When a minor earthquake struck the East Coast last week, second-grade teacher Abbey Clements saw the fearful look in her students’ eyes, “searching for answers and safety in me.” It was a look she and countless teachers across the country have become well accustomed to in recent years, but for a very different reason — anxiety brought on by the fear of another school shooting. 

Eleven years ago, Clements was in her classroom at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, when a gunman armed with two handguns and an assault-style rifle opened fire in the school, killing 20 students and six adults. “It’s not just the fear this might happen to us,” said Clements, “but that this might happen and we’re going to be in charge of the lives of some 20-odd children.”

This month marks the 25th anniversary of the Columbine High School shooting; since that attack, there have been at least 394 school shootings. Clements’ experience is shared by thousands of public school teachers across the United States whose workplace anxiety is underscored by active shooter lockdown drills and increased safety precautions. A new survey by the Pew Research Center shows that about 25 percent of teachers said they had experienced a gun-related lockdown in the last school year; 8 percent experienced more than one. Researchers surveyed more than 2,500 public school teachers to assess their sense of school safety and perception of the most effective prevention strategies. 

In 2023, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cited gun violence as the leading cause of death of children in the United States, though data shows that children are most likely to be shot in their homes, not in school. Still, the increased likelihood of violence on school grounds has heightened the fears of many parents and educators. The Pew survey found that 59 percent of teachers worry about a school shooting. The findings are on par with a 2022 Pew survey, which found more than two-thirds of parents were either extremely worried or somewhat worried that a school shooting could happen at their child’s school.

The new survey found stark partisan differences among respondents, with 28 percent of Republican-leaning participants supportive of teachers and school administrators carrying guns in school, compared to only 3 percent of Democratic-leaning respondents. Nearly 70 percent of Republican respondents believed having armed security officers was highly effective in keeping schools safe, compared to 37 percent of Democrats. Forty percent of all respondents felt that their schools were only fairly prepared for an active shooter, while 30 percent said preparations at their school were excellent. 

Respondents’ answers also differed according to where they teach, with teachers in urban settings less likely to feel as if their schools were prepared for an active shooter compared to suburban and rural teachers. At 34 percent, high school teachers were the most likely to experience lockdowns, compared to 22 percent of middle school teachers and 16 percent of elementary school teachers.

“That was one of the most striking findings from the survey,” said Luona Lin, one of the researchers. “The share of teachers who have experienced a gun-related lockdown rises even higher when we are talking about high school and urban teachers.”

Of all the proposed solutions, nearly 70 percent of teachers surveyed felt that improving mental health screening would be highly effective in addressing school shootings, while 49 percent believed that having armed guards was highly effective. A third said there is a virtue in having metal detectors, while just 13 percent said allowing teachers and administrators to carry guns would be extremely effective in preventing school shootings.

Some districts have proposed increased screening, bullet-resistant windows and backpacks, auto-locking doors, and other preventative efforts to increase safety. In Tennessee, where the deadliest school shooting in the state’s history took place last year, Senate Republicans passed a bill this week that would allow teachers to be armed. 

But for teachers like Clements in Connecticut, drills and other strategies can never replicate the actual fear and threat of a real school shooting. On that cold December morning in 2012, she had just greeted a fellow teacher and walked into her classroom when she heard the barrage of bullets. She remembers initially thinking it was the sound of folding chairs falling.

Clements’ then second-grade students are now freshmen in college. They have since watched their horror repeat in other places, school shooting after school shooting. Clements said school should be about creating a welcoming environment, not fear, and teaching should be focused on students, not guns. 

“When the shooting happened at Sandy Hook, we got an outpouring of letters, knitted shawls, and hand-painted cards from teachers around the world. The shock, disbelief, and collective grief at what happened — there was not a doubt that something was going to change and we were going to pass better legislation on this issue,” she said. “We didn’t.”