Jeff Foster is a teacher who survived one of the deadliest school shootings in American history. That is a fact, yet some people don’t believe it’s true and that people like Foster are hired actors paid by the government to perpetuate a scam on the public.
Join us for a first-hand account of how these conspiracy theories — especially when repeated by government leaders — affect real people.
Jeff Foster was born in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. He has taught Advanced Placement United States Government and Politics at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida since 2001. His first book, “For Which We Stand” was written to help young readers learn about government and understand how they can make an impact even if they aren’t old enough to vote. With distrust of government growing across the nation, his goal is to engage young people who have a stake in America’s future. His message to his students has always been, “you can’t complain about government if you don’t participate.”
Gabe Howard is an award-winning writer and speaker who lives with bipolar disorder. He is the author of the popular book, “Mental Illness is an Asshole and other Observations,” available from Amazon; signed copies are also available directly from the author.
Gabe makes his home in the suburbs of Columbus, Ohio. He lives with his supportive wife, Kendall, and a Miniature Schnauzer dog that he never wanted, but now can’t imagine life without. To learn more about Gabe, please visit his website, gabehoward.com.
Producer’s Note: Please be mindful that this transcript has been computer generated and therefore may contain inaccuracies and grammar errors. Thank you.
Announcer: You’re listening to Inside Mental Health: A Psych Central Podcast where experts share experiences and the latest thinking on mental health and psychology. Here’s your host, Gabe Howard.
Gabe Howard: Welcome everyone, I’m your host, Gabe Howard, and calling into the show today, we have Jeff Foster. Jeff has taught advanced placement U.S. government and politics at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, since 2001. He’s also a survivor of the Parkland school shooting, which took place on Valentine’s Day, 2018. Jeff, welcome to the show.
Jeff Foster: Thanks for having me, Gabe, I appreciate it.
Gabe Howard: I appreciate you being here, and I want to get this out of the way quickly. Jeff, are you an actor who is paid by anyone to stage the Parkland shooting event and manipulate the public?
Jeff Foster: Um, no, I am not.
Gabe Howard: I can hear the laughter in your voice.
Jeff Foster: I shouldn’t giggle because I taught a lot of the students that were accused of that and got death threats and had all these crazy conspiracy theories thrown out about them. So I really shouldn’t giggle, but it is kind of funny when you hear that. And I remember vividly, Gabe, back when Sandy Hook happened. The same thing obviously was going around and I would be lying if I said I didn’t pause and say, God, would the government actually do that? But seeing it happened to us and having friends call me directly and say things like is David Hogg a real person? Are like, Are you kidding me? But it’s yeah, it’s astonishing that that occurs, that people believe that, that they would think we would go that far, I guess back to the moon landing all the way to the rash of shootings we’ve had over the last multiple decades here in this country. Yeah, it’s wild. That’s the word me and my colleagues say a lot is it’s everything that happened. I mean, it was tragic. It was difficult, but it just everything around it. During, just after, the weeks after, the months after, even the years after, as we approach the 4th anniversary, it’s just the wild assumptions that people have and just made up stories that they have. It’s incredible that these things are out there and it’s even more incredible, possibly that people believe them and take them as truth.
Gabe Howard: It’s laughable to reasonable people because it’s ridiculous, but I do have a tiny amount of compassion for people who believe this because it’s not just and I’m making air quotes wackos on the internet that are making this stuff up. These things are being said by members of government, and I’ve got examples. Benjamin E. Kelley, was a district secretary for Republican State Representative Shawn Harrison, sent an email to the Tampa Bay Times falsely stating that the children in the picture were not students at the school. He was fired, but not before the damage was done. And then former Republican congressman and CNN contributor Jack Kingston suggested student demonstrators were paid by billionaire George Soros or were supported by again quote members of Antifa. And then, in March 2019, eventual Republican Representative for Georgia Marjorie Taylor Greene was filmed heckling and harassing a survivor, David Hogg, as he was walking toward the United States Capitol. And it’s important to point out, in the case of Republican Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, she did this in March 2019 and was elected anyway. This did not cost her the election, literally mocking somebody who is involved in this. So when somebody says, I don’t know, is this made up? It’s not like they’re believing the dark corners of the internet. They’re listening to elected officials and people in power.
