A Florida teacher who was fired from his school after asking his students to write their own obituaries in advance of an on-campus active shooter drill says he has no regrets about the assignment that cost him his job.
“It wasn’t to scare them or make them feel like they were going to die, but just to help them understand what’s important in their lives and how they want to move forward with their lives and how they want to pursue things in their journey,” the dismissed psychology teacher, Jeffrey Keene, told NBC News.
Keene’s dismissal once again has cast a spotlight on the persistently bizarre decisions within the public education system of Florida, which has banned discussions of gender and sexual identity in classrooms but whose Republican extremist governor, Ron DeSantis, staunchly supports keeping the guns which help fuel school shootings across the country as accessible as possible.
According to NBC, Keene learned that his 11th- and 12th-grade students at Dr Phillips high school in the Orlando area would be rehearsing how to respond to a shooting attack at their campus during their first period on 4 April. That prompted him to ask his students to write their own biographical obituaries as classwork, reasoning that the assignment would cause them to reflect on their lives as they prepared to undergo the active shooter drill.
“This isn’t a way to upset you or anything like that,” Keene recalled telling his class of 35 students. He added: “If you can’t talk real to them, then what’s happening in this environment?”
Just one week earlier, an intruder shot and killed three nine-year-old students as well as three staffers at Covenant elementary school in Nashville, Tennessee. Police shot and killed the intruder. The attack was one of more than 100 shootings at kindergarten through 12th-grade schools or during school-related activities in the US this year as of Saturday, according to the K-12 School Shooting Database resource.
The murders at Covenant also occurred during what as of Saturday was one of more than 140 mass shootings in the US this year, according to the Gun Violence Archive, which defines a mass shooting as one in which at least four victims are wounded or killed.
It later became apparent that someone was upset by Keene’s assignment. By second period that day, Keene said some of his students revealed to him that they had been interviewed by school officials about the obituaries. And in the middle of seventh period, he was told that he’d been fired from his job, which he had started in January.
The public school district which oversees Dr Phillips high has largely declined to discuss the case. A spokesperson for the district only told NBC in a statement that an employee responsible for “an inappropriate assignment about school violence” had been fired.
Keene said to NBC that he was too new of a hire to qualify for membership to the local teachers’ union, so he had no administrative method available to seek reinstatement to his job. The school district’s statement also noted that Keene was still completing his post-hiring probation, implying that his dismissal could be implemented more swiftly than for a teacher who had finished the trial period.
Keene hopes to find another job in teaching and believes his assignment was appropriate, according to NBC.
“I don’t think I did anything incorrectly,” Keene told the network. “I honestly didn’t think a 16-, 17-, 18-year-old would be offended or upset by talking about something we’re already talking about.”
The steady presence of mass shootings and violence at schools in US news headlines has moved many to call for more meaningful gun control, but Congress has been unable to pass anything substantial, even as schools acknowledge their vulnerability by making students practice what to do if heavily armed intruders barge onto their campuses and try to shoot them to death.
A bill passed by Congress and signed into law by Joe Biden last year expanded background checks for the youngest gun buyers and funded some mental health and violence intervention programs. But the president is among many who say much stronger measures are needed, including an assault weapons ban that Congress has been unable to pass.
Three days after the Nashville school murders and five days before Keene lost his job, Florida’s Republican-controlled legislature voted to allow gun owners to carry around their firearms without a state permit.
They did so at the behest of DeSantis, who has also successfully advocated for a legislative ban against classroom discussions of systemic racism, saying the concept joined learning about sexual and gender identity as one of the biggest threats to Florida’s schoolchildren.
Florida’s 22 million or so residents make it the country’s third-most populous state.
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