Glock for Teacher?

Written by Editorial Staff Category: Valley News Issue: March 2013
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Following the Sandy Hook Elementary shootings, many Arizonans have called for arming teachers and putting police in schools. Is there a place for a Colt on campus?

The fear and shock that blew across the nation was almost as powerful as Hurricane Sandy, but “hurricane” Sandy Hook may turn out to be the more catalytic catastrophe. We’d seen it before, of course – those freak, deadly squalls that strike where we least expect them – but this was different. The eye of the storm was in Newtown, Connecticut, but we felt its gusts here: Almost immediately, letters went out to parents informing them that school security was ramping up. There was talk of double sets of doors, fingerprint clearance, fences, patrols, drills. It was suddenly as if the Gaza Strip had been transported to our grade schools.

Indeed, many gun advocates prescribed Israelification: “Israel had a whole lot of school shootings until they did one thing: They… put armed security in every school, and they have not had a problem since then,” National Rifle Association CEO Wayne LaPierre told Meet the Press – erroneously, Israeli security experts later said – after asking Congress to “put armed police officers in every school.”

Pima County Sheriff Paul Babeu seconded that statement and urged that all teachers be allowed to carry guns. Attorney General Tom Horne offered a tempered version of that plan – training and arming one teacher or principal per school. Governor Jan Brewer disagreed with Horne but recommended increasing funds for School Resource Officers (SROs) – police officers based on a campus. Arizona House Minority Leader Chad Campbell put forth a plan to triple funding for SROs. Sheriff Joe Arpaio got straight to work sending armed volunteer posse members to patrol the perimeters of local schools.

Gabrielle Giffords, a longtime gun owner who had remained silent on the subject of gun violence since she was shot two years ago, fired her own salvo. In a USA Today op-ed, she announced along with her husband, Mark Kelly, that they were launching Americans for Responsible Solutions to “raise the funds necessary to balance the influence of the gun lobby.”

Meanwhile, President Obama asked Congress to reinstate and strengthen the assault-weapons ban, limit ammunition to 10-round magazines, and enforce background checks for all gun sales, among several other proposals.

Opposing solutions are still ricocheting around the country, but beneath the crossfire lurks a nagging doubt. Where do you aim a silver bullet when you don’t know what the target is? What’s to blame: too many guns, not enough guns, violent video games, a lack of mental health care, lack of parental involvement, the left, the right, the media, the lobbyists?

“It’s clear what we want. We want safe schools and safe students,” says Andrew Morrill, president of the Arizona Education Association (AEA). “How we get it is very, very difficult, because you can’t even predict where it’s going to happen… But what we have to do is work through the shock and the anger, all of which are understandable, and we have to engage our brains and say, ‘What are the rational steps we can take?’”

“The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun,” the NRA’s LaPierre announced in the wake of the Sandy Hook shootings. It is perhaps the defining statement of the recent firearms firestorm, echoed by numerous supporters of putting guns in schools. But what no one seems able to agree upon is who that good guy should be.

According to some, it should be a teacher or principal. The Arizona Citizens Defense League, a grassroots gun lobby group, advocates giving all teachers the option to carry arms: “The main issue here is not that a deranged individual gained access to a firearm, as there is very little anyone could do to prevent that,” the group announced on its website. “It’s that anyone who could have stopped his rampage could not gain access to a firearm… It’s long past time to, at the very least, allow our school faculty and staff the option to be trained and armed.”

Sheriff Paul Babeu also advocated allowing all teachers to be trained and carry a gun: “Much the same way that commercial airline pilots have been trained and armed to defend their aircraft, school administrators and designated teachers would be trained by local law enforcement and armed to protect themselves, other staff and their students. Administrators and teachers are highly educated; they know their schools and love the children... Even with an officer on campus, some of these schools are quite large. The officer can’t be everywhere on campus, and having trained and armed administrators and designated teachers could help limit and contain the active shooter.”

Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio disagreed with the proposal to arm teachers, saying, “Men and women become teachers because they want to carry new ideas, not guns, into the classroom.” Attorney General Tom Horne  opposed arming all teachers, saying  it “would create more danger than it would solve,” but instead endorsed what he called a “golden mean” between an army of educators and a gun-free zone: “It may not be possible to afford a police officer in every school. In that case, the next best solution is to have one person in the school trained to handle firearms, to handle emergency situations, and possessing a firearm in a secure location.”