Jeff Foster: Sure they are. I mean, even a lot of the talking heads in the various media outlets. It’s akin to what happened on January 6th. The theories about the election fraud and everything else. I mean, it doesn’t matter what anybody says. Their beliefs are set. They have places they want to go to get their information, and they take it as gospel, basically and whatever insert reporter here says, that’s correct. The scary thing about all of this, Gabe, is that none of these people, I don’t want to say none of these people, but a lot of these people, as in the past, where there’s always fact checkers and everything else. When you deal with the internet, you deal with blogs. I mean, you can say whatever you want, and if you’ve got a captive audience, they’re going to believe you. I said this a long time ago to my class and I still preach this all the time. No longer are we in an age where people are getting information, they’re just getting affirmation now. They seek out people that have like beliefs or espouse what they want to hear and they listen to them one day and wow, this person really, you know, he or she gets me. That becomes their go-to news source, whether it’s credible or not.
Gabe Howard: I completely agree with the idea that people are just validating their own feelings with their news, and I’m sort of making air quotes with news because a blog is not supposed to be a news source. Yet, people believe that it is, but putting the focus back on you. How does it make you feel knowing that members of the government are literally calling you a fraud?
Jeff Foster: It’s disturbing. I remember sitting at one of the funerals of one of the students of my school and getting death threats from random phone numbers. I had to report them to the FBI and I thought to myself, like, you know, again, this is still four or five days after the event. So we’re still sort of in that haze of what happened and did it really happen? And my wife was like, Are we in danger? I’m like, I don’t think so, but it’s like, Wow, I just went through a school shooting where 17 people lost their lives, and now, now we’re targets of other people. It’s quite astonishing. Then, to sort of answer your question to hear elected officials that were nowhere near the event. But in the case of Marjorie Taylor Greene, who was, one state away, really our neighbor. My parents, ironically, live in Georgia near her district. And to think that she’s espousing that it didn’t happen and we’re actors or whatever else, it’s again, all I can use is the word incredulous. It’s mind boggling
Gabe Howard: I can’t even figure out why you would have made it up like what you would have gained. But has this caused you trauma? Has this caused you mental health issues? I know you said you got death threats, so that alone would probably do it. But what has been the impact on your mental health just from this BS conspiracy that has cropped up?
Jeff Foster: It’s a constant struggle. It’s just a battle every day. You know, some of us have recovered better than most, but there’s still a lot of people in our community, a lot of people in our school specifically that really struggle day to day with certain things. It doesn’t take much to set them off in terms of just going spiraling downward. And all you can do is as a friend, as a colleague, as just is be there for them and just be an ear sometimes just try to be there for them and I don’t want to say I’m cured or I feel good, or I think I’m at least to a point now where I’ve gotten enough help for myself. My family’s been great and I know my friends and all the people that have all the resources that have helped me that I feel like I can be someone that helps them that are still struggling. Because as I mentioned Gabe, there’s still a lot of people struggling that work in our school, that are just involved with our school. But because on a personal note, I went through a lot of different types of therapy, all sorts of stuff. To sort of get to where I’m at right now, and I think I’m in a decent place. Doesn’t mean I’ve forgotten what happened. It doesn’t mean I don’t think about those people all the time and worry about the people that are still around. But some days are better than others. But the good news is we’re all together still, the majority of us and we try to help each other as much as we can every single day.
Gabe Howard: Where is the denialist side coming from? Why do they think you did this? What was the point? What do you gain?
Jeff Foster: That’s what we continue to ask ourselves, yeah, I guess it’s in the case of this, I believe it’s all tied to the gun issue. They think that the government is purposefully creating these scenarios. I’m playing devil’s advocate acting like I’m one of those people now. So we’ve got the government has gone out of their way to kill elementary school kids and they couldn’t get anything passed. In a fictional world that was the government’s best shot. They just created this hoax in the minds of these people that little children were killed and we beat that back, we thwarted that one. Fast forward a few years and instead of little kids, now let’s give it another shot. Let’s try it at a high school with affluent kids who are smart and can energize and organize themselves and create this movement across the country. Well, shit, they’re more dangerous than in other groups because the other group, they were little kids, they couldn’t speak and their parents were still devastated. But these kids, they’re hellfire and damnation. Let’s see if we can’t defeat this now. So the way to defeat that is to also say that it didn’t happen. It’s sort of, it’s weird because if you put yourself, and I know it’s hard to, in the perspective of those people you’re just seeing again, the government try to create these situations, false flag events. It’s implausible to think that it didn’t happen, but in their mind, they think that the government is just coming up with this massive plan with the ultimate goal to be able to take their guns.
