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Arming Teachers: A ‘Threat to Safety’ or the ‘Only Way to Protect Innocent Lives’?

By Alyson Klein — August 07, 2018 3 min read
Crime scene tape runs outside Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., in the days after the Feb. 14 fatal shooting there.
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President Donald Trump has made it clear that he thinks that arming trained school staff—a solution pushed by the National Rifle Association—could help prevent the next school shooting.

But educators, students, and community members who showed up to a federal school safety commission meeting Tuesday in ruby-red Wyoming, a state that allows its districts to arm certain school staff members, were deeply divided on the idea, according to a live-stream of the event.

Brian Cox, the principal of Johnson Junior High School in Cheyenne, where the event was held, said he’d much rather see resources directed to mental health than to arming educators.

“Asking school personnel to do the job of law enforcement and military personnel is nothing short of asking your plumber to cut your hair. It’s just not the job you’d want them to do,” Cox told the commission, which has been charged with making policy recommendations in the wake of the Feb. 14 massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., which left 17 people dead.

“I never signed up to teach in a bunker,” said Sidney Ludwig, a teacher with nearby Laramie County schools. “If we make our schools a bunker, they become a target.”

Several students also expressed deep concern about the idea of arming school staff.

“I urge the commission to consider guns a threat to school safety ... including guns in the hands of teachers,” said Vera Berger, a high school student from New Mexico and a youth core member of the Southwest Organizing Project, a student advocacy organization.

But Bill Tallen, the executive vice president of Distributed Security, Inc., which helps train school staff to carry weapons, had a different take.

“When shooting starts, the only way to mitigate the consequences, to protect innocent lives, is to have armed adults at the school able to swiftly engage and stop the shooter before police arrive and to provide life-saving, immediate medical care to the injured,” Tallen said.

The commission, which is led by U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, includes three other cabinet members: Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar, and Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen. None of them were on hand for the Wyoming session, but each sent representatives.

This was the commission’s third of four “listening sessions” in which members of the public can address the panel directly with their ideas for school safety. It’s also the second listening session held in a state that voted for Trump in the 2016 election. Another session was in Lexington, Ky. The first listening session, in deep-blue Washington, D.C., featured a lot of pushback on the commission’s refusal to consider gun restrictions as part of its work.

Last year, Wyoming passed a new law allowing school districts to arm certain staff members. Jillian Balow, the state schools chief, who spoke on a panel that preceded the listening session, believes that decision should be up to local superintendents and school boards, not the state. But so far, only a couple of Wyoming districts have decided to take advantage of the law.

South Dakota also allows its districts to arm some school staff—although the idea hasn’t proven particularly popular, said Michael Milstead, the sheriff of Minnehaha County, S.D. The local school district, he said, has just one so-called “sentinel"—an armed staff member whose identity is a secret to the public, but known to law enforcement.

“I was kinda weak on having sentinels, but it’s worked well for us,” said Milstead, who was also part of a panel discussion.

Another panel speaker, Affie Ellis, suggested less-lethal means of controlling potential school shooters, such as training teachers to use pepper spray or Tasers.

In general, speakers on the panel said, rural districts in states like Wyoming have different needs than their urban counterparts. And it isn’t as easy to attract personnel who can help rural districts improve safety and mental health.

“It is incredibly difficult to find school psychologists who are willing to come to Wyoming to work,” said Stacey Kern, the director of special services for the Carbon County District 1. And she said that schools in the Equality State also “can’t fill positions for school resource officers.”

Speakers also made it clear that they don’t want a lot of federal direction—although several said they would appreciate additional federal grant money to beef up school safety.

“It is local elected officials who should be in charge, and I put that ‘should’ in very capital letters,” said Elsie Arntzen, Montana’s superintendent of public instruction, who also spoke on one of the panels.

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