One commenter called me on it, suggesting that my personal biases were showing in the discussion. I let him know that was not the case, and that after the paper was published, I would state my personal position here. I figure that's the best way to maintain a separation between writing an article for the News Sentinel, where my opinion isn't relevant, and writing here, where it's all that really matters.
After researching school violence statistics for the article, and after careful deliberation, I came away with two findings. First, we need to increase security in our schools. Second, teachers are not reliable enough to be considered part of that security system.
Let's talk first about school security. Here are some statistics.
- From July 1, 2004 through June 30, 2005, there were 48 school-associated deaths
in elementary and secondary schools in the United States. (Indicators of School
Crime and Safety: 2006, U.S. Departments of Education and Justice, 2006)
- The percentage of public schools experiencing one or more violent incidents
increased between the 1999-2000 and 2003-04 school years, from 71 to 81
percent. (Indicators of School Crime and Safety: 2006, U.S. Departments of
Education and Justice, 2006)
- Over 78 percent of School Resource Officers attending the annual NASRO
Conference reported they had taken a weapon from a student on school property
in the past year. (NASRO 2004 National School-Based Law Enforcement Survey,
National Association of School Resource Officers, 2004)
- In 2003-04, 10 percent of teachers in central city schools were threatened with
injury by students, compared with 6 percent of teachers in urban fringe schools
and 5 percent of teachers in rural schools. Five percent of teachers in central city
schools were attacked by students, compared with 3 percent of teachers in urban
fringe and 2 percent of teachers in rural schools. (Indicators of School Crime and
Safety: 2006, U.S. Departments of Education and Justice, 2006)
- In a 2003 survey of high school students, 17.1% had carried a weapon to school during the 30 days preceding the survey. (Grunbaum J.A. et al. Youth risk behavior surveillance - United States, 2003. MMWR Surveillance Summaries 2004 May 21;53(2):1-96)
Clearly, schools are not as safe as we need them to be. The question becomes how do we make them safer? Jamey Dobbs, posting on an article on School Matters discussing random searches in schools points to a study done by the US Secret Service called the Safe Schools Initiative which studied 37 school shootings from 1974 through 2000. She says that the report concludes that random searches are not effective. In fact, the report makes no conclusions regarding the efficacy of different approaches to stopping school violence. Instead, the report uses the research to develop a threat assessment model that, in the words of the authors, might prevent some future attacks.
The report found that, contrary to popular opinion, there is no useful profile of students who engaged in school violence. They varied in age, race, and family status, and some were honor students while others were failing. 41% of attackers were socially active while 34% were loners. 63% had never or rarely been in trouble while 25% had been suspended at least once. Most attackers had no history of violence prior to the attack.
Think about this for just a moment. The perpetrators of school attacks show no uniformity in age, behavior, prior acts, or scholastic performance. They look and act like every other student.
The report goes on to say that in 88% of the cases, "at least one adult was concerned by the attacker's behavior." The behaviors were both directly related to the coming attack, i.e. trying to get a gun, or completely unrelated, i.e. expressing thoughts or feelings of depression or rage in class writing assignments. The report does not indicate how many students engaged in these behaviors without going on to initiate an attack on the school, a critical omission when developing an assessment model. If you don't know how prevalent the behavior is outside of kids who attack schools, then you don't know how reliable that behavior is as a marker.
The report also says that in most cases, while the details may or may not have been known, other students knew that an attack was coming. In a few cases, these other students reported their concerns to parents or school faculties, but in most cases, they did not.
There's another interesting statistic from the report; the majority of school attacks end before law enforcement intervenes. Roughly one third end when the attacker is overcome by faculty or students. 35% of the time the attacker just quits, or kills himself. Only in 27% of the cases did law enforcement arrive in time to do anything.
So the research shows us a couple of very important things. First, that there is no easy way to spot a student who is about to launch a violent attack. Second, law enforcement rarely arrives in time to do any good. In most cases, it's all over by the time they arrive on scene.
So, clearly, we need to do something to improve security in the schools. Implementing a threat based assessment that relies on underpaid, overworked, and unqualified teachers to pick up on behaviors that are common in all teens, not just those who go on to attack their schools, is a very risky plan, particularly when you rely on it as your sole proactive measure. Depending on adolescents to report behavior is also a risky proposition, considering the natural feelings of distrust and rebellion. Initiating school programs to try and alleviate those feelings is certain to meet with only limited success.
When you talk to parents and teachers about other proactive measures, like random searches, dress codes and uniforms, increased surveillance, or the increased presence of armed School Resource Officers, the overwhelming reaction is that we are turning our schools into prisons, and that none of these methods will work. In many cases, they fall back on a familiar litany.
"If we just get to know these kids, if we can get them to trust us, then we won't have these problems."
There's a couple of problems with that approach. First, you're ignoring everything we know about the biology and psychology of the adolescent. Second, while you're trying to develop a rapport with the kids, some of them will continue to die because you aren't doing anything to protect them. Any successful strategy to combat school violence must consist of two parts: prevention and reaction.
Prevention includes building avenues of trust among the students, but it also includes enhancing their physical security. Schools are a target because they are known to be undefended. We have to change that.
Reaction means that we cannot adopt any strategy that relies on the attacker to stop on his own, or to wait for the police to arrive. Those strategies will cost lives. Va Tech is a prime example of that. A successful strategy will be one that reduces the amount of time the shooter has to carry out his attack.
