A substitute teacher was in charge that horrible day.
On the morning of May 20, 1988, at Hubbard Woods Elementary School, in the upscale Chicago suburb of Winnetka, a woman named Laurie Dann walked into a second-grade classroom with three handguns she had obtained legally. Substitute teacher Amy Moses was conducting a lesson on bicycle safety. Dann opened fire, killing one eight-year-old boy, Nicholas Corwin, and injuring five others, including a first-grade boy sheshot in the bathroom before entering the classroom. Police said that Moses’ initial reaction (she refused to follow Dann’s orders to herd the children together) probably spared many others.
As school districts review their safety procedures following the tragic shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School, I hope they include substitute teachers. Every day, up to 10 percent of U.S. classrooms are led by substitute teachers, according to STEDI.org, a Utah-based, national leader in substitute teacher training. More than three-fourths of school districts do not train substitute teachers for the job, including training them in the school’s safety procedures, according to Geoffrey Smith, STEDI.org’s founder and director.
For two years, I was a substitute teacher—one of the 375,000 to 500,000 people who stand in for regular teachers in the U.S. each day. Yet I can’t tell you what the school safety procedures were in any of the Wisconsin schools in which I worked. Looking back, I wish I had demanded to know what to do in the event of a shooter or lockdown. Instead, I recall standing in school rooms before the kids entered—elementary through high school—and wondering where I would hide the children, what furniture I would stack against the door, in what circumstances I should get them out of the room and how (could I ask a high school student, for example, to throw a chair through the window?). Each room was equipped with a telephone, but how did I reach the front office? Or an outside line to the police?
“There is a very high accountability and responsibility associated with the job,” says Rachel Fisher, program director and founder of EDTrainingCenter.com, a Tampa-based company thatprovides online training for thousands of substitute teachers who work in New York, Miami and Las Vegas, among other cities.
When a school goes into lockdown for minutes or for hours—as did schools on Fort Hood Military Base, in Killeen, Texas, on November 5, 2009, when a soldier fatally shot 13 and wounded more than two dozen others—how can an untrained substitute teacher manage such a situation?
Substitute teachers are seldom trained in how to react to an intruder or how to handle the children in the event of an emergency, according to Kathy Rogers, an education specialist who leads a large substitute teacher training program for Education Service Center Region 12, which serves 77 school districts, plus charter schools, in central Texas. “People believe something bad can never happen, yet sometimes it does,” she said.
All substitute teachers trained through ESC Region 12 are trained in evacuation procedures and the basics of an intruder drill, says Rogers. “If they find themselves in a horrible situation, at least they have the awareness not to let the kids talk, to keep away from the windows and more—exactly what the Sandy Hook teachers did.”
We already spend at least $4 billion a year on substitute teachers. So please, school districts, kick in a little more time, perhaps a little more money, and definitely a little more understanding that in this day and age, your students should never be under the care of someone not trained to handle a safety emergency.
Carolyn Bucior’s memoir, Sub Culture: Three Years in Education’s Dustiest Corner, was named one of 2011’s best education reads by Time magazine and the American School Board Journal.