In My Voice: Witnessing the Trauma of Gun Violence as a High School Teacher
“It’s hard to explain how deep-seated the trauma from gun violence is.”
Throughout Mental Health Month, we will be sharing Q&As with individuals who have experience with different aspects of mental health and gun violence. Today, we share a Q&A with Ari Davis. Ari is currently a Public Health Fellow at the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence.
1. Describe your teaching background.
I worked as a special education high school teacher in New Orleans. I supported 15 students through their freshman and sophomore years of high school. I worked with them and their families to develop individualized education programs and behavior plans.
2. What role did gun violence play in the school and community?
All of my students were directly impacted by gun violence. Within two years of teaching, three of my students were shot and killed. Six others had been shot, two of whom suffered gunshot injuries waiting for the bus after school.
Some of my students were also caught up in cycles of violence. Three were expelled for gun-related threats and violence. Two former students murdered someone with a firearm. One killed his former classmate.
It’s hard to explain how deep-seated the trauma from gun violence is. It’s hard to explain how everyone within the school was impacted. I saw how this trauma affected the physical, social, and mental health of my students. And I experienced it myself.
During my time teaching, I learned that we each cope with exposure to gun violence and internalize this trauma differently. Some shut down or try to ignore it. Others become angry or fearful. As a teacher, it was a constant challenge to support my students in coping with their trauma while also teaching class material.
Despite the constant exposure to gun violence and the lack of adequate support for students, my students were resilient, caring, and determined to manage their trauma. Most excelled socially and academically; they lived relatively typical high school teenage lives while simultaneously learning to survive in a world where gun violence had become normal.
3. Is there a specific instance that you remember?
As a special education teacher, I worked closely with a small group of students by providing one-on-one support and instruction. One of these students transferred schools after his freshman year. But because we lived in the same neighborhood, I would see him from time to time.
One day while teaching, I heard that he had been shot. As word spread, my students, his friends and classmates, became more and more upset. I didn’t know what to say or do; I felt powerless. The rumor was confirmed. He was shot just three blocks from my house, about a mile from our school. And the shooter was his former classmate.
Over the next month, I was distraught and was unable to effectively teach or provide support for my students. I was angry at a school system that failed to provide adequate mental health services for its grieving students. I was angry at a society that doesn’t seem to care about the deaths of black and brown boys. I was fearful for my students’ lives, and I felt guilty that I could go home and feel safe while many of my students lived in fear.
4. How did the reality or the threat of gun violence impact your students’ mental health?
I remember one instance that highlights the reality of gun violence for these students. I was discussing attendance with a student who had failed to show up to school for the past two weeks. I was upset because he was failing all of his classes. I lectured him about the importance of coming to school every day without listening to him first. Finally, I realized I should ask him why he hadn’t been showing up.
He said he wasn’t going to school because someone threatened to kill him, and he was worried he would be shot if he left his house. I thought about the ignorance of the lecture I had just given him. Here I was lecturing about his grades, assuming he was ditching school for fun. Meanwhile, he was scared for his life, afraid to leave his house, and dealing with the associated mental health trauma with almost no support. This student’s fears were founded. He suffered a nonfatal gunshot wound later that school year.
In the classroom, often a simple statement or action would bring up underlying traumas. Students’ reactions varied based on how they coped with trauma. In some cases, students would lash out in anger or fear. Many others would shut down. One student would put her head down and rock in her chair to cope with the trauma. Her episodes got much worse in the months around the anniversary of her brother’s death.
My role as a teacher was to provide space for students like her to grieve while simultaneously pushing her to persevere in her coursework. It was tremendously difficult.
5. How do you think gun violence impacts the mental health of communities in general?
Research shows that exposure to gun violence impacts the health of communities in so many different ways. It increases rates of anxiety, isolation, and depression. If left untreated, it can lead to future violence. Communities exposed to gun violence also suffer from higher rates of poor physical and social health.
My students shared how they felt unsafe to walk in their own neighborhoods out of fear that they would be caught in gunfire. The inability for some of my students to move freely, without fear, in their own neighborhoods deeply impacted how they formed relationships. It limited trust, and it prevented students from reaching out to get the community support they needed to cope with their trauma.
6. Why should people be concerned about this?
People should be concerned about this because gun violence is killing thousands of black and brown children each year, and there seems to be very little public action to stop these killings. If this level of gun violence were happening to white, suburban students, the public would be outraged.
Firearm homicide is the leading cause of death for young black boys and men. Over the last decade, more than 13,300 black children and teens were killed by firearm homicides. Black boys are 18 times more likely to be killed by firearms than their non-Hispanic white counterparts. The trauma this inflicts upon communities is enormous. And it perpetuates cycles of violence, poverty, and poor mental health.
7. What can we do about it?
We need to create awareness. This means learning about the toll of gun violence within impacted communities of color and reframing the gun violence prevention movement to give the microphone to those most impacted by interpersonal violence.
We need to push for policies that increase resources and supports within these communities. These resources should be allocated to the structural inequities that fuel violence — poverty, lack of opportunity, underfunded schools, and public services.
We need specific resources to support students in dealing with the trauma of gun violence. We need more school social workers and school systems that are focused on providing trauma informed practices. We need better after-school programming — like increased funding for the arts, athletics, clubs, so students can be involved in activities that protect them from engaging in risky behaviors. We need to invest in violence interruption programs that aim to stop the cycles of retaliatory shootings.
We also need policies that stem the flow of guns into impacted communities. This begins with universal background checks as the foundation and includes permit-to-purchase laws, which reduce firearm homicides in urban areas.
8. What did your experience teach you about gun violence and mental health?
I learned how lucky I was to have grown up in a place where gun violence is relatively rare. I became more aware of my privilege. My years with my students gave me insight into the devastating toll of gun violence. It showed me how detrimental gun violence is to the mental health and wellbeing of many communities of color. I quickly discovered that I had no idea what it was like to cope with the trauma and fear my students had to carry with them every day.
But we know things can be different. Those of us with power and privilege must educate ourselves and others about the daily toll of gun violence. We must work to amplify and listen to the voices of those most impacted. We must become advocates to promote sensible policies that stop the killing and build healthy supportive communities for all.
Gun violence doesn’t have to tear communities apart. We can do better. We must.