How do we talk to our children about gun violence?

It’s a question I have grappled with most of my adult life, first as a Chicago Public Schools teacher and later as a parent.

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After the Robb Elementary School shootings in Uvalde, Texas in late May, I didn’t want my fourth-grade daughter to know the details. I wanted to shield her from knowing about the violence that happened to 10-year-olds just like her, at an American public school just like hers.

I wanted to keep her from being scared to go to school, because she has loved it ever since preschool. I wanted to keep her image of school the same as it was for me when I grew up: a safe haven.

I also wanted to keep away any questions from her about ending school shootings — something that adults, the people she trusts the most, have failed at so far.

But my daughter found out about Uvalde without us knowing it, via the newsfeed on our Alexa. She asked me and my husband the details, and though we didn’t really know how to talk about it, we told her that a man entered a Texas elementary school and killed students for no apparent reason.

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We left out that they were fourth-graders. We left out the death count. We left out that the police failed the community. We left out that some students smeared themselves in their classmates’ blood and lay silent in order to survive.

More than month later, the Independence Day parade shooting took place in Highland Park. When I told my daughter about it, I left out the death count, the 2-year-old who was orphaned when his parents were killed and how close the north suburb is to our home.

But how long can I keep the details from her — and how often can other parents do the same? — when these bloodbaths keep happening, with no end in sight? 

On Tuesday, Robb Elementary students and teachers went back to school, despite their trepidation — some teachers would not enter classrooms, and some parents decided to home school. Meanwhile, not enough has been done to thwart gun violence in our supposedly safe spaces — schools, churches, grocery stores, parades, concerts, movie theaters — and adults are forced to tell children more hard truths at an early age.

Gun violence is now the leading cause of death in children. “How much do we tell our children?” is a question I have grappled with most of my adult life, first as a Chicago Public Schools teacher and later as a parent.

I began my career as a high school English teacher at Corliss High School in Chicago’s Roseland neighborhood, where many students wrote about shootings. During my first year, one of my volleyball players sat out from practice, telling an assistant coach he had been shot over the weekend and showing her the bandage. Later that year, someone shot up the school during a vacation break, leaving bullet holes in a corridor with floor-to-ceiling windows

When I taught at TEAM Englewood High School, one of our top students became a quadriplegic when someone shot her at a party. Another student of mine was gunned down his senior year after just being accepted into college.

Outsiders often write off what happened to my Black students as “gang violence,” incorrectly stereotyping a community and ignoring the death and sadness of families grieving a lost loved one or dealing with a life-altering injury. They would say my students were “used to” violence. I didn’t see it that way.

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I remember one of my student’s mother wailing at his funeral. After passing by his casket, I became so upset that I had to step outside to catch my breath. I imagine this scene all across our nation, over and over.

Individually, we weep and mourn. But collectively, we are just moving on, almost at record speed.

Our reaction to mass shootings and gun violence should be swift, comprehensive gun reform that bans civilians from owning assault-style weapons, ends their sales and offers double or even triple the price of one in a targeted buy-back program. Just last month, Aurora, another city that experienced a mass shooting, hosted a gun buy-back program — and ran out of gift cards as many flocked to the event to turn in guns.

Our U.S. government, meanwhile, passed a compromise bill that still allows assault weapons in civilian hands.

As a teacher, I know that not enough has been done to keep our children and our schools safe. As a parent, I must continue to talk to my child about these realities, in the hope that her generation will fix the problem and that she can stay alive if a shooter enters her school.

But for now, we must go through school lockdown drills. And we must tell our children, and ourselves, the truth about gun violence — if we ever hope to end it.

Gina Caneva is the library media specialist for East Leyden High School in Franklin Park and spent 15 years as a teacher in Chicago Public Schools.

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