But the prospect of arming teachers has been roundly criticized by teachers themselves. “Teachers are not bodyguards,” says the AEA’s Morrill. “We’re not trained to engage students in firearm combat. We’re not trained to pick out the violent student with a firearm in a crowd of as many as 100 or 200 students in a hallway, [especially with] the chaos that ensues the first time a gunshot goes off... I’ve grown up with guns all my life. My father was a Marine. He trained my brother and my sister and me in the safe use of guns. We target shot growing up. I hunted. I’ve owned guns all my life. I’ve been through training programs. And I’m not sure I could gun down a student on my own campus.”

In an interview on ABC News, Diane Sawyer posed the NRA’s “good guy with a gun” statement to Mark Kelly, hypothesizing that if there had been an armed civilian in the Safeway parking lot, perhaps he might have stopped Jared Loughner from shooting Gabby Giffords and several others. Kelly replied that there was an armed man who approached from a nearby store, tried to save the day, and “nearly shot the man who took down Jared Loughner… The one who eventually wrestled [Loughner] to the ground was almost killed himself by a good guy with a gun, so I don’t really buy that argument.”

“I think the people that are suggesting that some amount of training would be necessary and that would make it OK to arm teachers or principals, I think what they’re thinking of is training for accuracy in firing, or how to operate a gun safely,” Morrill says. “Fine, but shooting a paper target or a tin can in the middle of the desert, that’s not the same… If you’re more than 10 or 15 feet away, and you’re not an absolute crack shot, there is no guarantee that your bullet’s going to find Jared Loughner and not the innocent woman standing right next to him.

“We have introduced a norm into our culture in the United States that says that you can resolve things violently,” he continues, “and if you’re the good guy, and if you act fast enough, you’ll always get the bad guy. Your bullet will ring true. Forget the FBI statistics about the number of people every year who are shot accidentally with their own gun, or somebody in their house is shot accidentally with a gun, or the gun is stolen and used against them. Even if we move aside those statistics, the idea that in a crowd of people fleeing, running, moving around hysterically, that a good guy’s bullet is going to find its way to the bad guy is the product of Hollywood mythos… Firearms and campuses don’t mix, other than in the hands of a fully-certified law officer or a fully-trained and certified security officer.”

And that is who many people agree should be the good guy: a police officer. “I firmly believe we should have an armed law enforcement official in every school,” Sheriff Joe announced at a press conference in January. “I was very touched by the president when he was talking about his two kids, how it hits home, how he was worried about his own two kids. I know that Secret Service does protect the kids in the school, but I’m just wondering how many armed guards, not Secret Service, are in that school. So I hope the president would feel that maybe we should put armed law enforcement in every school in our nation.”

However, putting a police officer in each of the country’s 98,817 K-12 schools would cost about $5.5 billion annually, just for the salaries of the police officers, let alone the cost of health insurance, training, pension, weapons, and other incidentals. Arpaio acknowledged that currently, “I don’t have the resources to go to every school in this community. I think there’s about 1,200, 1,300… That’s why I asked the president to come up with some money.” But most people believe the government is unlikely to fund such an expensive program.

Sheriff Joe’s “stop-gap” solution? Send out about 500 of his volunteer posse to patrol 59 Valley schools under his primary area, which includes towns such as Litchfield Park, Anthem, Guadalupe, and Gila Bend. Since January, the posse has been patrolling the perimeters of schools looking for suspicious people and acting as a warning sign to potential criminals. The cost to taxpayers: nothing, Arpaio says.

“I decided to utilize the posse to act as a deterrent for anyone who thinks they’re going to come onto school property to cause havoc and serious crimes,” Arpaio explains. The posse members, he says, receive the same training as a regular deputy. “The only difference for them [is] they do it for nothing… So why not utilize a free resource at least as an interim program?” (To read more about the posse and their training, see our interview with volunteer Dave Vickers on page 30.)

The posse plan has received mixed response, with many schools and parents at the conference favoring the increased security. “Most people support it,” Arpaio said, citing his posse’s success in patrolling shopping malls during the holiday season following several violent incidents in the 1990s. “And in 19 years, we never had any violence at the malls. So I just had an idea: Why not go from the malls to the schools?” 

