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How one Lamoille County educator talks with students about school shootings

A graphic with illustrated people, seen from the back, with backpacks on.
Yulia Sutyagina/Getty Images
When speaking with students about school shootings, one high school social studies teacher focuses on what the data shows: that mass shootings account for less than 1% of the roughly 40,000 people killed by guns each year in this country.

Teachers across the nation and in Vermont have been grappling with how to talk with students after the mass shooting in Uvalde, Texas, that left 19 students and two teachers dead.

While undeniably tragic, data show mass shootings account for less than 1% of the roughly 40,000 people killed by guns each year in this country.

Lamoille Union High School teacher Eric Hutchins says he focuses on that data when speaking with students and helping them process.

VPR’s Mary Engisch recently spoke with Eric Hutchins. Their conversation below has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Mary Engisch: Eric, first, welcome. I want to ask how you and the other teachers at your school in Hyde Park are faring after this most recent school shooting in Texas.

Eric Hutchins: You know, I know some teachers have been pretty emotionally upset, but you know, they still come in and they do the job. You know, keep kids safe and make sure they learn and learn how to make sense of the world around them.

How about the students? What sorts of conversations are you having with them?

Young people here are incredibly resilient, you know? And they've already been through a lot of trying times the last couple of years — between the pandemic and political violence and flaws in our democracy and war overseas. These events are always shocking, but unfortunately, they seem no longer surprising.

Eric, you shared with me a slideshow presentation that you said you'd created in 2019 about school safety. You recently showed it to other teachers at your school and then also to your civics class. And one of the slides reads, “The horrific nature of school shootings often leads fear to drive the conversation rather than cool-headed facts and data.” Talk more about that. What did your research find?

I think what's being missed in this conversation when we talk about students is the statistical reality that these events, despite all the media attention they get, are exceedingly rare.

You know, when a student steps out of a car and walks into a school, they've just gone from the most dangerous place they'll be all day to the safest place they'll be all day.

More from VPR News: Research shows policies that may help prevent mass shootings — and some that don't

And I think we really need to make sure that students know that. Because you know, our online for-profit media environment, you know, the worst news gets pushed to the top repeatedly and in the most shocking ways.

And I think it really makes kids feel unsafe. And of course, you know, we're never free from danger at all times. But schools are exceedingly safe places, and kids need to hear that and know that.

As unlikely as your data is showing, in the event of a school shooting, does Lamoille Union have a school resource officer, or is the school faculty and staff and student body asked to take part in preparatory drills and school lockdown drills, things like that?

We have a school resource officer and the county sheriff is, you know, always in the vicinity.

I'm really glad you asked that question because I've actually put some time into thinking about and researching this, too. And before the pandemic, we did, you know, have lockdown drills.

We're preparing for an extremely unlikely situation. And there's not any, you know, data that these drills reduce casualties. And I think there is a lot ofevidence that they're traumatizing for kids.

I don't think we should be ever doing active shooter drills in schools. Children, especially young children, should not be put in a situation where they have to visualize their own deaths or the deaths of their classmates and teachers at the hands of a madman. That just seems like a phenomenally bad idea.

We may not be preparing them at all, and we are certainly causing them to have to think incredibly dark thoughts.

One thing that I think schools can do is make sure that every kid in your school has someone they can build rapport with, and that we take care of kids. And then we have zero-tolerance for bullying, harassment. You know, we let people know that there's adults that [they] can talk to if there's issues they're concerned about, or situations [they] are concerned about.

All schools have challenges to overcome. But one of our main goals is to make sure we build relationships and rapport with kids, and that they feel safe and happy here.

More from NPR News: Some lockdown drills can harm students' mental health. Here's what one expert advises

Eric, you shared you've been a teacher for 25 years. What's changed for the better in terms of teaching approaches in that quarter century?

We're doing a better job embracing ideas like social-emotional learning. If a kid is and isn't present, and has numerous outside distractions or can't cope with their reality in a way that it makes it really hard for them to learn, right?

And so focusing on the whole kid, and making sure that they have healthy coping mechanisms for whatever issues or trauma they've experienced in their lives, is something that that emphasis has grown over the course of time that I've taught.

And I think it's really helpful for kids, to put them in a frame of mind where they can learn and grow in school. We tackle a lot of important and heavy issues. You know, this is high school. These kids are adults very soon, if not already. So, we don't shy away from that.

America has a gun violence problem, for sure. But I don't think that should be laid at the feet of schools to solve or children to worry about. Our job is to teach kids and keep them safe.

Have questions, comments or tips?Send us a messageor get in touch by tweeting us @vprnet.

Mary Williams Engisch is a local host on All Things Considered.
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