And that's where teachers come into the mix. At first glance, and once you get past the initial squeamishness of deliberately allowing guns into a classroom, the idea seems to make a lot of sense. Teachers are right there, on the spot, and are in a position to react quickly. Rather than waiting for the attacker to decide he's had enough, or for the police to arrive, an armed teacher can act to interrupt the attacker, bringing an earlier end to the attack. Not only that, but knowing that schools are no longer defenseless may act as a deterrent to some would be attackers. Finally, there's the argument that people with carry permits have been found to be more law abiding and much less likely to be convicted of a violent offense than those without a permit. But let's look at those arguments a little bit closer, starting with the Pearl Mississippi case I mentioned in the article.
If you didn't follow the link, here's a brief recap. Luke Woodham, a student at Pearl High School killed his mother with a knife, and then brought a single shot hunting rifle to school, and by single shot, I mean he had to stop and reload the rifle after every shot. He entered the high school and shot his ex-girlfriend, killing her, and also shot her friend standing next to her. He continued to move through the school, shooting other students. When he heard sirens from the approaching police, he left the school, leaving two dead and seven wounded behind him. He got into his car, intending to move on to the junior high where he would repeat the slaughter. Fortunately, he was stopped by Assistant Principal Joel Myrick, who went out to his car, where he kept a .45 pistol. He confronted Woodham, and held him at gunpoint until the police arrived.
This seems to be a perfect argument for allowing teachers to carry, but there's another part to the story. There was a teacher standing next to the first two victims. While Woodham was reloading, he ran for cover. The school principal, Roy Balentine, heard the shots, and ran out into the hall, saw what was going on, and then ducked back into his office to call the police. Again, Woodham was reloading. For each shot, Woodham had to stop, pull the bolt on his rifle to clear the chamber, reload, acquire a new target, aim and fire.
During that time, not one teacher made a move to stop him. Just as importantly, not one teacher acted to put themselves between a student and Woodham.
Despite all the overblown rhetoric, teachers are not paid to be heroes. For every Joel Myrick, there are dozens of other teachers who will dive for cover, leaving your child exposed to danger. Placing themselves between your child and danger isn't in their job description. Those who are willing to do so are the exception, rather than the rule. While they might be able to utilize a handgun effectively in a crisis, most could not. They aren't prepared to take on the responsibility that carrying a gun entails.
But what about those exceptions? Can we allow them to carry? Like I said earlier, people with carry permits have demonstrated a seriousness of purpose and a pattern of behavior that places them in a category above the average citizen. However, there are some caveats here as well. Most people who get a carry permit get one for self defense. They are looking to defend themselves or their family or their home against a stranger. A school is a different matter altogether. There you are looking to defend your students, possibly against other students. That's a huge burden for anyone to carry, particularly a teacher, whose entire career is built upon establishing relationships with their students.
Say you have a teacher who is dedicated enough to his students to put his life on the line to stand between them and another one of his students. That would be one very rare bird indeed, but for the sake of argument, let's say you've got such a guy on your staff. Now he has to worry about innocent bystanders as he draws his gun to face down the attacker. We're in an area where the balance is very delicate. If the attacker is unopposed, he will undoubtedly rack up more victims than if he is confronted, but how many more bystanders may get caught in a crossfire with two guns involved? This is not the sort of thing a carry class trains you for. The bottom line is that in order to safely carry a gun in a school, the teacher would require a significant amount of additional training.
So now, not only do we need an almost mythical superman to be our teacher with a gun, he would also have to be willing to undergo a significant amount of additional training, most likely on his own time and at his own expense. How likely is that going to be?
The bottom line is that whether or not we allow teachers to carry is basically irrelevant to providing a more secure classroom. Those teachers who have the responsibility, the willingness, and the skills to carry a weapon in a school are going to be so rare that the likelihood of their being able to make a difference is virtually non-existent.
Except for the fact that they already have made a difference. Pearl, MS and Appalachian Law School in West Virginia are two instances where armed teachers or students prevented a massacre from getting worse. So now what do we do?
The Constitution recognizes the right to keep and bear arms and the recent Supreme Court decision in DC vs Heller has recognized that it is an individual right, not a collective one. However the Supreme Court has also held that cities, states and the federal government have the right to regulate where guns can be carried, based on public safety. Absent public safety concerns, the right to carry should be considered inviolate. Under this reasoning, if a person with a carry permit could demonstrate that by carrying a weapon, he would have no negative effect on public safety, then there would be no reason to deny his right to carry on school grounds. Demonstrating this would require a more stringent screening process, well beyond that for a standard carry permit, as well as more in-depth training, including crisis management, strategy and tactics, marksmanship, and maintaining calm under stress. These are skills that can't be learned in a classroom; they must be practiced in the field as well. Additionally, in order to ensure that the practice is effective, the skills must be evaluated regularly.
So finally, we come to an answer. Allowing teachers to carry on school grounds is not likely to have a significant impact on school security, but if a teacher can demonstrate that carrying a weapon will not compromise the safety of the students, then the teacher should be allowed to carry, in accordance with the Bill of Rights. However, proving that there will be no negative impact on student safety should involve stringent screening, training, and regular testing at least equivalent to what School Resource Officers must go through.