How It Feels When You Find Out There Is a Gun in Your School

My experience with a firearm in a school was in 2003.

It was my first year as principal at Shaw Middle School in Southwest Philadelphia. I wasn’t on campus at the time. I was on my way back to school from a principals’ meeting when I got the call.

“El-Mekki, someone brought a gun into the school.”

It’s hard to describe the feeling that came over me. I wanted to vomit. I wanted to scream. I had to remind myself that I was awake, and this wasn’t simply some nightmare I would wake from.

Someone brought a gun to school. The assistant principal had already called the police. I needed to be there immediately, I thought. It was devastating to think of something like this happening in my community while I was away.

I drove as fast as I could. As I raced down the Cobbs Creek Parkway, horrifying images raced through my mind. I feared the worst.

I thought of a recent violent incident that occurred at the nearby high school.

I thought of the principal I replaced at Shaw—he had been shot trying to disarm a student. I knew that student, he had attended Turner Middle School where I used to teach.

With all of these terrifying images and reminders running through my head, I kept yelling out, to no one in particular, “Why would someone bring a gun into a school?!”

My students aren’t safe. My staff is in danger. I drove faster.

I beat the police there. My assumption that a student had a weapon was wrong. It turned out, a teacher—a talented, beloved staff member—not only brought a gun to school, but misplaced his bag and had no idea where the gun was.

The thought of a student finding the gun was gut-wrenching. Fortunately, we were blessed enough that the gun was found before any students realized what was happening. But now, 15 years later, as grateful as I am for the efforts of our team to make the school as safe as possible at that moment, I am still furious that an adult would put our children in harm’s way.

At dismissal, I was inconsolable. Just watching students leaving, going home, being picked up by parents, my rage and fear released through uncontrollable tears. A teacher leader came and hugged me for what seemed like forever, yet when she released me it was still far too soon.

To this day, I am still angry at that staff member who brought the gun. As well-liked as he was, we immediately fired him for his recklessness. There was no excuse for him to do what he did, just as there was no excuse for us to continue allowing him to work in our school building.

Similarly, I think of the other adults for whom there is no excuse. Our many legislators who choose money and guns over children, they must answer for a system that permits such easy access to firearms. They should also be fired in the next election cycle. There are no excuses. Not for them. Not for us.

They fail to act even after continuous and devastating reports of murder and mayhem in our schools. I attended school in Iran, during the Gulf War, and felt safer than many students do attending American schools today.

Nevertheless, our lawmakers willfully ignore data, choose profit over people, and show a disdain for those who represent what is most precious in our society: our children.

What do you think?

About the author

Sharif El-Mekki

Sharif El-Mekki is the principal of Mastery Charter School–Shoemaker Campus, a neighborhood public charter school in Philadelphia that serves 750 students in grades 7-12. From 2013-2015, he was one of three principal ambassador fellows working on issues of education policy and practice with U.S. Department of Education under Secretary Arne Duncan.

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