Audryn Damron: How would I feel if one of my students became a murderer?

There are things that I, as a teacher, can do to reach out to students who may be on a violent path.

(Ivan Pierre Aguirre | The New York Times) Newly-added crosses bear the names of those killed in Tuesday's mass shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, on Thursday, May 26, 2022. Thursday was supposed to have been the last day of school in Uvalde; instead, grieving relatives are planning funerals after a mass shooting for which investigators were still seeking a motive.

School shootings rock you differently when you work with students.

Earlier this school year I asked my husband, an engineer, if he ever thought about what he would do if a shooter came to his work. What would he do if children were around and he had to protect them? He said he had never thought about that.

And here we are, at the tippy-toe end of a school year, grieving again over a school shooting. A high schooler shot elementary aged children — and it could have been one of my students.

I got on social media, saw posts from high school graduation ceremonies and thought, it could have been one of them. That student who came to me with uncontained enthusiasm (despite trying to maintain his cool) showing me his cap and gown, who turned 18 a month ago, could have been that student turned murderer. My stomach dropped. The tears rolled.

I’ve seen debates about gun control, gun reform, policy change and mental health, but what I sit with as I feel these feelings, let the sadness and anger flow through me, is how so many of our students — our children — are not OK. Children lost their lives that day. Teachers and adults trying to protect these young lives died because a high schooler made the decision to shoot other human beings and end their lives. This student-murderer even shot his own grandmother, a preface to this story tragic enough to make headlines even without turning the event into a mass shooting.

Why was that 18-year-old not OK? How did he become a murderer? Research sponsored by the American Counseling Association concludes that 69% of gun violence in schools is committed by individuals aged 10-19, and 99% of them are male. That means most of these violent acts are completed by students currently attending school – students with teachers, parents, neighbors, science lab partners, school counselors, etc.

If I found out one of my students had shot and killed anyone, let alone children, I would be beside myself. What do I do? Can I do anything? Is there a way to prevent this in the future? Could I have done something to stop this? The rabbit hole here can be deep and dark, so here are the actions I am choosing to take today.

I am going to say hi to students I see in the hall – every single one. I am going to look each student in the eye and say cheerfully, “Hello! How are you doing?” If I see a student sitting alone at a locker during lunch or withdrawn outside my classroom before the morning bell rings, I will get to know their name and ask how their day is. I want to be a positive beacon in my circle.

I am going to ask my own students questions about their lives: their family dynamics, what they did over the weekend, what they are excited about, what are their goals after high school, etc. I already make a decent effort, but sometimes the quiet, shy ones go by without notice.

I want to make sure I speak to and pour love into each student who walks into my room. I want them to know I see them, I care for them, and I love them.

I will be a connector. If I notice a student is quieter than usual, seems drawn to violent material, speaks of challenging home life, shares an incident of bullying, etc., I will listen, validate and connect that student with resources that can teach coping strategies, stress management, self-esteem help, etc.

Why are our high school students killing children? I want answers, but I also want to make changes right now.

Mahatma Gandhi said, “If you want to change the world, change yourself.” I don’t ever want to hear that my student became a murderer, so I will start today. I hope you will join me.

Audryn Damron

Audryn Damron, M.S., NBCT, is a special education teacher at Cottonwood High School in Granite School District and the Democratic candidate for Utah State School Board in District 8.