When the school shooting occurred in Sandy Hook I thought it would be a catalyst for change in our nation’s gun control laws. But with yet another instance of gun violence in a school outside of Seattle last month I realize it wasn’t. That remains disappointing to me. Since Sandy Hook the conversation about school safety has not promoted gun control but has rather fed a frenzy of support for concealed carry laws and suggestions that the answer may be in arming school personnel.
Recently when a Pennsylvania legislator introduced a bill to allow the arming of teachers in that state I thought it was an aberration. But an NBC news report on a special education teacher in Wyoming who chose to arm herself without notifying the school made me think that very little has been learned since Columbine and perhaps has engendered an even greater misunderstanding of the issue and its implication for schools.
According to a recent Time magazine article “Armed America”, the number of active concealed weapons permits has risen by 1 million since 2011 and in some states the minimum age requirement for a concealed weapon permit is being lowered. Even Disneyland has posts by gun enthusiasts that they have entered the park armed.
Schools should be considered sanctuaries like houses of worship once were. They should be places within the larger society considered immune to violence. Before Columbine a suggestion I made as superintendent to have a local police officer in the high school regularly was met with community resistance to the idea if the officer was going to be armed. After Columbine the move towards increasing school security became a major theme.
I have spoken with school administrators who head schools in the most dangerous cities in the world and some of the toughest neighborhoods in this country who go to great lengths to keep their schools as respites from the violence in the community at large. They see their responsibility to their communities as providing places within those communities where children can feel safe and secure. They do it by providing a sense of security based on the sanctity and importance of what goes on within the walls of their schools.
Schools by definition are soft targets because of their design and function. They are sanctuaries by virtue of what they do and the innocence of those they serve. The defense of our schools should focus on promoting the special place they hold in the community and not on turning them in to armed camps.
There will always be those who fail to understand the sanctity of a school and they will not be dissuaded by the possibility of being confronted by an armed principal or teacher. But thankfully those individuals are rare. Inexperienced armed educators or a weapon not being properly stored and falling into the hands of a child, pose a far greater threat than an attack by an armed intruder.
Students and teachers need to be focused on teaching and learning. There are any number of ways to adequately secure our schools that are more consistent with that mission than arming the staff. We need solutions that do not heighten the level of concern of teachers and students nor add to the probability of violence in the school.
In seeking the counsel of security experts specializing in soft target sites and school safety I have never heard the arming of a school’s professional staff as a recommendation. Statistics on gun violence and the collective wisdom of law enforcement are consistent with the opinion that placing guns in the hands of civilians is never a good idea. When it comes to schools it is a terrible idea.
In spite of the number of instances of school violence, schools remain the safest places in our society. Arming teachers will in all likelihood make them less so.