The following is by TTAG reader G.:
It’s been about a week since the horrible tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Like the rest of you, my heart aches thinking about the terrible losses endured by Newtown, the senseless murders of 26 innocent children and adults in what should have been a safe space. We’re a nation in mourning, and a nation engaged in serious reflection, as we wonder, “Could this have been prevented? How could we have stopped this?” . . .
Some people say we need new laws restricting guns and a ban of AR-style rifles. Other people say we need to arm every teacher and have armed police officers in every school. And still others say more needs to be done about treating people with mental illness.
I take a special interest in this discussion because not only am I a husband and father with young children, I am also an elementary school teacher AND a gun owner. I grew up in a gun-owning family, and I have nearly a decade of experience working in both private and public schools here and abroad as a tutor, camp counselor, and teacher. I know I’m not an expert or a politician, but I feel I am in a unique position to offer a perspective that can move our country’s conversation forward to help prevent another incident like Sandy Hook, CT.
Hey Teacher… how about more gun restrictions?
I highly doubt any more laws restricting guns in school will be effective. Since 1990, there has been a federal law prohibiting any individual from knowingly possessing a firearm on public school grounds (officially known as the Gun Free School Zones Act of 1990).
As any teacher can tell you, simply creating a rule against the possession of something doesn’t automatically prevent it from being brought to school. As a teacher, I’ve confiscated everything from bottles of alcohol, electronic toys, knives. etc from my students. The schools I’ve worked at and the classrooms I’ve taught have all had established rules asking students to refrain from bringing those items to class, and yet, there’s always at least one student willing to test whether or not they can get away with having the forbidden item. If a simple rule can’t restrain every single child from bringing contraband, how does it make any sense that a disturbed criminal, bent on murdering innocent life, will be stopped by a sign that says “GUN FREE ZONE”? Definitely not.
Connecticut already has some of the most restrictive gun laws in the country, and none of them were effective in this case at protecting the students and staff or Sandy Hook. Instead, even if one of one of the teachers or staff at Sandy Hook had been armed and able to confront the attacker, it would been in violation of both state and federal law. Passing more laws controlling guns may SEEM to be effective, but let’s face the fact that gun control laws only work on people who follow the law: if a person is already bent on murdering children, it’s not really going to matter to him/her that they’re breaking the law by using a gun to do it.
Hey teacher… we’re going to arm all of ya and give ya more cops!
Anyone with common sense can agree that people have the universal right to defend themselves against an attack, and a responsibility to protect those under their care. However, the power to protect oneself and those under one’s protection is severely diminished when you are unarmed and your attacker has a firearm. In the wake of the Sandy Hook tragedy, there have been widespread calls for arming every single teacher. Unfortunately, I can’t imagine that it would be very practical or acceptable for EVERY teacher to be armed with a firearm. I do think that a FEW teachers armed could be useful.
Many schools are already struggling to meet their students’ basic needs, such as providing educational materials (books, paper, technology, etc.), a safe and modern facility, or even a healthy, nutritious lunch. It’s unlikely that school districts or the government would be willing to pay to equip teachers with a firearm, even a handgun. Teacher pay in the US ranks 22nd out of 27 developed countries, and even for myself, a teacher with both a degree from a 4 year state college and a master’s degree from a distinguished Jesuit university, it can be a struggle to pay bills and provide for my own family. No teacher who loves teaching does this job for the money.
Mandating that all teachers purchase their own weapon would be unpopular. And then there’s the costs in time and money for training. I consider myself a competent gun owner with basic gun skills to defend myself or my family, but considering the possibilities of an active shooter or hostage scenario within a school, I’m no James Bond or Jason Bourne. Even if teachers like me were allowed to train with the likes of Rob Pincus / Chris Costa / Travis Haley / other awesome gun dude, the costs in money and time would be prohibitive. Many teachers already have to spend their own money for CPR/first aid certification, additional training in the latest research-based strategies in literacy or mathematics, or other classes to maintain their teaching credential. Security training for every teacher would never become a high priority.
Many schools already have some police officers present on their campus, but at the elementary school level, it’s rare to have an officer assigned to work exclusively at a school. Often, several schools will share a single officer or team of officers. Again, adding additional police officers to protect schools would be expensive.
More importantly, because of the infrequency of their presence, police officers have difficulty getting to know the students, families, and staff of each individual school very well. A teacher would be much faster at recognizing a threatening stranger (or estranged parent) than a police officer who only visits once a week. And while I applaud the NRA’s statement that schools deserve the same level of protection as banks or sports stadiums, I’m just not sure an increased police presence will have the desired effect.
