'They're Not Supposed to Die Before You'

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Flowers on a makeshift memorial in front of Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, on May 25, 2022, where at least 19 students and two adults were killed in a mass shooting on Tuesday. (Chandan Khanna/AFP via Getty Images)

Tuesday’s mass shooting at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, has made ripples across the Bay Area and around the country — reigniting concerns about gun safety and violence in schools and delivering a hefty emotional blow to parents, students and educators.

On the day of the shooting, teacher Peter Wilson was trying to celebrate his fifth graders’ graduation. Wilson, who taught a combined fourth and fifth grade class this year at Sankofa United Elementary School in Oakland, said he felt conflicting emotions as he looked back at the ceremony that took place on the school’s field.

“How can you relish your joy while you’re looking at the tragedy of these families?” asked Wilson, who’s lost several of his own students over the years to gun violence. “They're not supposed to die before you. And I can just imagine how that [school staff in Uvalde] feels.”

California has some of the strictest gun laws in the country — but the state has still seen at least two major shootings this year — one in downtown Sacramento and another at a church in Laguna Woods in Orange County.

On Wednesday, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced that by next month he plans to sign into law over a dozen bills that would help strengthen gun laws — especially when it comes to enforcement of ghost guns and assault-style weapons.

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“Taking the cue from Texas and the SB 8 bill that put women’s lives at risk, we’re going to use those core tenets to save people’s lives here in California, as it relates to ‘private right of action,’” Newsom said during the Wednesday news conference. “This state’s leaning in, and I want folks to know if you’re feeling that anxiety, stress and fear, I hope you’ll consider California as an antidote of sorts.”

Meantime, educators and students in cities like Oakland point out that gun violence affects many communities on a daily basis.

“I feel like I would be doing a disservice to my community, not to mention that … for my students, gun violence is a part of our daily lives, regardless of what we hear and see in the news,” said Erin Ronhovde, a third grade teacher at East Oakland Pride Elementary School. “Because a lot of the things they deal with and experience daily don't show up there and are more a part of their immediate reality and the trauma that they're dealing with.”

Oakland, in particular, has seen an alarming rise in violence during the pandemic — recording the biggest jump in murders of any Bay Area city, according to KQED reporting. The reasons behind that spike in violence aren’t simple — what’s more certain is the ongoing disproportionate impact on Black and brown communities, which have long borne the brunt of crime spikes.

“I teach in Oakland. So there are kids who have been through these types of tragedies,” Wilson said. “They've lost relatives to gun violence. Neighbors and friends. So they're used to these kinds of things, but it never makes it easy for them. Never.”

Ronhovde said she advocates for her students and that, in light of this week’s mass shooting, it reinforced her role to protect her students.

“I know, beyond a shadow of a doubt that, if push came to shove, I'd be between the gun and my kids,” she said. “And just the fact that I've had to accept that and make peace with it is a lot.”

Ronhovde remembers rallying with her students in 2018, in response to the shooting that year at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. At the time, thousands of Bay Area students joined their peers nationwide in the March for Our Lives campaign, calling for gun control measures.

“I was looking at those [protest] signs again today and realized we could make those tomorrow,” she said. “We could make those same signs tomorrow without changing a word. And they'd still be just as applicable to this current situation as they were in 2018.”

Goodness Nwakudu, who recently graduated from Oakland Technical High School, says she's thinking about youth activism in light of yet another mass shooting this week at a Texas elementary school. (Courtesy Goodness Nwakudu)

Many young people themselves wonder what their advocacy has resulted in.

Goodness Nwakudu, 17, was in middle school at the time of the 2018 school walkouts. Now this week, she’s just graduated from Oakland Technical High School — and like Peter Wilson with his class of fifth graders, she’s finding it difficult to understand whether she can do anything.

“It's been pretty tough just seeing a lot of issues and shootings, especially just happening over and over and with kids like my age who are either getting killed or the people killing, it makes me feel like, you know, what can I really do to help?” she said.

She adds that community building is key — that fostering communication among teachers, students and elected leaders are strong first steps toward creating a culture that promotes prevention over reactionary violence.

KQED's David Marks contributed to this story.