resources in the building on a regular basis. I think that would definitely help.

MARTIN: Allison, what do you think?

PRATT: I feel equipped. As I mentioned before, Wisconsin is on top of this issue. I believe it's a priority here through passage of laws requiring us to develop comprehensive school safety bills, bullying policies, and being awarded a four-year federal grant on safe and supportive schools looking at those conditions. Having our Department of Public Instruction involved to have programs and also my union. My union is on top of this, also, providing assistance to schools and communities to help them avert crisis, providing...

MARTIN: So you feel you've got the training.

PRATT: I do.

MARTIN: You feel like the training is there and you've got access to it. That's...

PRATT: Yes, inside and outside of my school with our crisis team and the protocols in place, thank you.

MARTIN: Barrett Taylor?

TAYLOR: I do feel equipped. My district has provided me with the tools to be successful, but the one thing that I, as a teacher and now as an assistant principal - that I feel like I constantly want is more parental involvement. I get a lot a kids who come in who do not have mentors in their lives, they do not have, you know, a mother or father in their lives. Their grandmothers might be raising them, and they need more structure in their lives. And it makes me think about when I used to be a kid. Every day I got home, my dad would ask me what did I learn, how was my school day, and when I talk to some of these kids, they don't have those pieces in their lives. So going back to what someone else alluded to or said was, this whole thing about self-worth, you know, really developing and building these kids up so they can be strong individuals at school and they can be successful in the academic environment. It's important to me.

MARTIN: Is this fixable? Is the kind of we're talking about fixable? I mean, I'm mindful of the fact that these terrible and traumatic - and these incidents in the news could be isolated. I mean, it could be something that just, you know, it happens. It's terrible, we get through it, and it's not really indicative of any larger trend. But I hear all of you talking about the fact that you're worried about some of the mental and emotional health of some if your kids, and some of you feel you've got the resources to deal with it - the society. Some of you don't. Do you think this is fixable, Lisa? Do you think that we could get back together a year from now - two, five - and say, you know what, we're good, we don't have to worry about this again. We don't have to worry about another Sandy Hook? What do you think?

DAVENPORT: I don't think it's something that can be done overnight. This is definitely something I've thought about for a while. Definitely, when we hear these incidents, like the gentleman said, I really feel like parents - we need more parental involvement, most definitely, to help build the self-worth of our students. That's where it comes from first, in my opinion. I believe that we can make progress, as far as it being something that we will never hear of again as far as the violence in schools. I'm not sure if we could - we could minimize it, but I don't think we could do away with it altogether.

MARTIN: And do you feel - is that a pessimistic attitude, or you just think it's just realistic? Are you sad when you say that, or...

DAVENPORT: I'm sad when I say that. I don't feel - I hope I'm not being pessimistic. I think I'm being more realistic about the situation, because like, you know, they say, it takes a village to raise a child. And I just feel that, you know, in the environment that I work in, we have separate groups trying to help that child, but that main piece - parents - that's what we need.

MARTIN: Well, I just want to take the couple of seconds that we have left to thank you all very much for your very important work. If no one else says thank you today, let me be the one to thank you today. Thank you all.

PRATT: Thank you.

TAYLOR: Thank you.

MARTIN: Lisa Davenport is an eighth-grade English teacher with the D.C. public schools, here with us in our Washington, D.C. studios. Barrett Taylor is an assistant principal at a middle school in St. Louis, Missouri, joining us from St. Louis Public Radio. Allison Pratt is a kindergarten teacher with the Onalaska school district in Wisconsin, with us from Wisconsin Public Radio in La Crosse. Thank you all so much for your time today.

PRATT: Thank you.

DAVENPORT: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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