By Will Foster ’20
The school shooting last month in Parkland, Florida, set off yet another round of public debate over gun control, including school walkouts at Payton and around the nation on the morning of March 14. Conservatives opposed to further firearms regulation quickly floated an alternative proposal: arming teachers.
Many have cringed at the idea of teachers carrying guns at school. Payton students and teachers worry that more guns could result in unintended consequences, from accidental discharges to an enhanced sense of tension and fear.
In a school filled with firearms, “I would feel less safe,” explained Sophie Ishiwari ‘19. Arlene Viciedo ‘18 agreed. “There would be more possibilities for things to go wrong, and I don’t trust that teachers would act best under pressure in that kind of situation,” she said. Rather, she suggested, America needs “better gun reform.” Viciedo does not support “completely outlawing guns,” but said she thinks a compromise should be reached.
Noa Goldman ‘18 took a more radical stance. “Guns shouldn’t be sold at all,” he said. “Even paintball is too violent!” Goldman suggested increased availability of mental health services in schools and a gun buyback program as ways to counter school shootings and gun violence in general.
Judith Watkins of the Payton security team, which is not armed, suggested that if there were to be armed individuals at schools, they should be uniformed police officers, not teachers. “Leave the arms to the professionals,” she said. “Teachers have enough to worry about … Who’s going to take on that responsibility? The military trains for that, but shooting isn’t part of the job for teachers.”
School shootings are actually not very common. David Ropeik, a Harvard instructor who studies risk perception, wrote in the Washington Post that “[t]he chance of a child being shot and killed in a public school is … far lower than almost any other mortality risk a kid faces, including traveling to and from school, catching a potentially deadly disease while in school or suffering a life-threatening injury playing interscholastic sports.”
A recent study at Northeastern University came to virtually the same conclusion. In part for this reason, the study’s author called the suggestion to arm teachers “absurd” and “over the top,” suggesting that the rarity of school shootings makes it not worth implementing major measures targeted solely at preventing school shootings (that does not, however, rule out measures that could impact gun violence in general, such as bump stock bans and age restrictions for the purchase of certain high-powered rifles).
After the Parkland shooting, President Donald Trump was among those advocating for arming teachers. As reported by Politico, he surmised that “a teacher would have shot the hell out of [the Parkland shooter] before he knew what happened.” Some schools, mostly in the South and West, already allow qualified teachers to carry concealed weapons at school, according to CNN and Politico. These schools are mainly located in rural areas where a police response could be very slow. The program has apparently been popular where it has been implemented, with some students telling CNN that they felt safer.
As one example, Texas has a program to train and arm school staff members who volunteer as “school marshals.” Participants undergo background checks, psychological evaluations, and an 80-hour training course. Marshals typically keep their guns in a lockbox, and are only authorized to fire them in an active shooter situation. The identity of marshals is not revealed to students or parents, so that gunmen cannot target them. The program has not been very widely adopted, however — fewer than 50 of Texas’ 1,300 school districts have a marshal. There have been no mass shootings in Texas schools since the marshal program began in 2013. Supporters of the program thus argue that it has been a deterrent.
In Ohio and Colorado, private organizations have raised money to offer firearms training to teachers at no cost, according to PBS and the New York Daily News. In Maryland on March 20, a high school resource officer shot a 17-year-old gunman (CNN reports that it is still unclear whether the gunman was killed by the officer’s shot or committed suicide upon seeing him). The killer had already shot and injured two students, but the officer’s quick action very well may have saved lives. Many in favor of armed school employees pointed to the incident as ostensibly illustrating how a “good guy with a gun” can save lives, according to ThinkProgress.
Even proponents of arming teachers acknowledge that the policy only makes sense in places where it has near-universal support among the school community. As one Texas superintendent whose district has a teacher-arming program told Politico, “It’s just based on the needs of our community, the wishes of our school board. I think if there’s not parental support for it, it’s not going to be effective.”
At Payton, there is clearly little support for arming teachers. “I think there are enough things for students to worry about without having their teachers carrying guns in class,” said social studies teacher Luis Menacho. “If some teachers can’t even park between the lines in the parking lot,” he joked, “do you really want them shooting a gun?”
The danger of firearm accidents was cast into stark relief recently when a reserve police officer teaching about gun safety at a California high school accidentally fired his gun at a classroom ceiling, causing one student minor injuries from falling debris or bullet fragments, according to the Washington Post.
Payton math teacher Virginia Roach highlighted another issue: “If we’re training teachers to defend against school shooters, then statistically what we are talking about is training people in a crowd of panicked children to face a shooter who is also statistically most likely to be a child,” she said. “Let me emphasize: we are training teachers—people who work with children all day, every day—to shoot armed children. It takes years of intense psychological training to condition a soldier to kill another human, and now we’re going to ask our teachers to undergo this same de-sensitizing and traumatic training while they work alongside children all day long? … Will teachers—like soldiers and police—need to distance themselves from their students so that they are more easily able to fire at them if needed?”
Roach also noted possible racial-profiling concerns: “Will there be anti-racist training for teachers to ensure that guns aren’t disproportionately used against children of color, as they are by the police?”
Dr. Erica Bauer, Payton’s Director of Student Engagement, said that she “would not want to be armed as a faculty member. As an administrator, there are a number of protocols we implement to ensure school safety to the best of our ability,” she added. “Arming teachers would necessitate additional safety protocols to ensure student safety with the presence of firearms in the building. Currently, we do not have enough faculty to manage the potential risks that emerge with introducing firearms onto campus as a safety measure. From that perspective, I think any discussion about arming teachers cannot take place without the discussion about the additional safety measures, faculty, and budget funds needed to manage such a policy.”
Payton chemistry instructor Walt Kinderman said that he does not support arming teachers because “the research on this topic shows that more guns equates to more deaths.” He cited a Vox article that provides data in support of this claim.
A recent CBS News poll found that 65 percent of Americans favor stricter regulations on firearms commerce, while 44 percent support arming more teachers. Ultimately, Roach perhaps best summed up the Payton community’s attitude toward training teachers to be armed: “There are so many issues with the idea of arming our teachers, and it is mind-boggling to me that anyone would suggest arming teachers in response to the school shooting epidemic that plagues our nation,” she said. “No one is qualified to design this training, and no teacher should ever have to undergo that.”