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Op-Ed: Arming Teachers Not The Answer

Fort Lee High School graduate, formerly of the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence and now the president and founder of Safe School Technologies, presents the latest in a series of articles on gun laws.

Editor's Note: The following article was submitted by Robert V. Tessaro, who recently moved back to Fort Lee after spending five years in Washington, D.C., where he worked for the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence.

After a week of silence following the tragic massacre in Newtown, CT, National Rifle Association (NRA) CEO Wayne LaPierre hosted a press conference to outline their solution to gun violence in our schools.

Predictably, the NRA blamed the media, the entertainment industry, video game makers, gun-free school zones, mental health providers, hurricanes … just about everything but the lax gun laws in the United States that they have fought to weaken.

According to them, there is no need to require background checks on all firearm sales (bad guys will get the guns anyway), no need for a ban on military style assault weapons or high capacity magazines (they are just for hunting) and no need to do anything to stop guns from getting into the hands of dangerous people (guns don’t kill people; people kill people). “The only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun,” LaPierre said.

The NRA, which has accepted tens of millions of dollars from firearm manufacturers in “donations,” had the following solution: more guns.

They are advocating armed guards, including volunteers from the community, armed teachers and school staff and/or law enforcement officers in every school in the country. The NRA also wants to repeal gun-free school zones and allow all civilian concealed carry permit holders to carry their concealed firearms in and around schools.

LaPierre went on to say that they would develop the training program to teach teachers when they should pull out their guns and start shooting.

School districts and communities should be focusing on prevention, threat mitigation and emergency preparation instead of bringing firearms into our schools. This is a distraction from focusing attention on sensible gun control.  The following are just a few reasons why arming school staff is a terrible idea:

School Shootings Are Still Rare

While obviously there should be a concern about the targeting of educational facilities in light of Newtown, school shootings are rare. There have been at least 62 mass shootings (defined as four or more people killed in a single incident) over the past 20 years. Less than half occurred in or around a school.

Ten years ago the Secret Service released a study that reviewed school shootings dating back to 1974. They found that they are rarely impulsive acts and in the vast majority of cases, the shooter told someone about what they planned to do prior to the incident, but that person did not tell anyone who could intervene (i.e. an adult, teacher, counselor, law enforcement).

The study concluded that some shootings could be prevented if communication between students and staff at schools improved. There should be a system in place for students to safely, even anonymously, report concerns about a student becoming violent before it is too late.

New Jersey has the fourth lowest firearm death rate in the country, and has never had a mass school shooting, in large part because we do keep dangerous people from having access to guns. There have been two incidents where students at New Jersey high schools plotted a mass shooting attack on students and teachers in 2008 and 2006, but both were stopped when classmates reported their threatening remarks.

Accuracy Counts

Last August, police encountered a man with a gun outside of the Empire State Building. He had just shot and killed a co-worker in public and was now walking through a tourist-filled Manhattan street. Two New York Police Department officers were in pursuit of the suspect when he turned and pointed his gun at them. The officers opened fire, striking and killing the suspect. They also wounded nine bystanders in the exchange, which lasted less than five seconds. The officers were very well trained in active shooter scenarios and marksmanship, and still, out of 16 rounds that were fired, nine bystanders were struck by bullets or fragments.

Studies of the accuracy of police officers in active shooter exchanges show that they hit their intended target only 30 percent of the time. If they are being shot at, their accuracy drops to less than 18 percent.

These are trained law enforcement officers. It would stand to reason the likelihood that an armed teacher or volunteer would hit their target would be far less. In several of the recent mass shootings, the assailant was also wearing body armor, reducing the impact even if they were shot. In a crowded school, during a chaotic situation where people are frantically running around, having a largely untrained but armed teaching staff would put more students and employees at risk.

More Risk Than Reward

Over the past 30 years, not one of the 62 documented mass shootings has been stopped by an armed civilian shooting the gunmen. According to a report by Mother Jones magazine, only in two of those 62 incidents did an armed civilian attempt to stop a mass shooter, and in both cases they were gravely wounded or killed.

After the Columbine, CO school shootings, law enforcement active shooter response training changed. Instead of arriving at a scene and treating injured victims, they are now trained to bypass victims and seek and take out any potential threats. If responding law enforcement comes across someone with a gun drawn, even a teacher or staff member, there is a strong likelihood that they will shoot them. They will not be able to identify the good guys from the bad guys.

