School Nursing

The Relentless School Nurse: Starting a Movement Through One Tweet #NoMoreEmptyDesks

A new movement was born out of a Tweet from a colleague that I have never met. The Empty Desk Project is the unofficial working name and our hashtag is #NoMoreEmptyDesks. We have a name, a plan to begin, and a vision for what we want to accomplish – all from a Tweet. Here is the message that began this new movement:

Hi Robin, I enjoy your Twitter presence highlighting school health. I like Rutgers University’s placement of empty purple chairs around campus to promote intimate partner/ domestic violence awareness. I think brightly colored children’s desks would highlight our lost children. I think the sight of empty brightly colored desks would be evocative, raising awareness about gun violence. I thought of you and your campaign and wanted to share. -Kendrea Todt

I read and re-read Kendrea’s message and my mind jumped to involving students in painting desks to symbolize students who have been lost to gun violence. I thought of an art installation I saw Bloomington, Indiana of “painted brains” to bring awareness to the impact of stroke. Many of you may have seen “painted cows” that have been on display in cities across the country and internationally. The Empty Desk Project was born with a similar intention, public displays of student-painted desks symbolizing children lost to gun violence.

My creative wheels were spinning wildly as I envisioned students painting desks as part of art classes to bring awareness to community and school gun violence. The image of empty desks, painted by students,  on display as a public art awareness campaign was as vivid as if they were right in front of me. I immediately reached out to my art teacher colleague on Facebook.  Within minutes, she was not only on board but had already added to the vision of expanding this campaign across the school district via her network of art educators.

There are school basements filled with unused desks across the country. Imagine if each school painted their vision of #NoMoreEmptyDesks, created by students as a statement about the impact of gun violence. How many student desks are left empty as a result of gun violence?  The numbers are staggering…

More than 26,000 children and teens have been killed in gun violence since 1999 – retrieved from March 23, 2018 Washington Post article.

I asked Kendrea Todt, MSN, RN, a nursing educator from Tennessee, to share her thoughts about “The Empty Desk Project” and how she came to reach out to me via Twitter. She describes herself as an “idealist who simply wants to help evoke change and save lives.”  Kendrea is the originator of this brilliant gem of an idea and I thank her for reaching out and sharing her vision to end gun violence.

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“It was the fall of 2013 when I first stepped into the conference room of the Tennessee Nurses Association (TNA) in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. I was beyond excited to be at the TNA conference with nurses with like-minded passion. As I surveyed the room, I noticed the empty chairs and suddenly felt a sense of remorse. The empty chairs represented my professional absence for twenty plus years. The image of the empty chairs plagued me. I began to search concepts related to the empty chair metaphor and professional absence. The empty chair metaphor symbolizes loss and unfinished business. In the field of psychology, therapists use the empty chair technique to allow someone to speak to the empty chair and the person it represents to resolve conflict (Elliot, Watson, Goldman, & Greenberg, 2004). I thought of my empty chair and envisioned speaking to myself, a simple nurse, promising to never be absent again.

Rutgers University used empty purple chairs to highlight domestic violence, sexual assaults, and other forms of violence that sadly occur on college campuses. The empty purple chairs are symbolic of forced absence caused by violence. Students once vibrant and present are now gone, their voice silenced. I was moved to action by Robin Cogan’s passionate tweets on school health and gun violence. The image of the empty chairs began to ruminate once again, except the symbolism changed to empty desks. The empty desks represent a “void in life,” an emptiness that is felt by students (Dorney, 2016, p. 174). I contacted Robin with the empty desk idea and was amazed at the speed with which she formulated the project. She is a stalwart on a mission to save lives. Students who survive gun violence experience the void of the empty desks daily. America must not turn away from the empty desks and the students they represent. If politicians and the greater community could speak to the empty desks, what would they say?” Kendrea Todt, MSN, RN

 Innocence, once lost, can never be regained. Darkness, once gazed upon, can never be lost – John Milton


Dorney, P. (2016). The empty desk: The sudden death of a nursing classmate. OMEGA-Journal of Death and Dying, 74(2), 164-192.

Elliott, R., Watson, J. C., Goldman, R. N., & Greenberg, L. S. Empty chair work for unfinished interpersonal issues. Learning Emotion-Focused Therapy: The Process Experiential Approach to Change, 243-265.

Rutgers Student Affairs Office for Violence Prevention and Victim Assistance. (2018). Empty chair. Retrieved from

Kendrea Todt MSN, RN is an Instructor of nursing with East Tennessee State University and graduate student at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville.

This is the first in a series of blog posts as The Empty Desk Project is launched this September in a Camden, New Jersey high school. Stay tuned for updates and please reach out if you or someone you may know is interested in participating. Let’s grow this awareness campaign to make sure there are #NoMoreEmptyDesks!




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