Jeff Foster: It’s all about Second Amendment protection. I mean, if you scare people by telling them you’re going to take something from them, whether it’s their land, whether it’s their guns, whatever else, trying to make them afraid of the boogeyman or whatever else, it’s easy for them to go. All right. Maybe it didn’t happen. Maybe the government did do it. I mean, how can you logically say that the government hired actors, child actors five, six, seven, eight years old and the requisite parents along with them and put on a fake shooting at an elementary school? I mean, it’s, I first heard that. I mean, I pause for a second and I’m like, Are you serious? But then real old friends of mine who called me who aren’t friends of mine anymore.
Jeff Foster: And the literal question, I mean, direct question from my one friend, was does David Hogg really go to your school or is he a guy from California? And I’m like, he’s in my first hour class man. What? What are we talking about? I mean, it’s amazing. I’ve seen Gabe, I’ve seen all of it. I’ve seen the documentaries. I mean, it’s incredible the way they weave these stories together and put the pieces together. And if you’re someone that’s gullible and it’s something that fits your idea of what this evil government might do to try to take away something that you love, in this case guns, I guess you can believe it because I mean, do you have a guess at how many people believe the story? I mean, it’s got to be in the hundreds of thousands, right?
Gabe Howard: It’s a very significant number, yet
Jeff Foster: Right.
Gabe Howard: It is a small, vocal minority.
Jeff Foster: Yes, but even if it’s there, it’s more than five, it’s too many, but we’re talking thousands of people for sure. I would think that’s really the story. You’re right, they’re very vocal. And you know, as I said before, the key thing is with all this, it all hinges on one thing, just to be able to look at the constituency that you’re trying to speak to, to use a government term, and just say this is what the government is after and they will do anything to take that from you. In this case, it’s guns.
Gabe Howard: It’s important to remind our listeners that while it is a small, vocal minority, they’re bolstered by people holding high powered office number one, as we mentioned at the top of the show. But too many people holding top level offices when asked about it, they defer. They won’t say No, it happened. It’s wrong. They just kind of move along. So we sort of have this one two punch, right? Number one, we’ve got people saying it and number two, we don’t have the right people denying it.
Jeff Foster: Correct. That’s true.
Gabe Howard: How do you feel about that? We’ve already discussed the conspiracy theorists, we don’t know what’s wrong with them, but how do you feel about people in authority when asked about it choosing either not to answer or just refusing to say, Look, it happened. They’re wrong. End of conversation, but instead say, Well, you have to understand they’re concerned about X rather than just hard stop. It happened.
Jeff Foster: Well, I think that’s an easy one to explain. That’s just straight they don’t want to lose votes. I mean, the long and the short of it is every politician is scared to death of losing a job. It’s a great job to have. It’s a secure job to have. I assume most of your listeners would know that most of these districts are drawn in a way now to where it’s very hard for the incumbent candidate to lose. It would seem logical just to say, listen, hard stop. Like you said, Stoneman Douglas occurred, but they’re afraid that if they utter, you know, just by ignoring it, they haven’t gone on the record. Although obviously, not saying it, they’re actually saying that it could be a possibility. But this way they protect their jobs. I mean, it’s all about votes just ensuring that they keep their jobs. So whoever is being threatened, the best thing they can do, it seems to be the norm now, is just to scream liar, liar pants on fire, basically like you’re making it up, this is false. In the case of, I mean, I can’t say it’s definitively, but I think there’s some veracity to it. In the case of Marjorie Taylor Greene, that might have helped her win her job in that district, which she lives in.
Gabe Howard: It certainly did not hurt her again.
Jeff Foster: Yeah, right.
Gabe Howard: She’s also gone on record, as with things like QAnon, which believes that lizard people have infiltrated the government. She said a remarkable number of disturbing things while running. The voters knew who they were getting, which is probably a topic for another show altogether. I really want to ask you, though, Jeff, on a personal level and don’t swear, but don’t hold back. How do you feel about these people? If you could get them in a room and they had to listen to you? What would you say to them?
