By Stuart Singer, author of The Algebra Miracle
In the aftermath of the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary, one of the most popular solutions, first proposed by the NRA and then endorsed by many others, was to place police in every building in the country or if that proved too expensive simply arm teachers and/or administrators. With educational funding continuing to decline it would appear that the latter alternative will be more likely. In fact, several states are already moving toward an implementation of the concept. From the perspective of at least this teacher, such an approach is a very bad idea.
Best case scenario
On paper this solution may somehow make sense to some. But when placed into the real world it loses much of its appeal.
In the minds of the plan’s advocates the story at the Connecticut elementary school would have played out very differently if one person in the building had been carrying a gun. In their narrative after shooting his way into the building, the crazed gunman would have been confronted by the armed staff member. Within ten seconds, the intruder would fire off 30 shots from his semi-automatic Bushmaster with an oversized clip. Luckily all of the rounds would fall harmlessly inside the hallways. The armed staff member, who happened to be walking past the front door at the exact moment of the intrusion and was fortunately carrying his loaded weapon, weathered the initial hail of gunfire, released the safety on his handgun and fired three shots that stopped the potential murderer before he could begin firing with his second weapon. It could happen.
A reality check
But then again it might not. Two armed security guards could not stop Columbine. Virginia Tech had an entire on-campus police force. In the case of Sandy Hook, unless a person with a gun had been standing at the front door of the building, the majority of the carnage could not have been averted. In fact, if every regular staff member in that building had been armed, it is unlikely the gunman would have been completely thwarted. The first group of students to be attacked had a substitute teacher. It is hard to imagine any plan that includes giving firearms to subs.
One of the loudest complaints from the gun lobby was that movies and video games were a root cause of increasing gun violence in this country. It is a valid point that needs to be addressed. But it is hard to escape the notion that expecting the typical educator to successfully engage bad guys in running gun battles had to have originated from viewing scenes portrayed in “Die Hard”, “Rambo” or “Lora Croft”.
As for placing professional security in every building, I worked in a high school with an armed police officer. Each individual who assumed that role was highly trained and extremely competent. But a school is a very large, congested area to patrol. The efficacy of such an individual is questionable in the context of the mass shootings of the past few years both inside and outside of schools. Most have lasted a matter of seconds. None have required more than a couple of minutes to play out. Merely being located reasonably close to an attack does not guarantee that an officer with a revolver can quell a serious assault by a Bushmaster.
There is an evolutionary component to these attacks. Most mass killings are the result of significant planning. Several years ago a gunman called a school with a bomb threat and then fired from behind cover when the students were evacuated. It is safe to assume that every security plan will have to be altered to meet new threats.
Turning the story around
A few years ago a disgruntled student at the Woodbridge campus of Northern Virginia Community College entered his math professor’s classroom with a loaded rifle. He pointed the weapon at the teacher as students scattered, pulled the trigger and when the gun jammed, quietly walked out of the room, sat down on the floor in the hallway and awaited the campus police to come and arrest him. If there had been other guns in or around that room, the outcome would have been very different and potentially far worse. There is little doubt the student would have been shot and the potential for collateral damage immense. That is the problem with gun violence; it is very unpredictable.
School staff is not the answer
Mass gun violence is the result of a few basic ingredients. It requires deranged individuals, powerful weaponry and access to large groups of people. All three of these issues must be addressed if any reduction in the carnage is to occur. Is better mental health screening needed? Absolutely, but every potentially deranged individual cannot be imprisoned. Can security be improved? Yes, but Sandy Hook was a model with its locked door policy and frequent drills. In an open society there is no way to barricade every movie theater, shopping mall, political gathering or school. Is gun control legislation the answer? Banning certain kinds of weapons will never preclude all unstable individuals from possessing them. But the refusal to acknowledge that guns played a major role in this tragedy is absurd. If the killer at Sandy Hook had been armed with a knife, he would be still trying to find a way to get into that building. If he had somehow gotten through that entrance, he may have never gotten past the principal and school psychologist. And a locked classroom door would have served as a major obstacle.
One talking head on television said that if teachers are required to use fire extinguishers to fight fires, why not guns to battle intruders. This argument like so many of the others that have been floated in the past few weeks represents a false comparison. Fire extinguishers are not lethal and require little training or a high level of judgment. It would be equally fallacious to suggest that rather than training teachers to be security officers, why not train security officers to be teachers? If that seems silly, reread the first part of this paragraph.
Teachers work every day to protect their students from ignorance, parental abuse, bullying and the mistakes of immaturity. They serve as role models and confidants. They are scrutinized for the academic success of their classes and are required to regularly renew their educational skills. Demanding that they become part-time armed security personnel is not only ineffective, it is an unserious answer to a very serious question.