By Kayla Padilla | @KaylaPadilla__ | Heron contributor
Less than a week after the tragedy that made headlines around the world, two San Antonio educators began asking themselves, “What could possibly lead a kid to commit such a heinous act?”
With 19 children and two teachers dead, and Uvalde less than 80 miles west of San Antonio, the school shooting felt too close to home for Angela Taylor-Duncan and Brandi Craft, both educators at Northside Independent School District (NISD).
Before school let out for the summer, Taylor-Duncan and Craft started to conceptualize a support program for students, offering a glimpse into the confusion, shock, desperation they were going through in this moment—and, ultimately, the love these educators have for their kids.
Taylor-Duncan and her colleague Craft aim to identify kids who are isolated and provide them with an opportunity to be mentored by a teacher or staff member. Taylor-Duncan said it could be as simple as seeing a kid eating lunch alone and joining them.
Though they’re still thinking things through, they described it as an “I see you” initiative.
“Over the years, I’ve seen a lot of kids on campus that are isolated,” Taylor-Duncan said. “There are kids that eat lunch alone, or eat in a hallway alone. There are kids that are absent a lot or just don’t show up for months at a time.”
For now, the initiative is conceptual and not a school-approved proposal.
Two months have passed since the shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, one month since the last of the victims, 11-year-old Layla Salazar, was buried, but communities across the United States are still grappling with the aftermath.
Historically, shootings in the United States have inspired copycats. After Uvalde, schools in Texas increased their security presence and some parents kept their kids home for the rest of the year. Regardless of what’s happening (or not happening) legally and politically in our country, this is about coming back to school after a tragedy. One foot in front of the other.
The Heron has decided to start writing about education. This is the first in an occasional article or essay on schools in San Antonio. If you have a suggestion for future education pieces, please email us.
The 2021-2022 school year in Uvalde was supposed to end as it always had: kids were excited about summer and teachers were wrapping up another successful year of instruction.
For most people, memories of end-of-year parties and watching movies in the classroom come to mind when they think of the days right before summer. The last days of school always seemed to be the best. There was no homework, you could use your electronics, and sometimes, you would just sit at your desk and talk to your teacher, about whatever.
Though all your assignments for the semester were turned in, there was still something else to look forward to: the annual awards ceremony.
Even if you were good at hiding your pride, there were usually a set of two people at the awards ceremony that were a lot less humble. They were almost indistinguishable from obsessed fans. They would yell your name, run to the front of the ceremony to take your picture, and usually made you freeze as they tried to figure out how their camera worked.
Those people were, of course, your parents. And had they been anyone else you probably would’ve been really weirded out.
Angela Taylor-Duncan is a special education coordinator for a middle school in the Northside Independent School District, and taught high school for 20 years.
I had met Taylor-Duncan at a Buddhist center in San Antonio. A few days after the tragedy, people from the community gathered at the center and talked about Uvalde. Taylor-Duncan caught my attention after expressing concern for the well-being of her own students.
As part of her job, Taylor-Duncan works with physical therapists, speech therapists, and the parents of disabled students. Currently, she has an estimated 140 students that are in her department. She described the day after the Uvalde shooting as “eerie” and “creepy.”
“I went to the bathroom at one point, and I was looking down the long hallway and I thought what would I do? Where would I go? Do I need to think about an exit in this building,” she said.
Taylor-Duncan described her school as being on “high alert” after the shooting. She noted that an officer had taken on more of a presence towards the front of the campus, where he was more visible to parents and students as they got dropped off. Students were also instructed not to bring backpacks for the last days of school.
“And right now, probably because it’s the end of the year and sometimes kids like to pull pranks, we told kids no backpacks,” she said.
After the ceremony is over, you stick around to take photos and talk to classmates. Most likely, your parents will take you out to dinner in the evening, or let you splurge on your favorite cupcakes after school.
But before that, there’s a choice you have to make. Your award ceremony has just ended and you’ve noticed some kids are going home. Your mom says it’s up to you. Though you could easily leave, you want to stay behind.
You have the whole summer ahead of you, but only a few days left with your teachers and classmates. In this case, your teachers are Irma Garcia and Eva Mireles. You’re in classroom 111 which is connected to classroom 112. And though you’ve seen it before, you’re excited to watch “Lilo & Stitch” with your friends. So, you’ve decided to stay.
You’re supposed to be safe.