However, 1-2 teachers (well trained and conceal carrying a pistol) might serve as both a deterrent (since a potential attacker would have no idea who the armed teacher is) and as a last-ditch defense against a mass shooting. Yes, one teacher would not be a perfect defense against an assailant bent on slaughter, but in the event of an active shooter situation, an armed teacher could buy precious minutes for either the students to escape to safety, or for police to arrive.
I also acknowledge that this puts the armed teacher in the line of fire. He or she could potentially be killed while defending the students so they can escape. However, as a teacher who cares for his students as much as he cares for his own kids, that would be a sacrifice I would be willing to make. And many teachers feel the same – families have entrusted their precious children to us, and we take that responsibility seriously.
For those that object to “civilians” like teachers being armed while they’re doing their job, consider that since 9/11, many pilots have been trained and allowed to carry a firearm while on the job, and there have been zero major incidents in them doing so.
Hey teacher… what about mental illness?
Many people have posted theories about the Sandy Hook shooter’s mental health and have questioned what steps his mother was taking to properly deal with it. I’m not a mental health expert, but as a teacher, I’ve seen more than my fair share of students dealing with mental health issues – everything from mild ADHD to extreme EBD, OCD, and yes, autism and Asperger’s Syndrome. The common theme I’ve noticed is that some families care deeply for their children and do whatever it takes to get their child help – whether it’s professional counseling, proper medication, classroom accommodation, socializing with a faith community such as a church or synagogue. Then, there’s other families, who for either financial reasons, or a state of denial, refuse to get their student the proper help they need to deal with their mental health issues. Instead of taking responsibility, the child’s actions are constantly excused, rationalized, and in the end, everyone else is blamed but the child.
Unfortunately, current laws are quite restrictive about such things, and until the child acts in a way that endangers other students, adults, or him/herself, not much can be done. Even then, getting proper care sometimes requires a long, documented history of incidents and extensive paperwork. Any mistakes in Form ABC along the way could mean a child easily slips through the cracks. Public schools are mandated by law to teach every child enrolled in their care, but I think the public would be shocked to known that many schools lack the counselors or even special education teachers to work with these kids. Why? Budget cuts, and an troublesome attitude from some parents that, “It’s not my kid, it’s not my problem.” We as a society need to change that, because it’s become obvious that troubled kids often grow up to be troubled adults that we hear about on the evening news.
Hey teacher… so how do you want us to make our schools safer?
As a teacher, I tell my students that it’s important to tell the truth. I try to model that behavior in my class everyday. However, this past week has been especially difficult because I’ve had to answer students’ questions about the tragedy at Sandy Hook.
When possible, I directed the students to have a conversation with their parents about their concerns, but when students asked me directly, “Mr. G… are we safe here at school?” My guts twisted up and my heart began to pound because I couldn’t tell them the full truth.
Yes, your teacher and the staff care about you.
Yes, I WANT you to be safe.
Yes, I WISH you were safe.
But the truth I can’t say — the truth that I know in my heart — is that Sandy Hook, like Columbine before it, is a reminder that in modern society NOWHERE is safe. I can’t tell my students that if a deranged individual with a gun shows up at our school hellbent on killing everyone, the best we can do is barricade our classroom, call the police, and WAIT. And if, God forbid, that person finds a way into our classroom…my odds of stopping him or her aren’t good.
I can throw chairs or books. I can hope to talk him or her down, or pray for a miracle that allows me to dodge bullets, tackle the maniac and beat him with my fists or elbows (thanks, childhood martial arts). But besides the semi-sharp kitchen knife I keep in my desk to cut the cakes students bring in on their birthdays, I’m completely unarmed, and out-gunned. The truth is ugly, and it is this:
America, in the event of a Sandy Hook style attack, I am completely powerless to protect the students you have placed in my care. And you expect me to be able to sleep well at night knowing this?
So don’t tell me passing more gun control laws will defend me or my kids from those who already refuse to obey the law. Don’t hold your fancy press conferences blaming me or other dedicated teachers for creating the self-centered culture of violence that’s become endemic in our society.
As a teacher, I’m not ashamed to ask you for help. Maybe you’re a soccer mom, or maybe you’re an off-duty cop, or maybe you’re a veteran who’s just returned home from honorable service abroad. Would you be willing to come into your local school and volunteer to help? Whether it’s patrolling the halls, playing with the kids at recess or just reading a book with a kid whose single mom works 18 hour shifts, you can make a big difference in making our schools safer.
Are you willing to tell our politicians that effort needs to be spent on enforcing existing laws rather than making new ones? Or that by constantly slashing school budgets, our government endangers the lives of the children we cherish? Let’s start protecting the future of our country NOW.
(a public elementary school teacher, identity withheld so I can keep doing what I love)
As a teacher and parent, I highly recommend reading Greg Ellifritz’s Parent’s Guide to School Shootings.