Still, surprise rippled through the press conference when one reporter asked Arpaio what kind of weapons the posse carries. “They got Glocks; some have other types,” Arpaio said. “Some have been trained in semi-automatic weapons. There’s a few who’ve been trained on automatic weapons. So we’re going to use every resource that we have in case we have to respond to a serious situation in these schools.”

“Are you saying,” the reporter pressed, “these posse members are going to be driving around with automatic weapons?”

“Semi-automatic, a few automatic,” Arpaio replied. “What difference does it make? They’re well-trained. Our deputies have them... I have confidence in my deputies and my posse after going through hundreds of hours of training.”

It’s a confidence that Morrill says he doesn’t share. Instead, he would like to see more campuses staffed with SROs – fully-certified (and armed) law enforcement officers whose beat is a school, or at least includes a school. “The great thing about that is they teach classes on violence prevention, drug prevention,” Morrill explains. “They work with the faculty and the administration on the safety plan. They come to know the culture. They can stand out there at lunch when all those kids are congregating around, and they know where the light problem areas [are], they know the conflicts on campus... But they’re also working at the higher levels of policy, informing a district about good, safe, practical and reasonable safety measures that the district should be taking.”

In fiscal year 2010, the state eliminated $5 million from the School Safety Program, which cut funds for SROs. The program now receives $7.8 million in Proposition 301 tax revenue annually, only enough to fund about half of all district applications for SROs, according to Governor Brewer’s 2014 Executive Budget. In fiscal year 2012, the report states, 80 school districts applied for grants to pay for 202 SROs, but due to budget restrictions, only 34 districts were awarded funding for 102 officers. About 200 to 250 police officers work at Arizona’s approximately 2,200 public schools.

Arizona House Minority Leader and Democrat Chad Campbell called for increasing funds for SROs to $25 million annually. In her recent budget, Brewer recommended adding $3.6 million to the SRO program and requiring districts to match that amount. According to her report, that would cover all eligible SRO grant applicants not covered by Prop. 301 money.

Morrill says it’s probably not necessary for all schools to employ an SRO, but he recommends each district have a conversation with their community and decide what safety program is best for each school. However, even if every school were to employ an SRO, it would not guarantee the safety of students. After all, there was an armed security guard on-site at Columbine High School. Rather, any plan to increase school safety must be multi-pronged. And most people agree that any plan must address the needs of the mentally ill.

Campbell’s Safer Schools, Safer Communities Plan recommended doubling the number of school counselors in Arizona, which is the third worst state in terms of the student-to-counselor ratio, according to the American Counseling Association. He called for restoring previously cut services for the seriously mentally ill and proposed an initiative recently endorsed by Governor Brewer to fund the expansion of Medicaid to people with incomes up to 133 percent of the federal poverty level. That would provide mental health services to a large underserved group. The price tag for his entire plan, which also included increased funding for SROs, campus security grants and more: $261 million.

“Guess what? Some things are worth the price tag, and I would say student safety is one of them,” Morrill says.

Morrill also advocates training everyone on campus – teachers, principals, hall monitors, administrators, front office staff – on “what to look for: warning signs, erratic behavior that is linked to patterns that later erupt in violence or suggest that a student is really having a difficult time.” If school staff has a strong and open network of communication, he says, they can escalate an intervention and assure students they are not isolated but supported by the staff as a whole. He also urges parents to be on the lookout for the same warning signs and feel free to communicate with teachers and school counselors about their concerns.

We may not be able to predict where and when these acts of violence will occur, but we can be better prepared. “The effort would be something akin to tornado-spotting,” Morrill says. “We can spot the warning signs, and we can keep people on the proper set of alert. We can make sure they know what to do and how to respond. We can build buildings and settings that are as physically resistant as possible and mitigate damage that way, just as we can introduce responsible, effective security measures. And the thing that we have to remember is that in most cases, that’s enough. These [acts] are unthinkable when they happen... But as adults, we have the responsibility to think deeply and carefully about these things. And while our horror and shock are reflexive reactions, our policies can’t be. Our policies have to be better.”