But in the United States, more children have died from school-related gun violence than police officers in the line of duty in 2022.
Brandi Craft is a licensed specialist in school psychology at the same NISD middle school where Taylor-Duncan works.
Craft has been a licensed specialist for five years and has worked at the school for one year. As part of her job, she helps make diagnoses as they relate to disabilities identified under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). She works closely with Taylor-Duncan to help students get the services they need, and is now working with her to build a student support program for the fall.
“The premise is coming up with some way of having the teachers identify students, and then figuring out how to bring those students together in some kind of social way,” said Craft, referencing students who may need additional assistance or help.
Taylor-Duncan said that the initiative had been brewing in her mind before the Uvalde shooting, but the devastation from the mass shooting brought her brainstorming to the forefront.
Gun violence is the No. 1 killer of children and teens in the United States, and is more likely to kill them than cancer or a car crash. And though the shooting in Uvalde devastated a nation, it was the fourth school shooting in May. These four school shootings do not account for the other school-related gun violence that occurred in May.
On May 9, a woman in Georgia was arrested after shooting at a school bus and injuring the bus driver. On May 17 in Chicago, an eight-year-old boy found his mother’s gun and took it to school where it later accidentally discharged and injured a seven-year-old boy.
When more than 311,000 students have been exposed to school-related gun violence since the Columbine shooting in 1999, teachers, principals, and school employees have inevitably been exposed, injured, and killed, too.
Kids and school employees are supposed to be safe at school. But on May 24 in Uvalde, Texas, 19 families said goodbye to their kids after an award ceremony, not knowing that it would be goodbye forever. That was the last time they would see their kids alive before they went “missing” and ultimately confirmed to be deceased by DNA, suggesting that the kids were unrecognizable when they were found.
For kids with disabilities, school lockdowns can be harder to navigate. Taylor-Duncan said that they often try to prepare their kids for a fire alarm drill to alleviate the anxiety of an immediate change. One of her students is in a wheelchair and sometimes plays on the floor. Other students have anxiety and don’t react well to loud noises.
“And so certain ones, we let them go down the hall to the bathroom by themselves, are a little more independent,” she said. “But if it’s an emergency, would they know what to do? We would be able to get everybody else but what if they’re still in the bathroom? They don’t move as fast all the time.”
For Taylor-Duncan, it’s tragedies like the Uvalde shooting that make her reassess how endemic school shootings really are.
“The fact that we’re living in a world like this where it’s a war zone. And my husband said that to me, he said ‘I feel like you’re living in a war zone getting up going to work every day.’ And I told him yeah, I never thought about it like that,” she said.
Taylor-Duncan said that the “next step” for her in processing the Uvalde shooting was trying to assess what could lead a teen like Salvador Ramos to kill children. She said she had compassion for him and that somewhere along the line kids often get “missed.”
She added that at times, she can’t reach the parents or emergency contacts for kids. Some kids show up one day a week and then disappear.
“We’re not really going into the homes or noticing these kids that are just sitting in the cafeteria. I feel like it’s just increasing and these kiddos are getting lost and then something happens and then everybody’s shocked.”
There is currently an active “buddy group” at the school that has been integrated into a life skills class.
“There’s a group of general education students who go in, volunteer their time and spend it with the (special education) students in that life skills class. And so they’ll read to them and sit with them,” said Craft.
Craft said the group started out small and grew larger, which has made a difference in the students’ lives. For the fall, they hope their initiative becomes school-wide with the potential of identifying students who need extra attention.
“Talk to the child in your life, be present in their conversations, monitor their social media and social circles, and know that there are many resources available at their school to assist with their social-emotional development, in addition to their academic needs,” said Craft.
Like Craft, Taylor-Duncan encourages people to invest in conversations with the children they know.
“Have a conversation and build a relationship with a child and listen to what their interests are without shutting them down.”
As for the teachers and school staff who feel helpless or unsure of where to go from here, Taylor-Duncan has a few words of encouragement.
“I guarantee that everybody is feeling some anxiety and sadness because you go into this not for the money, but because of the love you have for kids. The same love that we have for these kids, we need to step in a place of action. If this is what we love, we have to be able to do something.”
Kayla Padilla is a freelance journalist in San Antonio. She served as the editor-in-chief of Trinity University’s campus newspaper, the Trinitonian, in 2020 and 2021. Follow her on Twitter at @KaylaPadilla_