Jeff Foster: I would probably talk about what we just spoke of like, where I believe it comes from and if they can look me in the eye and tell me that they’re not just creating again, this government boogeyman because they’re afraid that they’re going to take something that they covet, that they love, then what is the reasoning? I would just love to hear them. And then after, you know, allowing them to tell me why. On a personal note, like why our school did not happen? Or how we staged it? To be able to tell them exactly where I was that day, what happened that day. The people that I knew that day that have passed, the funerals I went to, you know, these are all real things that occurred. And the fact that I would actually have to mount evidence is amusing to think about. That’s probably what I would do. I mean, as much as I’d like to go around the room and head butt every single one of them and tell them, what they’re doing is so damaging to our nation that would probably just embolden them to say, See, this guy is that’s why he’s resorting to violence now. So it’s an uphill battle, that’s for sure. It’s sad that again, these elected officials can’t just say, You know what? We’ve seen enough evidence. We’ve talked to enough people that this did occur. Let’s stop this. Let’s stop this nonsense that this mass shooting didn’t happen.It really is just mind numbing that these theories persist, that actually believe that we’re just idiots like we’re going to honor the day, you know, on the 14th of February. And I mean, they think like four years later, we’re still just doing this just for show? Like, it’s amazing.
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Gabe Howard: And we’re back with teacher Jeff Foster who survived the Parkland school shooting. What I’m about to ask is not about a conspiracy theory, but I think it’s equally ridiculous, and in many circles, they believe that the solution to this problem is to give teachers guns. And in fact, within a few weeks of the Parkland shooting, Florida’s governor signed bills that allowed a provision for arming teachers. What are your thoughts on this?
Jeff Foster: We’ve had a lot of conversations with this, you know, our county turned that down. In the individual counties, the superintendents were able to decide. There are some counties in Florida that do have, I believe it’s called the sentry program, where they have been training teachers to carry guns. So for instance, our campus is a sort of like a college campus, it is a very big campus, 10 – 11 different buildings, the doors lead outside. I mean, a large campus. So in the case of our school, when we were actually talking about it because, you know, again, we were in the middle of it, I did many an interview with news channels and many discussion with, I sat on a couple of panels talking about it with other counties that were doing, sheriffs, et cetera. And obviously, first and foremost, you’d have to have teachers that would want to sign up. And I could tell you of the 200 plus staff at our school. It was probably about 20 percent that were willing to maybe give it a shot. And what they were going to try to do to dangle the carrot is to pay you extra money to do this. So first off, teachers are obviously looking for more money just like every other job. But I don’t think it’s the greatest idea to arm people that maybe don’t have the ability to handle weapons. Just say, Hey, here’s $2,000, why don’t you get yourself trained to handle a weapon.
Jeff Foster: Again, we didn’t do it in our county, so we never had the option to do it. But the things that came up would be, let’s say if me, Jeff Foster, is one of the people carrying the gun. What I understood about the law is that the kids would know you have the gun, but there would be enough people with guns in every area of the school to where if a shooter were in any quadrant of the school, there would be enough opportunity for someone to come out and then quote unquote save the day. Our first thought was we had a police officer, a school resource officer on campus who froze that day, who didn’t do the job of thwarting the assailant’s attempt, basically, to gun down every kid at our school. And he was like a 30 year veteran on the police force. So what he did, why he did it is still a mystery. But here’s a trained officer whose job is to protect people, and he didn’t do it. So it’s we’re, we’re all kind of hard pressed to believe if you train me for two months on how to handle a firearm and what to do and the proper technique and blah blah blah that A) would I be able to carry that out and B) would I be willing to do it when actually push came to shove?
Jeff Foster: And again, where would you keep it? Would you keep it in the closet? Would you keep it in your body? Would you keep it in a drawer? What if the kids find out that Mr. Foster is a gun carrier and they decide to try to find it and steal it or do whatever? So it’s a bad idea. It’s a bad idea. When it went at first, when the idea came out, we were, as the most recent school at the time to go through the most horrific shooting in the country’s history, we were willing to listen to anything. But then as we started to sort through it, I think ninety five percent of us were like, No, this isn’t for us. After the shooting at our school, we had a glutton of school resource officers working in our school. We still have a lot of security, we’ve changed a lot of the protocols at our school, but sadly at the same time, Gabe. If someone wants to go to any campus in the country and do this again, it’s going to happen. I mean, it’s very hard to stop someone from a mass shooting. I mean, it’s not that hard regardless of the security in place to slip onto the campus and bring a gun in your backpack, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. Unless we get to a complete police state.
Jeff Foster: I feel safe in our school. But if someone were hell bent, determined to do the same thing that happened four years ago, I’m unfortunately, I’m fairly certain they could be have some, some success in achieving what the, I don’t like to name the other person that did what he did, but the other assailant did to our schools. So I’m not trying to be prophetic. I’m not trying to scare anybody, but it’s very difficult to stop a determined person with a gun from doing something heinous.
