School of Education students, administrators reflect on preparing for crises in the classroom after Newtown shooting

When Victoria Soto died trying to protect her first-grade students from the gunman in Sandy Hook Elementary School on Friday, she showed that the responsibility of a teacher extends far beyond explaining reading or math.

“It’s the teacher’s responsibility to protect the students,” said Allison Hall, a junior inclusive early childhood education major at Syracuse University. “The parent is leaving that child in your care and trusting that you will take care of them.”

The mass shooting in Newtown, Conn.—in which 20 children and six adults were killed—has called attention to teacher training for crisis management.

Classes at the School of Education at SU do not specifically address crisis management, said Mara Sapon-Shevin, a professor of inclusive education.

More important than teaching education students to handle crisis situations is teaching them how to create peaceful classrooms and establish standards for positive interpersonal relationships, she said.

“You don’t want to plan your whole teaching career on what happens if a school shooter comes in,” Sapon-Shevin said.

Establishing an atmosphere in which children feel respected and have access to adults they trust can decrease violence and prevent crisis situations, she said.

Many schools respond to “negative interpersonal behavior” with punishment, Sapon-Shevin said, noting that some schools have “zero tolerance” policies.  These policies place significant emphasis on not getting caught, rather than explaining to children why it is wrong to mistreat other students, she said.

Professors at the School of Education spend a lot of time on social justice and community building to teach students how to make the classroom a safe and inclusive environment, Sapon-Shevin said. This is especially relevant because most school shooters were marginalized and bullied in school, she said.

George Theoharis, associate professor and associate dean at the School of Education, said emergency procedures and preparedness are usually addressed in student teaching positions rather than SU classrooms because most emergency procedures are specific to individual schools.

But Theoharis said education students who work in the field also attend seminars at SU in which they discuss the daily responsibilities of a teacher. This includes addressing safety procedures in general terms and “making sense of it,” he said.

“Could we do more about it?” Theoharis said. “Absolutely.”

But emergency preparedness, like many aspects of teaching, is a relatively abstract topic until a teacher is in a classroom with students, he said, making it difficult to effectively teach in classes.

Hall, the junior inclusive early childhood education major, said she thinks emergency preparedness should be touched on in education classes, but it depends on each school’s unique situation.

“In terms of a teacher’s gut reaction to that kind of situation,” she said, “in all of us it’s kind of ingrained that you would do anything for your students.”

To Hall, the teachers at Sandy Hook demonstrated this commitment to their students.

“It sounds like every single teacher in that school really put their lives on the line for the students and that the students came first for every one of those faculty members,” she said. “They stepped up to the plate and did what they needed to do. I don’t think most people will do that.”


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