Lourdes Saunders-Blake was in her ninth-grade social studies class Wednesday when the discussion turned to the school shooting in Texas where 19 elementary schoolchildren and two teachers were killed.
Why would an 18-year-old do something so terrible, Saunders-Blake, a Freeport High School student, recalled one student asking. The questions kept coming: Why would he target those so young? And why have school shootings become so regular?
Saunders-Blake, 15, said she heard little class discussion about the shooting in the days after Salvador Ramos allegedly barricaded himself inside a fourth-grade classroom at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, on Tuesday and opened fire. Students did talk among themselves, she said.
"They were saying they were so saddened. It's crazy, an 18-year-old killing so many people, and children," Saunders-Blake said.
WHAT TO KNOW
- Across Long Island, students, teachers and school administrators are struggling to make sense of the elementary school shooting in Texas.
- Students said they see a mix among their peers, of confusion, anger and numbness.
- Teachers said they are working out what is appropriate to talk about with students — and when it's best to say nothing.
Across Long Island, students, teachers and school administrators are struggling to understand such cruelty. Students said they see a mix among their peers: of confusion, anger and numbness to yet another school massacre in the United States. Teachers said they are working out what is appropriate to say to students — and when it's best to say nothing.
Before walking into the school armed with an assault rifle and backpack with ammunition, Ramos shot his grandmother in the head, police said. She is expected to survive, according to reports. Law enforcement has not given a motive for the shootings.
"A lot of students are numb to this tragic news," Saunders-Blake said, noting the string of school shootings as well as the massive death toll of the COVID-19 pandemic. "For two years we've been living with death and tragedy. Now it's just another day."
Over the years, Aidan Davis, a senior at John F. Kennedy High School in Plainview, said he's gone through so many lockdown drills that he's lost count.
"These school-shooter drills were so normalized," said Davis, 17. "It's a part of school that you really don't take a second to think about it — until something real like this happens."
For Henry Grishman, superintendent of the Jericho school system, the school shooting led him to all-too-familiar protocols established for such tragedies. Administrators debriefed staff. Emails were sent to parents, replete with website addresses on how to talk to children about frightening events. He met with staff to make sure security measures were in place — that exterior doors were locked and police beefed up patrols, he said.
'We have a protocol which we use too many times ... It's disgusting.'
-Henry Grishman, Jericho schools superintendent
Credit: Newsday/ Reece T. Williams
"We don't even have to think about it. We have a protocol, which we use too many times," Grishman said. "It's disgusting."
Inside the classroom, discussions don't follow any set script, and what's talked about varies from grade to grade, class to class, and student to student, administrators said.
In Oceanside, there's no formal curriculum for discussing these events, said Diane Provvido, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction. In fact, teachers may say nothing unless the topic is raised by students, she said.
"We let discussions lead with students' questions," Provvido said. "We want to give them space to express their emotions."
When prompted, teachers should emphasize information that is age-appropriate and explain what students can do to help keep them safe, she said.
"Everybody has a role in keeping the school safe. If they see something that concerns them, they should let someone know," she said.
In some classes, it's appropriate to talk about it, Oceanside social studies teacher Jennifer Wolfe said. Her senior government class regularly discusses current events. She broached the topic Wednesday, the day after the shooting, she said.
"I asked if they wanted to talk about it," Wolfe said. The class discussed gun control, school safety procedures and the potential for more security in schools, she said. "On something like this, the discussion has to be led by the kids. It's important for the teacher to read the room."
Some students don't want to talk about it, said Oceanside teacher Christine Valentino, who teaches high school government, economics and global history.
"I think it's a defense mechanism. They hear about all this and think, 'If I watch the news, it's depressing and sad. So I avoid it,' " she said. "I think it makes them nervous. And they don't think they have a lot of power to fix it."
By middle school, children have been through the talks and lockdown drills, but teachers need to be cautious about what they say, said Debbie Ronan, who teaches fifth grade at East Northport Middle School.
"We're pretty careful. It can be a pretty upsetting conversation to have with a young kid," said Ronan, whose students tend to be 10 and 11 years old. "You don't want to make them more afraid."
The greatest care must be taken for elementary school kids, said Richard Haase, head of the Half Hollow Hills teachers union. Some parents prefer to insulate their kids from such events; others want to be the ones informing their children, he said.
'I'm not sure a 5-year-old can really grasp what happened.'
-Richard Haase, president of the Half Hollow Hills Teachers Association
Credit: Linda Rosier
"I'm not sure a 5-year-old can really grasp what happened — not in a public setting surrounded by their peers," said Haase, who also teaches English at Candlewood Middle School.
If a child talks about it, a teacher can lend a sympathetic ear and help them feel safe as the instructor takes the child's emotional temperature, he said. If necessary, the teacher can guide the student to a school counselor or reach out to their parents, he said.
For years, Haase added, students have been faced with the kind of turbulence they shouldn't have to face: school shootings, COVID-19, remote learning, hybrid learning, mask debates, learning loss, partisan culture wars. Teachers, as well, have faced these, he said.
"All we want to do is teach, and teach safely," he said.
After the shooting, Long Island students expressed themselves in different ways. Students at Kings Park High School held a walkout Thursday, joining a national call for such action. The Kings Park students made speeches against gun violence and read the victims' names aloud. They ended with a moment of silence.
The students said in a statement: "We were angry that this didn’t end with Parkland. That this didn’t end with Sandy Hook. That this didn’t end with Columbine. That children still have to fear going to school and that we still need to have national walkout events to protest the epidemic of gun violence in our country."
At noon on Thursday, 250 students at Huntington High School also participated in a walkout against school gun violence.
"All students who participated in this walkout demonstrated a high level of respect and did not attempt to impact the instruction of others," Principal Brenden Cusack said in a statement.
Davis, the senior at John F. Kennedy High School, said he sought out a single teacher to speak with. They talked about the use of metal detectors in schools.
The teacher recalled that many years ago, somebody brought into the school a toy gun that shoots rubber bands. Nobody knew it was in his bag until he started showing it around. The teacher was concerned that if it were a real gun, nobody would have known, Davis said.
When Davis first heard of the Texas shooting, coming so soon after a mass shooting in a Buffalo grocery store, he said, "It wasn't something that took me by surprise, sadly."
But as the death toll mounted, the gravity of what happened sank in, he said.
"It's horrendous," Davis said. "The time to have a conversation about preventing school shootings is now. It's really time to say enough is enough."
With Dandan Zou