April 19, 2022

Matt Beiter: Students can’t learn if they don’t feel safe and secure

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Last week, a student entered the high school in Erie, Pennsylvania and opened fire. Matt Beiter was a teacher in that building. Here is his powerful first hand account.

On April 5, I was preparing my seniors at Erie High for the NOCTI test. This is their final exam given by the state for their engineering program. But for the second time this year, I was interrupted by armed officers with their guns drawn in my hallway. I entered the hall to see what the commotion was and saw officers with drawn weapons going down the hall. I was ordered back into my room. I locked my door and then I heard my phone speak “hard lockdown.”

With lights off, we sat in the back of my classroom illuminated by the lights of our phones as we attempted to find out what was happening. Once we knew that this was not a drill, that there truly had been shots fired, I was shocked at how unsurprised my students were. I even had a conversation with one who said, ‘You know, this is not the first time this week students brought guns to school.” I asked the student, “Why wouldn’t you let me know?” He stated that “he has to live in this neighborhood,” which I understand.

But it really struck me. As teachers, we are all taught Maslow’s needs hierarchy. In clean comfortable rooms, we draw pyramids and hear psychology professors talk about how “children cannot think about higher-level things like math and grammar if their base needs are not met.” The very bottom of that pyramid is safety and security. When we have some students still wearing masks from a pandemic, all locked in a room, waiting out a school shooting, our children feel neither safe nor secure.

One of the questions I was asked immediately after the shooting was who I blame. I think this is one of easy ones. I blame myself. I have been a teacher in this school for 20-plus years. I am a union representative who has been on the safety committee for more than a year. It was my job to keep our students and staff safe, and I failed. But I share that blame. I blame the federal government that six years ago cut funding for education. I blame the state government that purposely underfunded urban districts for decades, forcing the district to merge the high schools. I blame the city that has known it has a youth gun violence problem but has not curbed it. I blame the district administration that was warned about a consistent group of disrespectful students whose behavior indicated that they were not in school to learn but to disrupt the learning of their classmates. I blame a series of school boards who are easily distracted by petty politics instead of focused on what is best for all the children in their care.

Beiter does end on a positive note. Read the whole essay here.

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