FEATURE

School Safety and Guns Don’t Mix

Politicians say arming teachers will make schools safer, but educators disagree.
Illustration by Carl Wiens

Ask a school teacher if they want to be armed with a gun at school to protect their students, and you are likely to get, “No way” in response.

Despite opposition from educators, lawmakers continue to insist that arming teachers is an effective way to prevent gun violence at school. Since the deadly shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, which claimed the lives of 17 people, lawmakers in state legislatures across the nation have introduced bills to arm school staff.

In May 2019, Florida passed a new law that would allow teachers to carry guns in their classrooms. There are stipulations: School districts have to approve it, and educators who volunteer for the program must complete a gun-safety course and undergo a psychiatric evaluation and background check. Even with those provisions, Florida educators aren’t happy with the prospect of some of their colleagues becoming default law enforcement officers and potentially harming one of their students—or being heroes.

The new Florida law is a sore spot for educators, particularly those who survived the Parkland shooting in February 2018.

“When it got passed, we were obviously taken aback, as probably, I would say, 95 percent of the staff was against it,” says Jeff Foster, an AP government teacher at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. “Immediately, [our superintendent] and the school board voted to not allow teachers to do it. So as of now, the way the law is written in Florida, the county can deny the funds for arming the teachers. So right now, we’re in no danger of getting armed at all at our school.”

Students and families are anxious as well, and teacher organizations foresee that arming teachers would create outcomes opposite of stated intentions—it would cause more harm.

Time and time again, educators and community members are saying they don’t want this.

And it’s not just a vocal minority. Several studies show that most teachers don’t want to carry firearms at school. Last year, a national poll released by Teach Plus showed that 83 percent of teachers don’t believe educators should be armed at school.

In a statement, Teach Plus notes that they are concerned proposals to arm educators “will militarize our schools” and potentially yield harmful effects. “Building a stronger school security apparatus in our schools might further exacerbate the school-to-prison pipeline,” the statement reads.

The National Parent Teacher Association (PTA) does not support arming teachers, either.

“National PTA believes that all efforts to address school safety must be locally determined, collaborative, include input from all stakeholders (students, parents, families, teachers, school leaders, public safety officials, community members and decision-makers), and take into account a variety of factors, including the physical and psychological safety of students,” says Leslie Boggs, National PTA president, in a statement provided to Teaching Tolerance.

National Education Association President Lily Eskelsen García released a statement calling the arming of teachers “ill-conceived, preposterous, and dangerous.”

And American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten wrote in a letter to President Donald Trump that schools should be “safe sanctuaries, not armed fortresses.”

She added, “The response we have heard is universal, most notably from educators who are gun owners, military veterans and National Rifle Association members: Teachers don’t want to be armed; we want to teach. Our first instinct is to protect kids, not engage in a shootout that would place more children in danger.”

 

Why Arming Educators Is a Bad Idea

Those who oppose arming teachers are quick to point out real-life situations that help demonstrate the danger of having guns on school campuses. Even with training and proper vetting, adults carrying guns in school could have the opposite effect of protection.

In the last five years, more than 70 incidents of guns being mishandled in U.S. schools have been reported, according to data compiled by Giffords Law Center, an organization that explores policies and programs to reduce gun violence. The organization tracks the use of guns in schools and records them in categories that include “discharged unintentionally” and “mishandled during discipline”—and “used in times of personal stress or conflict.”

Teachers don't want to be armed; we want to teach.

The center shares examples from around the country. In Alabama and California, for example, students were struck with bullet fragments after their teachers accidentally fired guns in class. In Missouri, a pair of middle school students stole the gun their teacher brought to school. And the mishandling isn’t just from educators. In Florida, a school resource officer accidentally fired a shot while leaning against a cafeteria wall.

There are just too many risks in arming educators that don’t sit well with many of them. Marjory Stoneman Douglas’s Foster, for example, has a lot of questions.

“Where would you store it?” he asks. “Would you carry it off with you? Would you carry it on you? Would you be responsible for protecting the floor? What if that teacher lost his or her mind on a student and pulled a gun on a student, God forbid, in a non-shooting situation, basically. Or what if a kid tackled a teacher and got the gun from the teacher ... The scenarios are endless as to what could happen. So, I think the majority of us, again, just aren’t that enamored with the idea.”

In addition to mishaps that could lead to bodily harm, teachers also worry that arming adults who might have an implicit bias toward students of color is too big a risk to take. Black and brown students around the country have been vocal about their uneasiness with armed teachers, an anxiety that is heightened by the disproportionate policing of students of color in schools.

Some adults view black boys as young as 10 as less innocent than their white counterparts, according to a 2014 study. Similarly, recent studies show that black girls are also perceived as older, leading to less nurturing and support. Black students are more likely to be punished more severely than their white counterparts for the same behaviors. Biased perceptions, coupled with deadly weapons, leave students of color—and their families—concerned about their safety.

 

How’d We Get Here?

A school should be a safe haven, a place where students are free to learn instead of worry about the threat of violence. But we know that gun violence on campus is becoming a reality for some students today.