There is a little discussed point about the Columbine shooting—there was an armed sheriff’s deputy assigned to the school who was there the day of the attack. The shooters were aware of this but were not dissuaded by it. The deputy did exchange gunfire with the shooters, but the attack only ended when they took their own lives. The suggestion that plainclothes security guards with concealed firearms would serve as a deterrent does not match the facts. 

Gun Security

It is much more likely that a firearm kept in a drawer or a teacher’s bag would be stolen by a student or accidently discharged, than ever used to stop a mass shooter. If a teacher did ever engage an active shooter, there is a greater likelihood that they would be injured or killed, and the shooter would then have access to an additional weapon. Without proper training, a situation that could be diffused might quickly escalate. There are also serious liability questions for both teachers and school districts if a gun were to be lost or stolen on school property.

To Draw Or Not To Draw

The NRA has said that they would develop a program for armed teachers and staff that teaches them when to pull out their firearm. Do you want the NRA deciding that for you?  As a parent, when would you want a gun pulled out at school? Would teachers or volunteers draw their firearms to break up fistfights? What if a student tried to wrestle it away from them? I was taller than most of my teachers by the time I was in 6th grade and it certainly would not have been a stretch to think that I could overpower most of them when I was in high school.  A simple fight could easily turn into a tragedy.

Only Trained Law Enforcement Should Be Armed In Schools

I am a big proponent of School Resource Officers (SROs). As the former Executive Director of the New Jersey Association of School Resource Officers (NJASRO), I worked with sworn members of law enforcement to provide specialized training to work in schools. SROs are not simply armed guards. They are trained in the triad approach when they are assigned to a school: law enforcement, teacher, and counselor. They are part of the school community and have regular interaction with the students, faculty and staff. They teach classes on criminal justice issues, such as educating students on how to protect themselves from cyber stalkers or explaining what domestic violence is. They typically maintain office hours where students can confide in them if they have concerns or questions. SROs build a rapport between law enforcement and students so they feel comfortable reporting possible threats. Most school districts that implement an SRO program see a drop in overall crime and vandalism. SROs are employed by their local police department, usually with a memorandum of agreement with their local school district.

The NRA Was Against It Before They Were For It

Ironically, the NRA, which is now advocating for law enforcement in schools, fought against it just a few years ago. In 1994, President Clinton introduced the Community Oriented Police Service (COPS) in Schools grants through the Department of Justice. The purpose of the grants was to fund local law enforcement departments to assign and train an officer to work in and around schools. More than 6,500 SROs and other school safety officers were hired through COPS grants.

The NRA actively lobbied against the COPS program, and called the new SROs “invisible cops.” The COPS grants, among other school safety programs, have gradually been reduced since they were introduced, and this year they were completely eliminated from the budget.

The NRA also has a long history of being anti-law enforcement. In a 2007 cover story of the NRA magazine, they accused The International Association of Chiefs Police (IACP) of being “puppets,” “anti-freedom” and a “disarmament group” because they hosted a summit on preventing gun violence. In the past, LaPierre has used Nazi imagery to describe agents from the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms (ATF), the federal law enforcement agency responsible for policing illegal firearms. He famously advocated “lifting the assault weapons ban to even the odds in the struggle between ordinary citizens and jack-booted government thugs.”

Teachers Are Overwhelmingly Against It

The two largest teacher’s unions in the country, the National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers, in a joint release, condemned the idea of arming teachers. The presidents of both associations said, “Greater access to mental health services, bullying prevention, and meaningful action on gun control—this is where we need to focus our efforts, not on staggeringly misguided ideas about filling our schools with firearms.”

School districts and individuals would also face increased liability exposure if a non-law enforcement officer were involved in a shooting incident.

Conclusion

I have been involved in school safety and gun violence prevention for many years, and I find the NRA’s proposal offensive. They take no blame, would not even concede that it was possible the loose laws they pushed could have anything to do with this and the thousands of other tragedies that occur every year, but have the audacity to create a “safe school commission” that will tell us what we have been doing wrong; namely that we don’t have enough guns in our schools. Their proposal is meant to be a distraction from true discussions on how to reduce gun violence.

The IACP, where I serve as a member of their Firearms and Juvenile Justice Committees, has put out numerous guides on preventing school violence, and state groups such as NJASRO have been providing excellent training programs for school staff and law enforcement for years.

It is frightening that lawmakers in several states are considering arming teachers and staff. We need to concentrate on keeping guns out of the hands of dangerous people, and keeping safe and supportive learning environments that our children deserve. Let your local elected and school officials know that you want to keep guns out of your schools.

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