Sending children back to school in the fall can be an emotional rollercoaster for most parents — especially after a string of school shootings in the last year that has made the yearly tradition feel downright overwhelming.
“My daughter was in kindergarten last year and she knew that her place in ‘lockdown drills’ was by the toilet in the classroom bathroom, and that she had to wait till the administrators banged on the doors, and that she had to be quiet," Cassie Arnold, an arts educator and mom of three living in Texas, tells Yahoo Life, lamenting the fact that school shootings have become normalized. "She wasn't fazed by it. She was just like, well, this is what we do.”
Arnold — in order to jumpstart important conversations about school gun violence, and to coincide with the return to school — decided to use her skills as an artist to create School Uniform (Bulletproof Dress), an outfit worn by her middle child in a photo for social media.
Made entirely of Kevlar — the same heat-resistant synthetic material found in most bulletproof vests — Arnold spent weeks sewing the dress (which is not actually fully bulletproof, but created instead to be a statement).
In an Instagram post showcasing the artistic creation, Arnold made clear she doesn't want to "normalize" the idea of kids wearing bulletproof anything to school on a regular basis. Instead, she aims to create a "civil conversation" around gun safety in schools through art.
“I was pregnant with my oldest when Sandy Hook happened,” Arnold, who tends to find inspiration for her work from a deeply personal place, explains of the 2012 Elementary school shooting that killed 27 people, including 20 children. “I remember having a total emotional breakdown while in the middle of teaching. I called my partner and was like, ‘We can't have this baby.’ He was like, ‘Well, it's gonna happen.’ I was like, ‘We can't bring a baby into this world where people are shooting up elementary schools.’”
Arnold is far from alone with such fears. Recent studies have shown a rise in anxiety among teens and adults over safety concerns at school, following an uptick of shootings. The tragedy in Uvalde, Texas, in May, which left 19 children and two teachers dead, was the final straw for Arnold.
“When it happened, I was so fired up,” she says. “It was the last week of school for my kids and I was in that crossfire — 'I don't want to send my kids to school, but we can't live in fear. So you have to go to school.'”
Arnold channeled that anger to create the dress in hopes that she might engage legislators in Texas, where more guns are purchased than in any other state. In fact, 150,464 firearms were bought in June alone, a 17% increase from the month prior (likely in response to the Uvalde shooting), according to data from the FBI.
“The biggest hope is that we can keep the conversation going,” Arnold says. “The dress can create a conversation — not just a nonpartisan conversation — and allow us to come to an equal playing field. We need to protect our babies.”
She adds, "We need to not live in fear, but start channeling that fear into action."
Another purpose behind the dress was to inform the public that teachers bear the heaviest burden of keeping our children safe — a role Arnold considers unjust, given the fact that 70% of Texas teachers are vastly underpaid and on the verge of quitting.
“Elections are happening in November so we have to have this conversation as kids go back to school, as our educators are underpaid,” she says. “We're in a huge crisis with the shortage of teachers right now. We're asking teachers to be counselors and parents and educators, and all the things, and now we're expecting them to protect our kids [from school shooters].”
Perhaps the most telling part of the whole process, Arnold explains, was how many other parents requested she make similar "bulletproof" outfits for their little ones. But those parents are missing the point, she says.
“I knew that some parents may be looking at the [dress], knowing it's an art piece, but still being scared,” she says. “I did get private messages [from parents] going, ‘Are you going to mass produce these?’ ‘Is there any place where we can buy these?’ I was like, ‘No, no, no.’ And then we would have the same conversation of, like, we’re just scared to send our kids to school.”
As more gun activists and parents start pressuring lawmakers to enact stricter gun laws, Arnold says that, in tandem, we must also encourage artists to use their talents to convey hard truths on such topics in more accessible ways.
“What has come of my work in the past few years is that a lot of people have the same feelings and are too ashamed to talk about them,” she says of her art. “And so, if that can come out of creating more work, where we can process and also have conversations, then I hope that forevermore, art will be in our world to bring people together."
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