Back to School in the Age of Mass Shootings

Jennifer Sapio
Sep 11, 2019 · 4 min read

I’ve always loved the first day of school. There are photos of me in the 80s — blunt-cut bangs and neon minidress — all ready to start kindergarten. I was so excited. I had laid out my outfit the night before. I had my thermos and lunchbox ready to go. I mean, admittedly, I was nerdy during all of my school-aged years. Hell, I still am. I loved spelling tests and summer reading. And I really loved school supply shopping. I still do. The colored pens, sticky notes, planners. It made me feel good deep down on the inside. This probably explains part of why I chose to be a teacher.

Really, I never left the classroom, just switched sides. I play for the other team now. I give the detentions rather than getting them. But today I wish I could be a kid again. Now, facing the potential of another school year in America, I wish I didn’t have to take on the life-and-death responsibility of protecting my students inside my classroom. I found myself wishing that I could walk carefree into the new semester like my students do. And then I realized what a fool I was for thinking my students were any less terrified to walk into their schools around our country than I am.

Today, our school offered the annual CPR and First Aid course that all faculty and staff on our campus are required to take. We rehearsed all of the usual best practices. We recited the ABCs: Airway, Breathing, Compressions. We practiced on “Big Jimmy Dummie,” “Little Jimmy Dummie,” and “Baby Annie Dummie.” As I do every year, I found it difficult to imagine having to perform these maneuvers in my role as a teacher. I think about the dire statistics of survivability if someone stops breathing, if their heart stops circulating blood. It’s chilling, surreal, to be in the Performing Arts Center, simulating these life-saving measures, in the space where all year we will be acting out fairy plays and music concerts.

Teachers all over the country have participated in courses just like the one I attended this afternoon for years. My training came in handy when my own son choked. Teachers see broken bones, seizures, vomiting, concussions, asthma, and allergies in their classrooms. Generations of teachers know that in addition to teaching our subjects, and encouraging children, and supporting families, and working as room-mom, and librarian, and shoulder to cry on, we are also, in the case of emergency, called on to provide rudimentary medical attention. That’s part of the “other duties as assigned” that we agree to in our contracts.

But in our first aid class this year, there was an additional item on the agenda, one that hadn’t been discussed in prior trainings. As hard as it was to imagine having to perform the Heimlich maneuver on a child, it was exponentially more difficult to imagine the case when a teacher would need to use a tourniquet in his or her classroom. The Afghanistan-veteran, firefighter, and father who was leading our session advised that every teacher in our school keep a tourniquet in the classroom. “A tourniquet?” the gym teacher asked. “What would we need that for?” We had been talking about epi-pens and sunburns up until this point in the presentation. Did we mishear what the instructor said, we wondered.

“Well,” he began cautiously, “a tourniquet would be applied high on the affected leg, tight and close to the groin. Or, it would go high on the arm, under the armpit and parallel to the ground.” We all sat there stupidly. We weren’t getting it. “This is in the case of catastrophic bleeding,” he continued. “The femoral artery is as big as your thumb, and a person can bleed out in under sixty seconds if it is completely severed.” Again, surreal, chilling, we’re talking about a school, our children.

“I send my children to school with a tourniquet in their bags,” he stated, and then I realized finally why we should all have one in our bags, too. Statistically speaking, is it more likely that I will have to use the defibrillator in my classroom, or a tourniquet, I wondered. I was curious, too, if more children were dying in America from cardiac arrest or from bleeding out in their classrooms. That’s the new reality we — teachers, students, parents — are facing in the United States of America.

As I prepared my classroom to receive my brave and courageous students, I stocked up on school supplies. I’ve got new pencils and pens, new décor for the bulletin board, and even a Bluetooth speaker I had wanted. I’m excited to get back to work. I love the first day of school, but there’s a profound dread deep down inside of me, too. In all my preparations, I also bought a barrier for my classroom door, and I’ll be purchasing a tourniquet tomorrow. Perhaps this life-saving item should be required in classrooms all across the nation, just like fire detectors and carbon-monoxide monitors. Our children aren’t dying in mass school fires, after all.

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