Teacher from Stamford to walk out on job at Darien High unless Congress bans assault rifles
STAMFORD — Jennifer Ladd would like to be known as a dangerous woman, not because she wants to inflict harm but because she wants to stop it.
The Stamford resident, who teaches high school history in Darien, plans to walk out of her job on April 20, a national day of action against gun violence, unless Congress has by then banned assault weapons, instituted universal background checks and taken other measures to protect students from mass murderers.
This month’s killing of 14 Florida high school students and three educators by a disturbed 19-year-old with an AR-15 rifle was as much as she will take, Ladd said.
“I can’t live with it anymore,” she said.
Because Congress is unlikely to act, and Connecticut does not allow teachers to strike, she probably will be fired, said Ladd, who takes her inspiration from Mother Jones, the early-20th century schoolteacher who was called “the most dangerous woman in America” for her success in defending laborers, including children, against workplace injustice.
“I feel like I’m in a position where I could put my job on the line, and it’s my responsibility to do that,” said Ladd, 40, a married mother of two who has taught at Darien High School for 12 years.
The ultimate would be for all teachers to walk out, she said, “but that’s a really tall order. Most teachers cannot afford to do that.”
She has a retirement fund from her days working in the finance industry and can join her husband’s health-insurance plan, she said.
“It’s not ideal, but we’re prepared,” she said. “I feel like there’s no other way.”
There’s been “no movement” since 20 first-graders and six educators were slaughtered at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown more than five years ago, Ladd said.
“It’s on your mind daily. You work it into the way you think about your day — locking into the school, memorizing where the exits are, thinking about how you would pull kids out of hallways, where to hide them to save them,” she said. “If I thought organizing a march, or starting a group to elect certain people would work, I would do that. But I think people will — just like I did — go about our business, sad and angry and frustrated, and nothing will change.”
So on Monday she wrote her students a letter. She reminded them how she’d taught them about Henry David Thoreau and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “who used civil disobedience to force the government to reconsider its support of unjust laws.”
It’s time for her to make a stand, Ladd told her students.
“They were stunned. They asked a lot of questions. I’ve told them how much I love my job so they wanted to know how I could do this,” Ladd said. “A lot were supportive. Some said they don’t agree with me, that owning an assault weapon is a person’s right. I told them I am not trying to convince them, I am just telling them what I will do.”
Her classroom reflects the intractable argument over guns in America, where some believe military-style weapons must be outlawed, and others think more people must be armed.
Scott Wilson is president of the Connecticut Citizens Defense League, a statewide grassroots organization that supports gun rights.
“Most of these shootings are happening in schools and other gun-free zones,” Wilson said, and teachers such as Ladd “should be concerned with the fact that lawmakers and policy makers have left her a soft target in this type of environment.”
The nation “can pass all the laws we want but criminals, especially those intent on murder, are not going to follow the law,” Wilson said. “In our view there need to be better safety procedures in schools to prevent people from getting in … we like the idea that some faculty members, including teachers, that receive proper training and pass the proper background checks can be trained to stop an attack as it happens.”
His organization respects life, Wilson said, and “gun-free zones are a false utopia that protect no one.”
All on the line
Ladd said she thinks many teachers would leave the profession before arming themselves. A fellow teacher, Stamford native Matt Pavia, who has taught with Ladd at Darien High for a decade, agreed.
It’s “incredibly frustrating” that Congress took no action after Sandy Hook, Pavia said.
“It’s very sad to stand in your room a day after a shooting, and the kids want to talk about it and you want to tell them they are safe, but you know in your heart you can’t,” Pavia said. “I think what (Ladd) is doing is a long shot, but really admirable. If you believe something is wrong and you have the power to do something, then doing something is better than doing nothing.”
It comes straight from the American Studies classes he and Ladd taught together, Pavia said.
“It’s the American story of the power of the individual to create his own life, bring about change, and determine his destiny — sometimes through civil disobedience and dissent,” Pavia said. “Those people often are thought of as radical or dangerous. But history shows that the only time important change happens is when a few individuals are willing to put everything on the line for what they believe in.”
Ladd wrote to the students of Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., who are organizing rallies and confronting politicians about banning assault rifles. She contacted Connecticut’s two senators, Chris Murphy and Richard Blumenthal, both Democrats and outspoken advocates of gun restrictions, to enlist their help.
“I want to sound the alarm,” Ladd said. “My biggest hope is that other teachers hear about it, think about it, consider it. Maybe some of them will walk out elsewhere.”