What an honor to be invited to speak before the closing general session of the 2022 New Jersey Education Association (NJEA) Convention. My appreciation to Dr. Christine Miles, NJEA Director of Professional Development & Instructional Issues for inviting me to share my family’s story of gun violence over several generations.
Here is a transcript of my message:
Before I share my story, I want you to stop for a moment and ask you to think of a time when something in your life happened that delineated a clear before and after. If you live a certain number of decades, you may have several. Today I want to share one of those moments with you.
I will never forget the phone call I received from my sister, Merri, on Tuesday, February 14th, 2018 at about 2:35 pm. She said;
Rob, there is an active shooter at Carly’s school and she is hiding in a closet.” – Merri Novell, my sister
My heart sank, you see hiding in a closet to avoid a mass shooting is unimaginably not new for my family. This was the second time tragedy from gun violence has impacted my family. You see 70 years before Carly hid a closet, my father did too. He was a 12-year-old boy in Camden, NJ, the same city where I am, and have been a school nurse for the past twenty-two years. That day, on a beautiful September morning, the sounds of gunshots pierced the peaceful sky and within 20 minutes 13 people were dead, including my father’s entire family. His mother, father, and grandmother were among the dead, only he survived. The gunman was a neighbor, recently home from war, filled with rage and unfounded grudges, but most urgently access to weapons and a list of intended targets, including my family.
The generational trauma of gun violence ingrained in my family’s history grew as we learned about what was unfolding at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland Florida. My niece survived, but as we will hear today from David Hogg, another student survivor was that so many did not.
My life’s work has been focused on a promise I made to my sister and Carly that day, that I would do everything in my power as a school nurse to help solve the epidemic of gun violence through public health measures, using the harm reduction model. Much like was used to reduce motor vehicle accidents by making cars safer, we can do this with firearms through both policies and legislation to put safety at the center of all of our decisions.
We need to use the science of public health to reclaim safe spaces, in our schools, our communities, grocery stores, parades, movie theaters, places of worship, and front porches. Clearly, this list is incomplete, but you see the examples of spaces invaded by gun violence have permeated all aspects of our daily lives.
I want to leave you with a few data points to remember:
- There are now more guns than people in our country by almost 100 million (Ingraham, 2021).
- More than 320,000 students have been impacted by gun violence at school alone between Columbine and Uvalde (Cox, et al. 2022).
- Guns are now the leading cause of death of children and young people 0-24 years of age, surpassing motor vehicle accidents for the first time (Lee, et al 2022).
- Most guns in school shootings are taken from home (Carter, 2021).
- Often the shooter has a connection to the school, for example, the two decades between 1999 and 2019, more than nine in 10 shooters were current or former students at the school (Peterson et al. 2022).
- “Each day, 28 US children and teens — the equivalent of a high school classroom — die from gun violence, making it the No. 1 killer of youth through age 24 (Lee, et al. 2022).
The disproportionate impact of gun violence on Black and Latinx children and teens. Black children and teens are 14 times more likely than white children and teens of the same age to die by gun homicide (CDC, 2018)
This is our present, but it does not have to be our future.
My comments were followed by Keynote Speaker, David Hogg, one of the co-founders of March for Our Lives and a leading voice in gun violence prevention activism. David is a compelling speaker who is skilled at getting to the heart of the “wicked problems” that our youth are most passionate to solve: gun violence, social injustice, racism, voter advocacy, and amplifying the voices of students in solving our most intractable social issues.
Congratulations to the leadership team and all of the staff at NJEA who created another impactful convention. I am a proud NJEA member and feel a true sea change in the direction of our organization. Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging is not just a catchphrase, the actions to bring these ideals into practice are alive and well. There was also a focus on healing the adults, the school staff, and the school communities. There was a dedicated healing space that included drumming, meditation, circle practice, goat yoga, and therapy dogs. My deepest appreciation for the work of NJEA and how they embrace the needs of their members, including school nurses.
Carter, P. (2021, December 2). Most school shooters get guns from home – and more weapons are there since the pandemic. Most school shooters get their guns from home – and during the pandemic, the number of firearms in households with teenagers went up. Retrieved October 19, 2022, from https://healthblog.uofmhealth.org/wellness-prevention/most-school-shooters-get-guns-from-home-and-more-weapons-are-there-since
CDC. “National Center for Injury Prevention and Control. Web-based Injury Statistics Query and Reporting System (WISQARS) Fatal Injury Reports 2014-2018”. CDC. https://bit.ly/2P6zh4Z
Cox, J. W., Rich, S., Chong, L., Muyskens , J., & Ulmanu, M. (2022, October 18). More than 320,000 students have experienced gun violence at school since Columbine. The Washington Post. Retrieved October 19, 2022, from https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/2018/local/school-shootings-database/
Ingraham, C. (2021, November 24). Analysis | there are more guns than people in the United States, according to a new study of global firearm ownership. The Washington Post. Retrieved October 19, 2022, from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2018/06/19/there-are-more-guns-than-people-in-the-united-states-according-to-a-new-study-of-global-firearm-ownership/
Lee LK, Fleegler EW, Goyal MK, et al. Firearm-Related Injuries and Deaths in Children and Youth: Injury Prevention and Harm Reduction. Pediatrics. 2022; DOI: 10.1542/peds.2022-060070
Peterson , J., & Densley , J. (2022, September 13). School shooters usually show these signs of distress long before they open fire, our database shows. The Conversation. Retrieved October 19, 2022, from https://theconversation.com/school-shooters-usually-show-these-signs-of-distress-long-before-they-open-fire-our-database-shows-111242