When Ilana Drake, 17, saw footage of people in Congress hiding under their desks and being ushered out of their chamber during the attempted insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday, she immediately drew a connection to the active-shooter situation she had experienced in October 2018, her sophomore year at the High School for Math, Science and Engineering at City College in New York.
Drake and her classmates later found out that the alleged active shooter was a student who had brought a toy gun to A. Philip Randolph Campus High School, which was adjacent to her school. For more than an hour, though, Drake said she and her classmates experienced the situation as a real threat.
“I remember hiding in the mental health room and texting my parents and praying that everything would be okay,” said Drake, now a senior in high school. “Thinking about how members of Congress witnessed something similar to that, I just hope it influences their policies and how they address certain issues related to gun control. Oftentimes people don’t have the natural empathy, and they need to have firsthand experience with something catastrophic or very scary in order to actually change their behavior and outlook towards an issue.”
Lawmakers, aides, journalists and others inside the U.S. Capitol had real reason to fear on Jan. 6, when a mob of Trump supporters came dangerously close to getting inside the inner sanctum of the building as the Senate was voting to certify President-elect Joe Biden’s legitimate victory. As armed rioters breached the building, security officers rushed lawmakers and staff into secure hiding spots. Photos of their makeshift barricades, which included chairs blocking the entrances to offices, quickly went viral.
Police stationed at the Capitol were overwhelmed by the violent mob, and the ease with which rioters entered the building shocked people all over the country. The deaths of five people, including a Capitol police officer, have been linked to the riots. There was potential for even more fatalities: D.C. Police Chief Robert J. Contee III confirmed that explosives were found near the Capitol. D.C. police also found a cooler with Molotov cocktails in a vehicle that had a long gun in it on the Capitol grounds, Contee said. More than 52 people have been arrested in connection to the violence, four of them for allegedly carrying pistols without a license.
In the wake of the riots, lawmakers and journalists described the trauma they experienced while inside. Some students and teachers — who themselves can be just a year or two out of college — said that type of fear is a deeply felt reality in the age of school shootings.
The Washington Post calculated that 240,000 students have experienced gun violence at school since the Columbine massacre in 1999. Far more go through mandatory active-shooter drills at school, which can be traumatizing in and of themselves. But despite ongoing active-shooter threats in schools, gun-control regulations have not changed much since Columbine. States have the most control over gun regulations, and federal guidance has been scant: The assault weapons ban signed by President Bill Clinton in 1994 expired in 2004 and was not renewed by Congress.
On Wednesday, Samantha Hardwick, a 33-year-old AP government teacher at a high school in Midland, Tex., decided that she would talk about the Capitol mob in her class the next day. She showed her students images from inside the Capitol, including a photo of people in Congress hiding under their desks with gas masks.
“One of my students said, ‘Ha, welcome to public school.’ That came right out of the mouth of a senior,” Hardwick said. “Another said, ‘I don’t know why we’re expecting anything to change after today, because the Capitol building didn’t burn down.’” One of Hardwick’s students wagered the riots wouldn’t change lawmakers’ thoughts about gun-control regulations “because no Congresspeople died.”
Hardwick, who teaches in an area of Texas that she describes as “so red it’s almost maroon,” said she made a conscious choice to speak about Wednesday’s riots when not many teachers at her school did.
“When I taught Thursday, I was taking a risk but I was very clear: It was illegal, it was wrong, it was not patriotism,” she says. “I was also clear that it’s a smaller group of extremists and they don’t represent all Republicans. I tried to be careful, but I said this is not okay. This is an insurrection.”
Indeed, as students in their formative years processed Wednesday’s events, many teachers — the overwhelming majority of whom are women — carried the burden of ethically and carefully discussing the news with their students while dealing with their own fears and trauma.
“It’s so hard because you as a person are still processing,” said 25-year-old Abbey Kutlas-Prickett, a fifth- and sixth-grade teacher in Bloomington, Ind. “I feel a lot of trauma that’s triggered by active-shooter drills. It’s been especially strong for teachers my age because it’s been a constant of our lives. We were in K-12 during Sandy Hook [in 2012], and in college during Parkland [in 2018].”
