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'They want action': Teacher union heads speak out on school safety after East High School shooting

Union leadership said teachers are tired, frustrated, and constantly worried about violence at their schools.

DENVER — One day after a shooting at East High School, leaders of two of the largest teacher unions in Denver are sharing the perspective of educators following the latest violence on campus. Amie Baca-Oehlert is the president of the Colorado Education Association (CEA), the statewide teacher union. Robert Gould is the president of Denver Classroom Teachers Association (DCTA), the union representing educators in Denver Public Schools.

The unions will be leading a rally at the state Capitol Friday morning to offer teachers a place to gather together and advocate for gun reform legislation.

The following interview has been edited for length.

How are teachers feeling today?

Gould, DCTA: “I think we’ve been hearing very clearly from our Denver educators, especially those from East High School. Everybody is exhausted. They’re tired, they’re frustrated. They want action.”

Baca-Oehlert, CEA: “I talked to a teacher this morning who shared with me, 11 years ago when [she] went into education, [she] never expected that every day [she] would have to wake up and worry or wonder if this would be the day I don’t return from my job.”

Gould, DCTA: “There’s been concern for their [East] colleagues. 1. How are they doing, are they going to make it? 2. What are we going to do to take care of them? A lot of empathy for their colleagues who went through this, and a lot of empathy for the students… They were all very heartbroken about the fact that the student took his own life, and they were also very concerned about what will happen with students moving forward."

Are you concerned about teachers leaving the profession, due to safety concerns?

Baca-Oehlert, CEA: “There are so many pressures that are on our educators, from worrying about whether they’re going to leave for work in the morning and come home in the evening to their family, their loved ones… In fact, we just did an all-members survey, and a significant number said they are somewhat or very worried about a mass shooting happening at their school. That’s on top of everything they have to worry about with their students on a daily basis.”

Gould, DCTA: “They’re strong, they put up this façade sometimes, ‘We’re strong, we’re going to get through this lesson and be OK.’ But on the inside, they’re going through their own mental health needs. ‘Who can I call? Who can I talk to? Do I even have time to do that?’”

Does DCTA support the superintendent's decision to put armed police officers back in schools through, at least, the end of this school year?

NOTE: After this interview, the Denver school board voted, in alignment with the superintendent's decision, to suspend the policy that prevented armed SROs on campus through June 30.

Gould, DCTA: “We do support Dr. Marrero’s decision to put those SROs back in the schools, definitely for the rest of this year, and we think it should be a conversation that happens with those communities, those educators, and with the families to find out what - is this a longer-term solution that we need? But we do think the immediacy of the SROs, one thing it will do, it will make people feel safer. And that’s what people need right now to get back in the classroom and also to start learning again.”

Gould, again: “Whether SROs are in class or not, the last few years we’ve been saying SROs are important and so are mental health supports. And because of funding, our schools are always having to make these decisions – do we fund this or do we fund that?”


Are teachers unified on the SRO question?

Gould, DCTA: “They go across the spectrum on that. So I think that’s the piece where we really need to have that conversation, and we have to figure out why we have to keep making these forced choices.”

Baca-Oehlert, CEA: “I think it’s really important to have the conversation on what is the role of a school resource officer in the school. Again, in the short term, to give people a sense of safety, I think that it is meeting a need right now. But we also need to talk about the long-term role that SROs play in our schools, and what is an appropriate role.”

What other changes would DCTA and CEA like to see regarding educator safety?

Baca-Oehlert, CEA: “This is not something we can put a Band-Aid on. We need to look at comprehensive, structural reforms. Things like common sense gun laws. Things we are advocating for at the Capitol. We have to look at funding. All of this comes down to a lack of investment in our public schools in Colorado. We don’t have the staff that’s needed to meet the students need in our schools.”

Gould, DCTA: “Here’s what I keep coming back to – how did a 17-year-old get a gun? How do our 16-year-olds, 14-year-olds, that we’ve seen an increase of this? How are they getting a hold of these weapons? And I think that’s the conversation we need to have. What do we need to do to support so we can make sure our students aren’t getting ahold of those weapons?”

DCTA and CEA are supporting several Democrat-sponsored gun reform bills moving through the legislature right now. 

Gould, DCTA: “One of the ways we wanted our educators to have an opportunity to heal is, you know what? If you’re feeling like you need some ‘action,’ come have some action. Come to the Capitol and let’s talk to people, let's lobby. Let’s talk to the legislature about gun bills. Let’s talk about funding. Let’s tell them what our students need. Let’s make sure they hear those voices of educators.”

Baca-Oehlert, CEA: “I think common sense gun reform is a part of the conversation around systemic solutions to this epidemic of gun violence that were seeing in our schools, in our communities. Is it the end-all-be-all if this legislation passes this session to solve all of the problems? No. But is it something that’s going to help move us into a better place? Absolutely. So we’re supporting gun reform because our students can’t wait. Educators can’t wait. They deserve to have elected officials that will stand up and pass legislation that will make our schools a safer and more welcoming place for all students.”


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