According to The Washington Post’s database of school shootings, more than a quarter of a million students have been exposed to gun violence at school in the last 20 years.

In the two decades since the shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado, schools have become increasingly hardened with metal detectors, school resource officers and locked gates. Lockdown and active shooter drills are everyday parts of children’s school experiences.

And a lucrative industry has developed around school safety, from bulletproof whiteboards and backpacks to armored classroom doors. Pro-gun advocates assert that placing guns in teachers’ hands when all else fails could save more lives.

 

Elevating Voices

Foster says it’s imperative to discuss gun violence and safety in schools with students—and it’s a good idea for teachers to read up on local, state and federal gun laws and how they can advocate for their students.

He argues that the very nature of teaching is political and that it’s up to educators to give students the tools to make conscious decisions about issues that affect them now and that they’ll be responsible for as adults.

Before the shooting happened at his school, had he led discussions about access to assault weapons. Not all of his students felt the same way about guns, so he encouraged Socratic discussions in class to explore different perspectives. And he’s watched with pride as some of his students have become publicly vocal anti-gun violence activists over the last year.

Foster himself was thrown into the spotlight when a student, Emma González, mentioned him in speeches in the days following the shooting. With that mention came criticism and even physical threats.

“It’s just incredible how far people will go over such a hot-button issue, obviously,” Foster says. But the flood of anger toward him and his students didn’t keep him from working toward a day when no more children would lose their lives to gun violence.

Outside the classroom, Foster advocates tightening up gun laws in his state. He’s a committee member of Ban Assault Weapons Now, a group with the goal of collecting signatures so Floridians can vote in 2020 to amend their state constitution to ban the sale of assault weapons. “Whatever I can do along the way to aid in this rush to try to change laws, I’m happy to do so,” he says.

Foster says his students’ courage inspires him, and he believes this generation will create lasting change for a safer world. He recommends that other teachers make their voices heard, too—starting at the ballot.

“The best thing we can do is put our votes behind what we believe in,” he says. “If the people want something, it’s up to us to vote those people out if they don’t want to listen to us. … Unfortunately—and I hate being overdramatic—but they just don’t listen to us at all, at every level, every person, every party.”

National PTA members encourage local units to get behind students when they are speaking out on this issue. Boggs, the national organization’s president, says local PTAs can provide support and establish forums to listen to their students’ concerns and causes.

“They want and need to be heard,” she says. “They are the ones living in the current environment in schools, and it is important that we learn from their experience and viewpoint.”

“Student-led activism against gun violence has been an inspiration to all of us,” Boggs says. “National PTA is proud of our youth, and we applaud their leadership on this issue. Their voices are what is going to make the changes needed to ensure students and everyone feel safe, wherever they are.”

Dillard is a staff writer for Teaching Tolerance.

For Educators Who Want Safety Without Guns

Ask questions about your school’s safety plan and provide suggestions on how it can be improved. Work with school officials if your school does not have a safety plan.

 

Meet with local, state and federal decision-makers to communicate what your school needs to be a safe and supportive learning environment. Educators and families should have seats at the table with the team that develops, implements and evaluates school safety policies and procedures.

 

Reach out to teacher advocacy organizations for resources, such as the PTA’s guide.

 

Host a school safety forum. Gather key stakeholders for collaborative decision-making about the school’s safety plan.

 

Encourage and support student activism related to gun violence.

 

Source: National PTA

2 COMMENTS

I totally disagree with every assertion this article and the sources it chooses to cite have to present about arming teachers. Not all teachers hate guns. Sure, arming teachers will not solve the ultimate problem of gun violence in America, but it is a step forward in addressing one of the immediate problems: active shooters. I agree that we need to involve all stakeholders in the process of making our schools "sanctuaries for learning," but we can't forget that mass killings still happen. It's too late to recommend counseling or to fund back-to-school night to foster community support when the guy/gal is in your building doing harm to your kids. Sure, you can argue that an armed teacher is not guaranteed to positively end an active shooting situation; you can be on the other side of the building or even the city, and never even get a chance "to play the hero." But even if there is a five percent or less chance that having a gun in the hands of a good guy can end the violence faster, I will take it. And I despise assertions that teachers are incompetent and would arming them would be a bad idea. If you can trust a teacher to be a child's teacher/counselor/coach/disciplinarian/mentor/nurse/etc. and all the other roles teachers must fulfill in today's world, I think carrying a gun concealed should be a piece of cake. Oh, I can spend hours debunking all the "myths" that arming teachers will lead to certain catastrophe. The one about how a teacher may turn a gun on a misbehaving kid cracks me up; if a teacher is okay with harming a child with any weapon (sharpie, ruler, piece of paper, stapler, scissors, or even gun), they should leave the profession immediately. Duh. Why do we have to paint our teachers is bumbling fools anyway? If we trust teachers with our children's education, society should put some faith in their ability to protect them from a madman
What absolute rubbish. I would rather give myself and my students a fighting chance than cower in a corner behind a poorly secured door a waiting to die. BTW: If strict gun laws worked why are there so many dead and wounded people EVERY weekend in Chicago?