Gabe Howard: When I think about the concept of arming teachers, I think about a few things. And one of the biggest ones I think about is, are teachers really for this? Once again, why is the solution always give teachers more work?
Jeff Foster: Yeah, I mean, there’s a lot on educators already, and now you want to add this in the mix. No, it’s not a good idea. And I say unequivocally, even if they said, Hey, you know, we’ll give you an extra $10,000 if you do this, I just wouldn’t do it. I mean, it’s the same reason why I don’t have a gun in my house. You know, it’s hard to have a shooting in your house if there’s no gun in your house, you know what I mean? So everybody that was there that day that I’ve spoken to about this because again, we had many of these conversations, as you can imagine for the weeks and months afterwards, because it was hot in the news in Florida especially, we were pretty unified that we thought it was a bad idea. We said, let’s leave it up to the trained professionals. If there was ideas of bringing former retired armed services people. You know, in the county, I live in Palm Beach County, which is one county north of Broward, where I work, where Douglas is. They didn’t have school resource officers in every school before our shooting. Now they do, now it’s a requirement. But again, we had a police officer at our school and you saw what happened, so it doesn’t guarantee anything.
Gabe Howard: I’m fascinated by being gung ho on giving teachers guns because it didn’t help Fort Hood.
Jeff Foster: No.
Gabe Howard: This is a military base with soldiers who are going to receive way more training than teachers and are also, they’re soldiers. So, you know, they’re of a certain age. You know, teachers
Jeff Foster: Yes. Yes.
Gabe Howard: That we all know the story of the 65 year old coffee breath teacher. I’m not.
Jeff Foster: Right.
Gabe Howard: Teachers are all ages and all physical fitness. Soldiers, they all have the same haircut, for Pete’s sake.
Jeff Foster: Sure.
Gabe Howard: All joking aside, fatally shot 13 people on a military base. But yet the teachers are going to perform better in a school with less training than soldiers? And also with children. Remember, children are running around. Children were not running around the military base. I think that alone proves that this plan is nonsense, and it’s just shifting the focus from what we have going here and putting the onus on the teachers.
Jeff Foster: Right, right, I mean, it makes zero sense, it’s like I said before with the Fort Hood example, I mean, again, bad people with bad intentions are usually going to be successful, unfortunately.
Gabe Howard: Jeff, thank you so much for sitting down with me and taking the time, I really, really appreciate it.
Jeff Foster: Of course.
Gabe Howard: Where can folks find you online and tell us about your book?
Jeff Foster: It’s called “For Which We Stand: How Our Government Works and Why It Matters.” And it’s a book that is geared towards late elementary school kids through middle school kids, although they’re using it in high schools as well now. And it’s basically just a really well illustrated. The illustrator was amazing on the book, and I basically took my years of teaching and just put it down in a 163 page textbook for lack of a better word. And it just teaches chapter by chapter how the government works and why it matters. And I’m most proud of the end, which talks about how you can become active in government. And that is the main reason that I wrote it, you know, to sort of watch these kids that I taught inspire future generations. We have the ability to change laws and a lot of people don’t realize this. And we, as citizens, can raise awareness for things. We, as citizens, can hopefully get things passed in a way that benefits the majority of Americans. The book’s available on Amazon and everywhere else. I don’t have a website because after what happened with the events, there was a lot that occurred that scared me and my family a little bit and definitely, it was a little frightening to kind of put yourself out there. So I was happy to work with Scholastic on the book. I’m very proud of the book. It’s doing very well and I appreciate them. It gives me the opportunity to try to inform. I just lay out what happens, why it happens, how it happens and what you can do to make a difference.
Gabe Howard: Thank you again, so much for being here, I really appreciate it.
Jeff Foster: Thank you, I appreciate it, too, man. Good meeting you.
Gabe Howard: Well, you are very welcome, and a big thank you to all of our listeners as well. My name is Gabe Howard and I am the author of “Mental Illness Is an Asshole and Other Observations,” as well as an award winning public speaker who may be available for your next event. My book is on Amazon, because everything is. Or you can grab a signed copy with free show swag or learn more about me by heading over to t gabehoward.com. Wherever you downloaded this episode, please follow or subscribe to the show. It’s absolutely free. And hey, can you do me a favor? Recommend the show to a friend, family or colleague. I’d appreciate it. You can do it word of mouth, text messaging, email, whatever works for you. I will see everybody next Thursday on Inside Mental Health.
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