During her senior year at Northwestern University, Kutlas-Prickett said she hid alone in a lab room for hours as she followed social media updates of an active shooter on campus. Although the situation turned out to be a false alarm, she said that in the moment, it was two hours of pure terror.
“I had that fear [of gun violence in schools] when I was growing up because I grew up in central Nebraska, where guns are commonplace,” Kutlas-Prickett said.
She said that when classes were in-person, she would often feel a trauma response when her school did active-shooter drills. Even as she was expected to stay calm for her students, her hands would shake and her palms would get clammy. Her heart would race as she went over all the possible escape routes. She said her students, meanwhile, desensitized after so many active-shooter drills, often did not take it seriously.
On Wednesday, Kutlas-Prickett was up late writing a statement to give to her students the next day. She pulled from a framework on civil disobedience from earlier in the year, when she and her students had discussed the ongoing Black Lives Matter protests.
“I teach 10- to 12-year-olds, and they still need help figuring out how to process these really big feelings like anger, hurt and confusion,” Kutlas-Prickett said. “A lot of them had questions about how this was so different from the BLM protests. A lot of our kids took part in those protests in Bloomington, so they know what a peaceful protest looks like and how police respond. A lot of them were feeling really angry.”
Sydney Line, a 25-year-old seventh-grade science teacher in Greenville, S.C., also wrote out a script for herself to give to her students the day after the riots. She said she has to watch her tone around students, especially because remote learning often means that parents and other family members may be listening to her lessons in the background. Line sent a question in her daily attendance form asking students if they understood what had happened the day before.
“South Carolina has a range of political views, and they’re still 12 or 13,” Line said. “Half of them were terrified. A lot of them were aware that the way rioters were treated on Wednesday was not how BLM protesters were treated. … They totally see the injustice of police brutality.”
As a White woman who teaches both White students and students of color, Line said it was particularly important to her to discuss Wednesday’s events in the context of protests that had gone on throughout 2020.
For some older students, Wednesday’s events sparked reflection on the politics of gun control. This is a generation primed for these types of conversations; after the shooting in Parkland, Fla., at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in 2018, high-profile student activists pushed for ambitious federal gun-control measures, with many hoping that the 2020 election would bring change in their direction.
“Especially as someone who actually missed voting in the election, what happened on Wednesday was just horrifying,” said Drake, the student from New York. “It’s horrifying to see how these are actual adults who were in the mob.”
Honey Soneye, a 17-year-old high school senior in Dallas, Ga., said she immediately felt the irony when watching events unfold at the Capitol.
“Students from pre-K all the way through twelfth grade, we have to have these active-shooter drills to make sure we know what to do if someone comes onto campus with intent to hurt people,” Soneye said. “It’s kind of ironic that happened at the Capitol building, where they make decisions about gun control.”
Soneye moved to the United States with her family from Nigeria in 2014, and she heard her mom talking with relatives and family friends about the attempted insurrection. “They were like, ‘Wow, in America they always preach democracy to the rest of the world, and then in the middle of Washington, this happens, and practically nothing was done to stop it,’” she said.
Drake, who is Jewish, said that seeing Nazi symbols and a man wearing a “Camp Auschwitz” shirt among those who entered the Capitol was terrifying — and a wake-up call in terms of thinking critically about those in power.
“Thinking about our nation’s capital where, you know, we preach these values of equality, of inclusion, of diversity … but this was the antithesis of that,” Drake said. Similar to Soneye, she hopes that Wednesday’s events will elicit change in federal gun-control measures.
The young women are hopeful, but at the end of the day, they said, they don’t expect much change after all their generation has been through.
“I just really want people to look at the difference in how the BLM protesters were treated and how the people at the Capitol were treated,” Soneye said. “They should also take note of the irony of how the place where they make the gun-control laws was almost like an active-shooter situation.”