By Mark Wolf
Phoenix—Should guns be carried in schools?
And if so, by whom? Teachers? Police officers? School resource officers? Should they be trained as police or school employees? Should urban/suburban schools be treated the same as far-flung rural districts? How do you deal with cultural and racial sensitivities? Should school districts have their own police departments?
A panel of legislators, three with extensive school backgrounds and the other a survivor of the Columbine High School shooting, grappled with those issues and more during an NCSL Capitol Forum session on “Arming School Personnel: The Pros and Cons.”
“I was a school board member before I was elected to the legislature and I voted against having arms in the district,” said New Mexico Representative Linda Trujillo (D), who sponsored HB129, which allows retired peace officers and contract security personnel to be armed on school premises.
The reason, she said, was that schools from throughout her state—from urban districts such as Albuquerque, which has its own police department, to isolated rural districts, which often have long response time from law enforcement—had different needs and she wanted to give local districts the right to choose.
“In the end, it had bipartisan support and passed almost unanimously. New Mexicans Against Gun Violence came out in support of it,” said Trujillo, a former Head Start teacher.
Minnesota Representative Sondra Erickson (R) said that early in her teaching career it was not unusual for teachers to allow students to bring firearms into classrooms to show how to use and clean them and students often had hunting rifles on a mount in a truck in the school parking lot.
“We’re in a new time when mental illness has taken over the lives of some of our children, and in desperation, they turn to a weapon to take out aggressions,” she said.
Since 2003, school principals in Minnesota have been able to give permission to teachers and other staff members to carry firearms, but, said Erickson, “I don’t think there’s a lot of interest for that now. The emphasis is on school resource officers.”
More than half the states allow some personnel to carry firearms in schools, although the circumstances vary widely.
Colorado Representative Patrick Neville (R), a decorated Iraq War veteran and survivor of the 1999 Columbine High School massacre, has introduced bills each year to allow persons with concealed carry permits to carry their firearms in school, but none have passed.
“The biggest benefit we have is it creates a deterrent,” said Neville. “(Shooters) are targeting these places because they know they’re not going to get any pushback. If we create deterrence, we’re going to stop a lot of these shootings from happening.”
Arkansas Senator Joyce Elliott (D), a career high school educator, said cultural differences within schools need to be a factor in determining when guns are allowed.
“Urban kids are more traumatized by guns,” she said. “To even consider teachers having guns in a classroom, you might think it’s a great idea but kids are traumatized by thinking that teachers have guns. A classroom is a charged place. If you’re in a rural area with a long response time, it makes sense to me that somebody out to be armed.
“But it should never be a teacher. I don’t think we should ever have kids wondering, ‘Does this teacher have a gun?’ "
The panel discussed whether school resource officers should be on loan from local police departments or school employees and how a police officer’s reaction to a student disturbance is often different than a security officer who is a school employee.
Trujillo said New Mexico schools had a number of incidents where local law enforcement officers were well-trained in police procedure but didn’t know how to deal with students, including one incident in which an officer used a Taser on a student.
“These kids may be struggling, they may have IPs, may have disciplinary issues and unable to control themselves," she said. "Being able to work with students in a school environment really requires training in education. As a former Head Start teacher it was really important to me that if an individual is going to be in our school, they have to be not only trained to respond quickly and safely but also able to understand our kids.”
“If you look at school shootings, these are kids coming back to their schools for the most part.”
Neville said school officers “don’t need to be trained to arrest people. We want them trained to stop an active shooter.”
He also encouraged the media not to publicize the names of school shooters and instead focus on people who tried to stop them, mentioning Columbine teacher Dave Sanders, who died while trying to steer students to safety, and Kendrick Castillo, who was killed when he lunged at a classroom shooter in a STEM School in suburban Denver, a distraction which gave his classmates time to flee or hide.
Mark Wolf is editor of the NCSL Blog.