One Teacher Speaks Out About School Safety
Updated: Jan 6
July 26, 2020 - by Jessica Barthle
TALLAHASSEE, FL - During the final semester of my graduate program, on February 14th, we lost 17 souls to a student gunman in Parkland. I was violently thrown into the reality of the volatile nature of my impending career: there could be days in my future where I would be the one to decide whether or not I, or my students, would be making it home. On that day, I acknowledged my greatest fear as a teacher: looking into the eyes of a parent, explaining how and why their child died… why I was somehow still able to tell them the story of their child’s death.
Symbolic gravestones laid out for school staff who will die due to COVID-19 due to schools reopening while most of Florida is still in a "red-zone"
While I struggled through the challenges of my studies, my father’s life was slipping away as an unknown infection wrecked havoc on his body and mind. Helpless, I struggled to focus, wrestling the urge to go home with graduation so near. I knew it’s what he wanted, but I also knew what I wanted and needed. Despite optimistic reports of recovery, he passed on May 20th, 2018 just a few weeks after I showed him my graduation photos from the event he was too unwell to attend.
The moment I learned of his passing… I felt the entire weight of the world collapse. I froze as the news hit home and felt a rift open in my chest. A world of pain, confusion, and anger raged from that rift as sobs began to wrack my body. For those of us who have lost an immediate family member too soon, we recognize this as a moment that defines us. It ages with you, a permanent marker of a moment in which your world was forever, irrevocably, changed.
That summer I struggled to find a job in Leon County. Days before school began, a position opened while I was visiting my ailing grandfather who had entered his twilight upon mourning the loss of his son. My grandfather encouraged me to go home and land an interview while he remained in the care of my uncle. We said our goodbyes, and I promised I would come back and tell him how it went. I landed that job on the way to the Florida National Cemetery in Bushnell to lay him to rest. I kissed his casket goodbye, whispering that I’d gotten the job, just like he said I would.
Within the next 5 days I had a classroom full of students looking to me for direction. I was wildly unprepared and still coming to terms with my grief. I explained to my students that in order for us to all to be successful in the classroom, we had to be open and honest with one another. I took a deep breath and explained my situation: I was wildly un-ok. I was grappling with grief and holding on to the threads of the world twisting around me. The class would grow quiet as I struggled to find and explain my truth. Students came up to me after to shake my hand, hold me briefly, or offer their condolences. It was a moment where we first learned to mutually understand the humanity that exists between teacher and student. I saw their vulnerability, their struggles, their stories, and they in turn began to see mine.
I vividly remember the first unplanned alarm we had at my school. It was a bomb threat. The second I heard the alarm my blood turned to ice, I became very still as my students looked towards me in confusion. In that moment, I knew that I would do whatever it took to make sure they got home. As we filed back inside after a, fortunately, uneventful evacuation, I told them that, without question, in the event of an emergency I needed them to trust me completely. I needed them to listen, to understand that my only priority in that moment was to get each and every one of them home, even if it meant I wouldn’t. They were genuinely surprised, but we grew together that day. They began to understand who and what I was, and who they were to me.
Despite the unprecedented and often overwhelming challenges of that first year, it was my students who kept me grounded. There were days when I was noticeably withdrawn, struggling with weight of my grief and feelings of ineptitude. My students recognized this cancerous void when it would open, and without fail, they would fill it with love, patience, and understanding. Without fail, they would help pick me back up and remind me of why I continued to fight, grow, and demand something better.
My students are the driving force of what has led me towards becoming the person who is standing before you. They gave me the strength to overcome crippling anxiety, the love to overcome a drowning grief, the encouragement to overcome stifling self-doubt. I owe them my confidence, I owe them my passion… in more ways than one, I owe them my life.
Today, we find ourselves facing an unprecedented reality, one in which we can’t seem to agree on the scope of the danger before us. We long for a sense of normalcy, to remember our place in the world, to return to an environment in which we feel that we belong, where we feel that we are loved, cherished… even if just by one person. But I stand before you today, sharing the most vulnerable elements of my soul because I have the responsibility as an educator, as a protector, to tell you that this institution that I cherish above all is no longer safe. I cannot, in good conscience, look my students in the eye and truly believe that I am doing everything in my power to protect them, when the leaders at the national, state, and local level have made it impossible to do so. I cannot foster a sense of community when I must enforce separation. I cannot fight for their life, liberty, and happiness if I do not speak out against a plan that puts them in jeopardy. I cannot watch as my students, and school family become ill and possibly die and still feel that I did enough by trying to follow a plan that still leaves us all in the highest risk category.
I need you to understand the implications of this kind of loss on a child. Our children, our students, need their parents, grandparents, teachers, friends, and loved ones whole, alive and well. They need their community to grow and thrive. They need the opportunity to grow up… to realize their dreams, to make this world a better place than what we see before us.
They can’t do that from a coffin… they can’t do that overwhelmed with a grief they have no business understanding at their young age.
Until this moment, you have trusted me with your child. You have trusted me to fiercely fight whatever forces may prevent your child from coming home, safely to your arms. I know this danger isn’t as immediate as a live bullet ripping its way through my chest, but I assure you, the threat is just as real. While I will gladly sacrifice my life for your children, I ask you to consider the value of my life, and those of my colleagues. Teachers want to make it home to our loved ones, to our families, to our own children who need us like I needed my father. We want to pursue our own dreams, passions, and love, just as much as your children. I want to continue serving your children for as long as I am able… but I can’t do that from a hospital bed, struggling for breath, for life. I can’t meet their needs, I can’t fight for them, while fighting to live…