As the nation focused on the massacre at a Texas elementary school, the superintendent of schools in Washington state issued a sober warning that a mass shooting could happen here, despite efforts to add security measures in recent years.
Parents and teachers expressed their heartbreak. And so did students, some of whom walked out of classes this week demanding stricter gun laws.
“It’s really terrifying to be a student in these times,” 17-year-old Nova High School student Sydney Walter said. “It’s kind of like everyone has some type of weight on their chest and it’s hard to breathe. We want to just breathe.”
It’s been a difficult week for the education community in the wake of Tuesday’s shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, that left 19 children and two teachers dead. It comes just months after a school shooting in Michigan led to copycat threats of violence that left the Seattle area on edge.
Back in November and December, some Seattle schools shut down, others went on lockdown, and teachers held sickouts to take time to process the uptick in threats of violence directed at schools. Multiple students were arrested because they threatened violence and one was charged with felony harassment for threatening to kill and false reporting.
“After the Michigan shooting, we saw almost an immediate kind of response,” said Erin Romanuk, a student support services manager at Seattle Public Schools. “It felt different.”
A 15-year-old student shot and killed four students on Nov. 30 at Oxford High School in Michigan. Afterward, a TikTok challenge encouraging students to commit acts of violence at school was seen as the reason threats of violence spiked, Romanuk said.
“The scary part of this is I think there is some numbness to what continues to happen,” Romanuk said. “We’re prepared to be able to talk about things but it’s almost to the point where our young people … this is their school experience.”
There haven’t been any reports of Seattle school closures because of threats after the Texas school shooting, Seattle Public Schools officials said. Since December, threats of violence have tapered off but are still higher than pre-pandemic numbers, Romanuk said. The intensity and frequency of threats spiked between Thanksgiving break and the first few weeks of December.
“It’s been a horrible school year,” Romanuk said, referencing the threat coupled with the pandemic. “People are tired — the weight on people’s shoulders. They’re numb and we just want to make sure they know they are not alone and we’ll do what we can to help in any situation.”
In a statement, SPS Superintendent Brent Jones said the district routinely evaluates its safety procedures and reviews the findings of national events like school shootings.
“The tragic mass shooting at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, on Tuesday has left our school communities stunned and in a state of grief,” Jones said. “Because the event happened at a school, SPS students, families, staff, and community, may feel heightened concern about safety in our schools.”
To report a threat, people can call the SPS Safe Schools Hotline at 206-252-0510.
State Superintendent Chris Reykdal urged families to reconsider having firearms in their homes.
“There is simply no debate: Our homes are safer when there are no guns inside them,” Reykdal said in a statement. “In America, the overwhelming data are clear that gun owners and their families are more likely to die by their own gun than they are to use them in self-defense or protection.”
The state has prioritized and made investments in threat-assessment protocols, safety plans and procedures, Reykdal said. “But, make no mistake, the Texas tragedy can still happen here.”
In other parts of the state, investigations into threats are occurring. Clark County sheriff’s deputies arrested a student who brought a handgun to Heritage High School in his backpack Thursday, police officials said. The student told officers he didn’t intend to hurt himself or anyone else.
And in Everett, there was a report of a firearm near Cascade High School on Friday, according to police. There was no active threat but out of caution, the school went on lockdown.
In other areas, students are turning to activism.
Students at Seattle’s Robert Eagle Staff Middle School and Pathfinder K-8 School participated in a nationwide walkout Thursday advocating for stricter gun laws. Students in Tacoma and Burlington also walked out.
For Eagle Staff eighth grader Roman Naar it was the first protest he attended. Naar said he was nervous but glad he was able to honor the students who were killed in Texas.
“I thought it was a very important action I needed to make,” Naar said. “I thought it was really unjust that a lot of people got shot in Texas so I wanted to participate in my school walkout and protest and share my voice.”
On Wednesday, Seattle students plan to rally at City Hall at 3 p.m. to demand a mental health counselor at every school building and for Gov. Jay Inslee to call for a special legislative session to ban all semi-automatic weapons.
Walter, the Nova High School student, is helping organize the event. She said that when she was rattled by the Michigan shooting, she didn’t know what she could do.
“It didn’t propel me to take action because I wasn’t sure what info I should trust or listen to.”
But school shootings keep happening, so she decided she needed to advocate for mental health resources and stricter gun policies. Gun violence is preventable, Walter said, and action needs to happen.