“If only the teacher or principal had a gun…” In the one year-plus since the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary, staunch gun rights advocates have promoted this scenario to lobby feverishly for the training and arming of school faculty. While many districts have implemented constructive measures to improve school safety – sharpening emergency response procedures, a greater focus on bullying prevention and a renewed interest in mental health services – many lawmakers and school board members have banged the drum to bring even more guns into the schools.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, more than 30 states in 2013 considered proposals to provide training and firearms to school staff. In March, South Dakota became the first to actually pass a bill allowing educators to carry concealed weapons. Six other states – Alabama, Arkansas, Kansas, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Texas – soon followed suit. Individual school districts have taken advantage of weak local gun laws and adopted their own policies to train and arm faculty.
Bill Bond, a school safety expert with the National Association of Secondary School Principals, disputes the premise that supplying educators with guns would help neutralize dangerous situations.
Bond speaks from experience. In December 1997, he was principal of Heath High School in Paducah, Kentucky when a student opened fire and killed three students and wounded five others.
“I’ve lived through this. Giving teachers and principals guns, training then as armed guards, is not how we should be focusing our resources to improve school safety,” Bond says.
The push to put guns in the hands of educators isn’t going to stop anytime soon, according to Bond.
“In many state legislatures and school boards, this is a very big deal. And it’s gaining a little momentum. Teachers and principals don’t want it, but that hasn’t stopped a lot of politicians.”
Last week, a Nebraska lawmaker re-introduced legislation that would permit staff to carry a concealed weapon in school. Bill 879, introduced by Sen. Mark Christensen, would apply to public and private schools, along with colleges and universities.
Educators are pushing back. Nancy Fulton, president of the Nebraska State Education Association, said categorically that there was “zero interest” on the part of teachers and education support professionals in her state to arm educators. The Colorado Education Association’s opposition helped scuttle similar legislation in 2013, although lawmakers have plans to reintroduce the bill in the wake of the recent shooting in Littleton.
“Guns have no place in our schools, period,” says National Education Association President Dennis Van Roekel. “Lawmakers at every level of government should dismiss this dangerous idea and instead focus on measures that will create the safe and supportive learning environments our children deserve.”
A 2013 NEA national survey found that only 22 percent of its members favored proposals to allow teachers and other school employees to receive firearms training and allow them to carry guns in schools, while 68 percent were opposed.
Countless law enforcement and school safety experts believe schools that arm their staff are inviting an unacceptable level of risk. Guns could be secured by students, or a manageable situation could easily turn deadly, for example. Proponents argue that staff would undergo extensive training to avoid these kinds of incidents, but critics respond that educators aren’t in school to be armed guards and no amount of training is going to change that.
“Suggesting that by providing staff with 8, 16, 40, or even 60 hours of firearms training on firing, handling, and holstering a gun somehow makes a non-law enforcement officer suddenly qualified to provide public safety services is a high-risk to the safety of students, teachers, and other school staff,” said Ken Trump, president of National School Safety and Security Services.
The potential for an accident or a misjudgment was an overriding concern at a recent hearing in northern Idaho where a local school board is considering a measure to arm school staff. Social Studies teacher Tyler Haynes told the board that one bad decision or impulse by a member of the staff could easily result in an unnecessary injury or death.
“That frightens me, and I would hate to see something that’s designed to make more people safe or secure turn into our first real tragic situation in our schools,” Haynes explained.
Bill Bond also urges elected officials to consider how arming educators could degrade a school’s learning environment.
“Teachers are in schools to teach. When you ask them to be security guards, you are distracting them from their jobs. Not one minute of the school day will go by when that teacher isn’t thinking about that weapon he or she is carrying,” says Bond. “And what kind of message are we sending the kids? Educators are often their ultimate role model. Some students may think that carrying a weapon is the right thing to do.”
“We’re all looking for a solution to an horrendous problem and I’m afraid – especially with the issue of arming educators – people just aren’t looking at all the ramifications.”