The school year began again, my 19th as a school nurse in Camden, New Jersey. Working in the same city where my father’s family and 10 others were murdered 70 years ago seems more ironic than ever.
The aftermath of gun violence sits at the intersection of my professional and personal life. Seventy years elapsed between two mass murders that impacted my family. My story begins in Camden, New Jersey, the year was 1949, and my father was a 12-year-old boy, living on what he described as Sesame Street. His world was forever shattered the morning of September 6, 1949, when a deranged neighbor, with access to a weapon, went on a “Walk of Death” (Berger, 1949), murdering 13 people, including my father’s mother, father, and grandmother. My father, Charles Cohen, survived because his mother hid him in a closet.
I work within blocks of the Camden City crime scene, but try not to venture down that block. When I do find myself there, I hold my breath as I pass by the entrance to my father’s home. In 1949 it was a pharmacy and my father lived above the store. Today it is a shoe store, the family entrance is no longer there, long ago walled off, but the step is still there as a chilling reminder.
Community gun violence in Camden is almost normalized as a residual effect of living in the city. I have spent nineteen years serving the students and families of the city with the hope that my professional role as a school nurse could somehow help heal my personal family history.
Fast forward almost seventy years and my niece, Carly, hid in a closet at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida the afternoon of February 14, 2018. She quietly sent a text message to my sister telling her that there is an active shooter at school and she was hiding in a closet with her teacher and 17 classmates. Fourteen students and three teachers died that day, and another seventeen students were injured. In both instances, troubled young men with access to weapons wreaked havoc on victims, families, and communities that will reverberate for generations to come.
My decision to use my position as a school nurse to fight against gun violence came from a promise I made to my sister and niece in the aftermath of the Parkland shootings. I vowed to do everything in my power to bring attention to the ever-growing public health emergency of gun violence. Prevention of firearm violence belongs in the healthcare arena and requires funding for research as any public health issue has been afforded.
Social media, specifically Twitter, is a world where healthcare professionals across all sectors specialties and disciplines united over this issue so emergent that barriers fell, silos ended and meaningful conversations ensued. Nurses are also heeding the call and welcome the opportunity to stand side by side with all of our healthcare colleagues. And together, all of our voices are amplifying the message that gun violence is a public health emergency.
This emergency is impacting the tone and tenor of what it means to live freely in our country. There is a heightened level of anxiety and tension that, like the canary in the coal mine, is showing up in the most vulnerable population, our children. A recent Pew Research study found that a majority of teens in the US fear that a school shooting could happen at their school (Graff, 2018). The research revealed that 57% of all teens surveyed shared this fear. It is important to note that 60% of African American teens and 73% of Hispanic teens surveyed cited an elevated fear of a school shooting at their schools.
Student deaths from gun violence have created a literal and metaphorical void in schools across our country that may impact students and staff for decades to come. The students are referred to as “Parkland kids,” “Sandy Hook students,” or “Columbine survivors.” These labels are sadly reflective of a new reality for American schools, as students, teachers, and staff no longer feel safe. America’s students feel vulnerable, as the facade of schools as a safe place is no longer true.
The numbers are astounding, as 39,000 children and teens have been killed in gun violence between 1999 and 2018 (Krisberg, 2019). There are 39,000 desks that sit empty in schools across this country from deaths due to gun violence. A void that students feel. Students have not forgotten their friends, nor must we, as they are America’s fallen students. This number is rising and an emerging public health crisis is unfolding before our eyes and we must have the courage of conviction to stop this through research-informed preventative strategies.
Data describes one perspective of the public health emergency we are grappling with whether in schools, communities, churches, synagogues, yoga studios, restaurants, or movie theaters. Data connected to stories describe the immeasurable loss that transcends generations. My family’s story is one example; there are too many others.
Whether it’s an active shooter ravaging the safety of our nation’s schools, or the slow mass shootings that happen in communities across the country, our children are suffering. Violence and revenge are partners in wreaking havoc on innocence and, when coupled with access to weapons, cause death and destruction in the most innocent of spaces.
- Butkus, Renee, et al. “Reducing Firearm Injuries and Deaths in the United States: A Position Paper From the American College of Physicians.” Annals of Internal Medicine, American College of Physicians, 30 Oct. 2018 https://annals.org/aim/fullarticle/2709820/reducing-firearm-injuries-deaths-united-states-position-paper-from-american
- Majority of teens worry about school shootings, and so do most parents., Pew Research Center, Washington, D.C., (04/18/2018)
- Krisberg K. Thousands of children, teens killed by guns annually in US [Internet]. The
- Nation’sHealth. American Public Health Association; 2019 [cited 2019Oct14]. Available from: http://thenationshealth.aphapublications.org/content/49/4/6.3
- The New York Times, The New York Times, 8 Apr. 2000, archive.nytimes.com/www.nytimes.com/library/national/090749nj-shoot.html?mcubz=3