Building a Safer Future: Creating Schools and Communities Where All Students Can Thrive 

Honoring Hadiya Pendleton: The Meaning Behind Wear Orange Weekend 

As we observe Wear Orange Weekend from June 7-9 and Gun Violence Awareness Month, it’s crucial to recognize the essential role that educators play in creating safer schools and communities.  

On Jan. 21, 2013, Hadiya Pendleton marched in President Barack Obama’s second inaugural parade. One week later, 15-year-old Hadiya was shot and killed on a playground in Chicago. Soon after this tragedy, Hadiya’s friends commemorated her life by wearing orange, the color hunters wear in the woods to protect themselves and others. 

Wear Orange is committed to creating a safer future for all by participating in educational initiatives, promoting responsible gun ownership, and supporting policy change to prevent gun violence. Wear Orange Weekend is now observed every June, with thousands wearing orange to honor Hadiya and the more than 40,000 Americans killed and 76,000 wounded by gun violence each year in the United States. The first Friday in June is also considered National Gun Violence Awareness Day. 

As educators and school employees, Texas AFT members are all too familiar with the devastating impact of gun violence in their own communities, from the tragic shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde to countless other incidents that don’t make national headlines but leave lasting scars. 

Educators have a vital role to play in this movement. By honoring survivors, supporting affected community members, raising awareness among students and families, promoting a culture of peace and nonviolence, and advocating for evidence-based policies to prevent gun violence, we can help create safer schools and communities. Participating in Wear Orange Weekend is one powerful way to take a stand against gun violence and memorialize all those lost to this ongoing epidemic.

Safe Schools: Preventing Gun Violence  

Providing a safe learning environment for students and educators is a fundamental responsibility of our schools. However, the threat of gun violence on campuses has become an  increasingly urgent concern, particularly after the devastating shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde that killed 19 children and two teachers in May 2022.  

“Every day, Texans entrust their children to our schools,” said Texas AFT President Zeph Capo on the two-year anniversary of the Uvalde shooting. “They’re supposed to be learning, growing, and unleashing their potential. But instead, they face the trauma of active shooter drills and the very real fear of becoming the next victim of a school shooting. It’s time for our leaders to stop playing the blame game and prioritize the safety of our children and educators over politics.” 

Texas AFT Members Take a Stand: Gun Violence Prevention as Top Priority 

Texas AFT members understand the urgency of this issue. In the 2024 Texas AFT membership survey, gun violence prevention was ranked as the No. 1 priority out of 11 community and social justice issues. 82% of respondents were concerned about potential gun violence on their campus. Tragically, 1% indicated that their school has already experienced a shooting.  

Confronting the Reality: The Increasing Prevalence of Gun Violence in Schools 

These concerns are understandable given the increasing prevalence of gun violence and school shootings. From Aug. 1, 2021, to May 31, 2022, there were 193 gunfire incidents at preschools and K-12 schools nationwide, nearly four times the average during these months in all other years since 2013. Between 2013 and 2021, Everytown identified 573 such incidents, resulting in 188 deaths and 392 injuries. Current or former students were the shooters in most incidents, including all mass shootings, 96% of self-harm incidents, and 91% of unintentional discharges.  

A Multi-Faceted Approach to Preventing Gun Violence 

Preventing gun violence requires a multi-faceted public health approach, as outlined in Texas AFT’s latest report, Thrive Together: A Vision for Texas Schools, from Pre-K to Post-Doc. This approach must go beyond physical security measures to address root causes and limit access to firearms by individuals who should not have them. Texas AFT supports common-sense measures like raising the minimum age to purchase assault weapons to 21, implementing Extreme Risk Protection Order (“red flag”) laws, strengthening background checks, promoting secure firearm storage, and investing in mental health support for students. 

Raising the Bar: The Case for Increasing the Minimum Age to Purchase Assault Weapons 

Raising the minimum age to purchase assault weapons to 21 is a common-sense reform that could reduce mass shootings. The 18-year-old Uvalde shooter legally purchased two AR-15-style rifles and thousands of rounds of ammunition in the days before the attack. Had Texas required individuals to be 21 to buy assault weapons, as Florida did after the 2018 Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting, he may have been unable to acquire such lethal firepower. State legislation to raise the age failed in 2023 despite advocacy by victims’ families.  

Preventing Tragedy: The Role of Extreme Risk Protection Order (ERPO) Laws 

Several states have also implemented Extreme Risk Protection Order (ERPO) laws, or “red flag” laws, that allow judges to temporarily remove firearms from individuals threatening to harm themselves or others. Studies have found that ERPOs are effective at reducing gun suicides and show promise for preventing mass shootings. Texas currently lacks an ERPO law.  

Closing the Gaps: Strengthening Background Checks and Eliminating Loopholes 

There is also a need to strengthen background checks and close loopholes that allow prohibited persons to obtain firearms. While Texas requires checks for sales by licensed dealers, private sellers are not obligated to do so. Federal legislation has been proposed to require universal checks for all gun sales and transfers. President Joe Biden also signed an Executive Order in 2023 to accelerate implementation of the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, including a directive for the attorney general to close the “gun show loophole” and move the U.S. as close to universal background checks as possible without additional legislation.

Secure Storage Saves Lives: Promoting Responsible Firearm Storage Practices 

Secure firearm storage is another crucial component of school and community safety. In Texas, Rep. Donna Howard and Sen. Carol Alvarado championed funding for a public awareness campaign in partnership with the Department of Public Safety (similar to public service announcements like “Click It or Ticket” and “Don’t Mess with Texas”).  

At the federal level, the Biden-Harris Administration is taking comprehensive action to promote safe firearm storage and protect children from the gun violence epidemic. The Department of Education is sending a letter to school principals nationwide explaining the importance of safe storage and providing a communications template to engage with parents and families. The Department of Justice is also releasing the most comprehensive guide on safe storage practices ever produced by the federal government.  

These efforts build on the administration’s previous work, including new rules from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives clarifying gun dealers’ obligations to offer safety devices and DOJ grant funds for safe storage awareness and devices, such as gun locks. Keeping guns unloaded, locked, and separated from ammunition can reduce unintentional child shootings, gun suicides, and school shootings, as studies have found that guns used in school-based violence generally come from the shooter’s home or the homes of family or friends.  

All these common-sense gun safety measures are broadly supported by most Texans. 

Avoiding the Pitfalls: Cautioning Against Overreliance on Policing and Physical Security Measures 

Texas AFT cautions against an overreliance on policing and physical security as the primary solutions to school gun violence, though they are important and require additional state funding to offset the unfunded mandates handed down to school districts in 2023. We also unequivocally oppose arming teachers.  

While some expert-endorsed upgrades may be warranted, spending a disproportionate number of limited resources on surveillance, metal detectors, and armed personnel can create a hostile learning environment. These efforts should not come at the expense of hiring critical mental health staff and providing student support services, nor do they serve as a sufficient substitute for common-sense gun safety measures.  

By participating in Wear Orange Weekend and advocating for the comprehensive solutions outlined in our Thrive Together report, Texas AFT members can play a crucial role in creating safer schools and communities where all students can reach their full potential.