School Climate & Safety Opinion

Is ‘Should Guns Be Allowed in Schools’ the Right Question?

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — February 21, 2017 5 min read
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Each time gun violence occurs in schools, a debate about whether guns belong in schools follows. Then, it dies down until another horrifying incident occurs. Although it provoked many snickers and eye rolling when Education Secretary Betsy DeVos spoke of the need for guns in schools to protect against grizzly bears, there very well may be rural schools in our nation that are occasionally threatened by wildlife. But whether that indicates a need to arm adults with guns and whether guns are the best answer remain a debate.

Often when writing we, ourselves, can hear and hold two sides of an issue. Not so here. Our position about guns in schools is they don’t belong there. In 2013 when schools were building their security in response to tragedies and a crescendo of fear, an armed guard in a school made the news because his gun went off. It was simply an accident and no one was hurt but it illustrates the flip side of the danger. Is the question of having guns in schools the right question to be asking? Here are some facts about school shootings from a 2016 ABC News report:

50 - The number of mass murders or attempted mass murders at a school since Columbine. (FBI records)
141 - The number of people killed in a mass murder or attempted mass murder at a school since Columbine. (FBI records)
73 - The percentage of school shooters with no prior criminal record, not even an arrest. (U.S. Secret Service, U.S. Department of Education)
96 - The percentage of school shooters who are male. (FBI records)
17 - The number of children aged 15 or younger who have committed or attempted a mass school shooting since Columbine. (FBI records)
81 - The percentage of school shootings where someone had information that the attacker was thinking about or planning the shooting. (U.S. Secret Service, U.S. Department of Education)
68 - The percentage of school shooters who got their guns from relatives or at home. (US Secret Service, US Department of Education)
65 - The number of school shooters and thwarted school shooters who have referenced Columbine as a motivation. (ABC News investigation, various law enforcement agencies)
270 - The number of shootings of any kind at a school since Columbine. (ABC News review of reported cases)
1 - The number of shootings per week, on average, on a school or college campus in 2015. (ABC News review of reported cases)

Let that sink in. Those numbers should be zero. No one should lose their life or be wounded in the environment where we ask for trust and risk taking and offer a safe environment. No parent should lose his or her child in our care. Schools as workplaces and learning places should be able to guarantee no one will lose their life. No one. What is the question to be asked? Is it should we allow guns in schools? Or might it be in what ways are schools in danger of becoming unsafe and what are the best ways we can guarantee our schools remain safe, even from an armed intruder?

If schools get caught in the whirlpool of reactive responses to problems, the likelihood of them becoming an environment in which critical thinking and creativity flourish is greatly diminished. The very behaviors needed in order to educate our students today and to encourage their teachers to take teaching and learning risks are imperiled by the fears that give fuel to this particular fire. What does the question of whether guns be allowed in schools answer? What problem does it address and how effective do we know the answer will be? Although here we are taking about guns in schools, taking time to carefully analyze threats or problems, and to do so in cooperation with community agencies and law enforcement, encourages a more comprehensive and proactive response.

Location. Location. Location.
The questions will differ by community. A school in a neighborhood with a high crime rate will be different from schools in neighborhoods with low crime rates. Buildings that have many entrances and exits have different questions to ask than those with few. Schools that have a full compliment of successful teachers and leaders have different needs and will ask different questions than schools where teachers and leaders move in and out of the system frequently. Schools with school resource officers may have differ scenarios form those without them.

When thinking about school safety, the gun question belongs in the conversation but it comes under the larger question of ‘how can we be and feel safe?” and “who else and what other entities in our society contribute to the problem, the question, and the solution?” “Who are our partners in addressing the problem of threats and safety?”

Some argue the issue of guns being allowed in schools is rooted in the Second Amendment which says:

A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

It says nothing about schools or children or safety. It says nothing about types of weapons, how to obtain weapons, if one needs to be licensed or trained, possess mental health, or where or one can be carried concealed or not. It says “the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed” period.

Concerns about school safety should exist. Keeping school environments safe is a responsibility that leaders and teachers and other school personnel take seriously. So is the question of whether we should have guns in schools a knee jerk response to fight fire with fire? Or can we take this moment to look at schools as part of our larger society and ask questions about what causes people to want to cause harm to others? Is it a matter of mental health? Is it a question of lacking skills to mediate one’s emotions? Is it a question that needs answering in the larger community while schools continue to remain aware and careful?

Before deciding whether guns have a place in schools, it is best we come to agree on what question and what threat guns in schools is answering and solving. Are there other, better, safer ways to remain safe? Those are conversations that need to take place.

Ann Myers and Jill Berkowicz are the authors of The STEM Shift (2015, Corwin) a book about leading the shift into 21st century schools. Connect with Ann and Jill on Twitter or Email.

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The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.