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“U & I in Union:” Helping Members “Get Through a Tragedy”

Abbey Clements (above, right) teaches fourth grade students at Head O’Meadow (HOM) Elementary School in Newtown, the community where she has worked for 14 years. She and her fellow educators “take a team approach” to “enrich student learning and help them get any extra help they need.”
Clements previously taught second grade students at Sandy Hook Elementary School, and credits HOM’s veteran staff for mentorship and guidance in order to ease her transition.
“It takes a long time to get used to a new grade,” she said, adding that she is “grateful to my colleagues who gave me their ‘tips of the trade.'”
A building representative for our AFT Connecticut-affiliated Newtown Federation of Teachers, Clements believes that supporting fellow educators is both “a big responsibility and an honor.” Since the shooting at Sandy Hook in December of 2012, she has demonstrated that dedication through her advocacy and activism.
“After the grief and the trauma, I can bring a message as someone that was lucky enough to survive,” Clements said.
That was Clements’ mission when in April she joined her local union president, Tom Kuroski (above, left), for a trip to Marjory Stoneman Douglas (MSD) High School in Parkland, FL. The community was still in the early stages of recovery from a shooting three months earlier in which 17 students and staff were killed.
The visit was Kursoksi’s second with MSD educators and leaders of the Broward Teachers Union (BTU). He previously traveled to Parkland two days after the tragedy at the request of AFT national president Randi Weingarten.
Click here for local reporting on Kuroski’s initial visit with BTU members.
Serving in union leadership since the Sandy Hook shooting has made Kuroski “part of a fraternity no one ever wanted to be part of.” It’s a role that he “takes seriously,” adding that it is essential to his own ongoing personal recovery. 
“It’s about having a plan in place so that when this happens again, we have the resources and the capability to help members get through a tragedy,” Kuroski said.
Our national union had coordinated similar efforts in the aftermath of the violence at Sandy Hook. First, New York City teachers whose students lost family members in the September, 2001 terrorist attacks came to the community to provide comfort. Then, Columbine, CO educators who witnessed the massacre of colleagues and children in the April, 1999 school shooting traveled to Newtown to offer hope.
“Their love and support was one community reaching out to another,” said Clements. “We wanted to continue that same relationship for the staff in Parkland,” she said, adding that their teachers are “incredible heroes, just walking into their school every day.” 
Click here for photos of Clements and Kuroski meeting with BTU members.
In recognition of their experience and volunteerism, both Clements and Kuroski have since been tapped to play leadership roles in our national union’s gun sense advocacy.
“I’m looking forward to working on the ‘proactive’ side,” said Kuroski of his appointment as co-chair of AFT’s gun violence prevention (GVP) committee. He added that he intends to draw from his experience “on the ‘reactive and recovery’ sides to create the environment we need to have,” he added.
Clements said she was “one of the many voices encouraging our union to get more involved” in demanding lawmakers enact commonsense policies to curb gun violence. As an AFT GVP Committee member, she was invited to testify in opposition to President Trump’s proposal to arm teachers.
At the first public listening session of the Federal Commission on School Safety Clements in June said “we cannot fight this epidemic by arming more people.” As an educator, union member and gun violence survivor she urged officials instead act to protect students and staff “with reason, not by militarizing our schools.”
Click here for Clements’ blog post based on her testimony.
While he hopes such resources won’t be needed for any further school shootings, Kuroski believes they epitomize our national, state and local unions’ collective commitment to a better future. He said they show the “continued connectedness” among members, not just in communities like Newtown, but “across the country and wherever these kinds of initiatives can help.”
Click here to watch Clements and Kuroski share more on their union’s support in recovery from tragedy — and how they’re “paying it forward.”
Clements’ personal journey from survivor to activist demonstrates how, by lifting each other up, we can tap the strength needed to tackle even the most seemingly insurmountable obstacles. Kuroski’s experience providing leadership in the darkest of times illustrates why all members benefit from having a support network to rely on, even if they’ll never need it.
Click here for more on our “U & I in Union” campaign to cement the solidarity that binds our movement.

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