What can teachers say to kids after a shooting? It depends

George Bezanis, parent and teacher, celebrates the historic vote for the SRC to dissolve itself Nov. 16. GENEVA HEFFERNAN / Staff Photographer

In the wake of a Cherry Hill East High School teacher’s suspension for classroom comments about school security after the Parkland, Fla., massacre, other Philadelphia-area schools are beginning to grapple with free-speech issues around the increasingly heated debate over school safety and gun control.

Educators said they want teachers to be able to talk with their students about safety issues and procedures in the aftermath of the teen shooter’s gunning down 17 people in the Florida high school, but the key is to find ways that won’t agitate students, make students feel less secure, or politicize the heated topic.

“Teachers are people that are natural nurturers. If a child shows some type of fear or concern over being safe, I trust that teacher to have that conversation with that child,” said Dolores McCracken, president of the Pennsylvania State Education Association teachers’ union.

As for saying a shooting could happen at their school – as Cherry Hill teacher Timothy Locke has said he did – “I don’t know anyone who would do that,” McCracken said. “Would you tell your own child that? This is very raw, very, very raw.”

Some teachers are more open than others in class.

Every Friday, George Bezanis, a social studies teacher at Central High School, leads students in a current events exercise, discussing the important stories of the day. Post-Parkland, school safety has come up multiple times.

Bezanis’ students are well aware of his activities outside the classroom – an outspoken activist, he crowd-funded both a billboard and a banner plane last year to shame city and school officials over the lack of a Philadelphia teachers’ contract – and the teens asked Bezanis what he thought about President Trump’s plan to arm teachers.

“I said, ‘I’m against having guns in schools. I’ve broken up fights before. What if a kid got my gun?” said Bezanis. “It’s important for kids to know that you are someone outside of the classroom that does have their own views. I tell them it’s important to stand up for what you believe in.”

The vast majority of his students said they thought teachers’ carrying weapons was a bad idea, but a few said they would be comfortable with well-trained teachers carrying guns.

“Look, we’re in a city which is predominately liberal and predominately Democratic, but I try to encourage even the conservative kids to express their opinions,” said Bezanis, adding that his administration and co-workers are supportive of students engaging in the kind of dialogue he does – in context, in a respectful way, allowing other points of view to be heard

Karen Borrelli-Luke, a physical education and health teacher at Dr. Charles E. Brimm Medical Arts High School in Camden, takes an opposite tack.

“As an ethical thing, we’re taught never to give an opinion. If kids say, who are you voting for, they’ll never know,” she said. “There’s a line we should not cross.”

Talking to kids about safety is one thing, but she said she would never tell students if she felt unsafe in her school. That’s something for adults to deal with, she said.

And if a student asked if she thought teachers should be armed, as Trump has suggested, she would stay buttoned up.

“I would go with, what do you think? We want the kids to direct the discussion. I would go through the pros and cons, but they would never know where I stand on it,” she said.

In the West Chester Area School District, Superintendent James Scanlon said, “We certainly want our teachers to talk to kids about safety and what to do in the event of a shooter and intruder.”  However, if the conversation gets political, “we absolutely want balance.”

Dan Nerelli, superintendent of the Upper Darby School District, said employees have the right to speak up about safety issues. But he said he hoped they raised them directly with the administration rather than as fodder for classroom discussion.

As public employees teachers aren’t free to say whatever they want in a classroom, according to experts.

Courts have found that government workers, such as public school teachers, are only protected by the First Amendment when they are speaking as private citizens. If their speech is part of their official job duties, then they can be fired or disciplined for it.

In Cherry Hill, school administrators entered the fray after one student reported that he was upset over Locke’s remarks questioning the safety of their school, prompting students to stage a walkout to protest Locke’s suspension.

“Teachers have union contracts, and that may provide some different protections, but in terms of the First Amendment, if a school doesn’t like what a teacher is saying in the classroom, the teacher doesn’t have a First Amendment right to say what they want,” Mary Catherine Roper, deputy legal director of the Pennsylvania ACLU, said.

Chris Finan, executive director of the National Association Against Censorship, said, “Teachers have to be careful to make a distinction between when they’re speaking for themselves and when they’re speaking in an official capacity. It seems to be potentially problematic if a teacher is telling his or her class his personal opinion when that opinion does not reflect the policy of the school.”

The heightened anxiety over free speech in public high schools dramatizes how fallout from the Florida shooting has roiled the ongoing school year across the nation – with students planning marches and walkouts seeking stricter gun control while educators are under pressure to hold more lockdown drills or spend more money on strengthening security.

McCracken, the PSEA president, said she’s been reaching out to her members, at the suggestion of Gov. Wolf, and talking to officials from groups representing school administrators, superintendents and school boards about ideas for policies to make classrooms less vulnerable.

In Upper Darby,  Nerelli said the school board had asked him to investigate the cost for items such as metal detectors, armed security, gates at front entrances, doors that are alarmed if opened from inside, and more cameras.

“There’s always ways to improve,” Nerelli said. “There’s no perfect system. If someone is mentally ill enough to want to do damage, they can do it.”

In West Chester, Scanlon said many security measures have been added as schools increase safety procedures, including an active shooter drill now mandated by the state. “We can go airport security, but are you ever going to let them out for recess?” he asked. “It’s sad.”