On March 15, 2023

School workers: We need action to ensure everyone’s safe at school

Dear Editor,

Last month, 21 schools across Vermont were targeted by a vicious hoax that terrorized countless students and staff members as they were sent into lockdown and SWAT teams carrying AR-15s burst into the lobby. 

We are thankful nobody was physically harmed in these incidents. Yet, many of us faced the credible threat of an active shooter, and that threat remains with us. Under such conditions, effective education becomes impossible. 

That’s why we are demanding that our elected state leaders take meaningful action to ensure that every child and every school employee is safe at school.

School shootings have become far too common in the United States, and the numbers tell a clear story: Stricter gun laws prevent unnecessary deaths. We want to change the laws that permit easy access to the most lethal and efficient weapons, and the conditions that increase the likelihood of violence in our communities. 

We must also recognize that the threat of gun violence is only one of the factors that undermine the safety and wellbeing of students and staff. Safety is not just about preventing casualties during a mass shooting; it’s about addressing deep inequalities and poverty, confronting hate in our communities, dealing with growing staffing shortages, and ensuring that all families have access to health care, housing, food, child care, and safe and dignified work. 

To achieve school safety, we have to address:

Chronic understaffing creates impossible conditions for teachers, which in turn leads to outbursts, aggressive behavior, self-harm, and other unsafe student behaviors. 

Gaps in our social safety net expose families to financial and emotional stresses that fuel students’ struggles in school. 

Partisan culture war attacks on public education and increasingly incendiary rhetoric around teaching of Black history and LGBTQ+ topics nurtures racism and homophobia in our communities, and creates a climate of fear for students in targeted groups and the adults who support them.  

Under such conditions, we can only expect the already crisis-level staffing shortage to worsen as fewer and fewer people are drawn to an underpaid, stressful, and increasingly unsafe profession, further eroding our ability to provide a safe and effective education to our kids.  

Currently, the education support professionals and paraeducators who support students with intensive learning needs do not make a living wage, and vacancies in these positions prevent schools from being able to deliver essential special education services.  

As professionals whose job it is to protect and educate your children, we say: Enough is enough. We cannot do our jobs when our state government can’t provide the most basic physical and emotional safety to all of us. We refuse to simply continue with business as usual while our students grow more anxious, and our colleagues head for the exits. Part of being a classroom teacher is setting firm boundaries with clear consequences to ensure everyone’s safety.  

We expect and demand meaningful legislative action before the end of this session. This includes passing the following bills:

H106, a bill protecting the academic freedom of educators.

H208, which would establish a public pre-K program and additional funding to existing early childhood education providers.

S.40, a comprehensive gun bill that would, among other things, ban the possession of semiautomatic assault weapons and large-capacity magazines, incentivize safe gun storage and ownership, and allow gun manufacturers to be held liable for damages.

H.66, which would provide universal paid family and medical leave.

H.235, which would address the staffing crisis by incentivizing all school districts to provide salary increases to teachers and support staff in high-poverty and rural districts.

We want to return to school next fall knowing a good-faith effort is being made to address the crises of safety in our schools. We are calling on our legislators and governor to make these bills laws before the end of this legislative session.

Members of the Vermont School Workers Action Committee: Tevye Kelman, Vickie Johnson and Beverly Taft of Randolph Union High School; Brigitte Savard, Joe Carroll and Perry Bellow-Handelman of Montpelier High School; Cynthia Tighe of Lamoille Union High School; and Michael N. Leonard of Burlington High School

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