Mass school shootings in the U.S. have left 169 students dead since April 1999 when two Columbine students killed 12 of their peers and one teacher at the school in Littleton, Colorado, and injured many others before killing themselves. Chants of “thoughts and prayers” abounded then and today over the horrible killing of nineteen fourth-grade children and two teachers in Uvalde, Texas.
There are many proposals to stop the carnage, with many focused on gun policies such as requiring background checks, regulating the sale of guns at gun shows, and passing “red flag laws” that allow police agencies, family members and others to petition that a gun to be taken from someone they believe has become dangerous. Proposals to reform gun policies are neither new nor few. There are currently over 110 gun bills on the desks of members of Congress.
Perhaps the most controversial proposal is to remove any federal bans on possessing a handgun at a school and to provide funds for teachers and staff to be trained and carry firearms. This proposal goes hand-in-hand with the call by Texas Senator Ted Cruz (R) to harden soft targets like elementary schools. The solution, he believes, is “to have one door into and out of the school–armed police officers at that door–if that (had) happened in (Uvalde) the armed police officers could have taken him out and we’d have 19 children/2 teachers still alive.”
Let’s take a closer look at arming teachers and staff members in public schools, a journey I once took. My journey began with a college student who had a penchant for harming himself. In an office conference with me to discuss a draft paper proposal, he took his pencil and began stabbing himself in his leg (he was wearing shorts). Bleeding.
Startled, was I. “Why are you doing that?” “Oh”, he said, “I do this whenever I’m frustrated or despondent.” “Well, stop,” I responded. He then went on to vent in a nasty, threatening manner about a professor who he believed was mistreating him. Enough, I thought, this young man needs professional care and I’m not the one qualified to do it. I told him that the university had professional counselors and that he should see one immediately.
When the conference ended with band aids scattered about on his leg, I shared what happened with him along with my concerns to the department chair. The chairperson felt that this young man could be a danger to faculty members and proceeded to caution them. Indeed, a quick query into his background found that he had been incarcerated in California for assault and battery.
A week passed, and there was growing concern and anxiety that the student might harm a faculty member. He was scheduled for his final oral exam with three faculty members. Not surprisingly the chair waived the defense.
As fear grew about his behavior, I shared the concern with my wife who became alarmed for my safety. Without her knowledge, I decided to take a loaded .38 Saturday Night Special to my class one evening. (This is a dangerous weapon that can do a lot of damage.) I knew this was illegal – a definite no-no. As I was driving to class with the loaded gun concealed under my seat, I said to myself, “What if you got stopped and the weapon was discovered?” “Egads,” I uttered loudly to myself! So, I decided not to take the gun into the building. In the meantime, my wife called university security and requested that an officer attend the class. Fortunately, the student did not appear, and I went home wondering just why I did what I did. The answer, of course, was fear and stupidity—twins that seldom result in good. And fear we know is an unforgiving master.
This personal journey had a good ending – perhaps I was just lucky. On the other hand, it’s easy to imagine a different ending. Encouraging, indeed arming, classroom instructors to be the last line of defense for an irrational or demented perpetrator is a wishful proposition at best and a dangerous one at worst. Consider:
- Security–would the teacher be expected to ensure that access to a weapon be iron clad in a locked box? Or, would he/she be authorized to have the weapon on his/her body in some manner?
- Training–what kind of training would be provided and who would pay for it?
- Accidents–firearms are notorious for good intentions gone bad. I once nearly shot off my foot with my father’s 12-gauge shotgun.
- Happenstance–what if I happened to stop at a convenience store to or from class one evening and witnessed a robbery? Would I grab my Saturday night special and become a hero? Or would I become a would-be hero with wings? Or a coward in denial?
So, dear reader—should we arm teachers as first responders to protect themselves and their students from harm?
Don Menzel is a past president of the American Society for Public Administration, author and international speaker on ethics reform. Before his move to Colorado, Don organized OLLI-USF’s China Special Interest Group. He also served as an OLLI-USF faculty member for over 10 years.