With school starting for most districts in Snohomish County next week, a debate has resumed from earlier in the year that followed the school shooting at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, which killed 17 students and staff members and injured another 17.
Using the questionable reasoning that “the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun,” many made the suggestion that teachers and other school employees could be trained and armed and made ready to confront the next school gunman.
The discussion got new life last week following a proposal by federal Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to use a $1 billion federal grant program to fund the purchase of guns and the firearms training of teachers and others in the schools. Two states, Texas and Oklahoma, had asked the Department of Education if the purchase of firearms would be eligible under the grant funding.
Washington state Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal was adamant that he would not approve any school district grant request for firearms. Washington state, an OSPI release said, would use $15 million from the program to expand science and engineering offerings, support a Youth and Government program and increase mental health services.
So far, DeVos has been noncommittal on use of the grants for firearms. But critics in Congress and elsewhere say her response should be a firm no. It’s simply not what the money was intended for. And it’s just a bad idea.
That message was no more clear than from Sen. Patty Murray, D-Washington, who with Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, wrote the bipartisan Every Student Succeeds Act that Congress passed in late 2015 and estaablished the grant program being discussed.
“When Republicans and Democrats came together to pass [the act], we were clear that these grants were intended to help foster safe, healthy and supportive environments that improve student learning — not prop up the NRA and gun sales,” Murray said in a statement.
Since DeVos’ consideration of the inquiry, 44 Senate Democrats and 173 Democrats in the House have written DeVos, claiming the use of the grant program to purchase guns goes against congressional intent and common sense.
The program, known as Student Support and Academic Enrichment grants, were intended for the nation’s poorest schools to provide a well-rounded education through greater access to art, music and technology, as well as mental health services and basic improvement of school conditions.
Alexander, chairman of the Senate education committee, countered that the legislation was written with flexibility in mind and doesn’t explicitly bar spending on firearms, The Washington Post reported.
The grants don’t forbid construction of alligator-filled moats around schools, either, if anyone is wondering.
But Congress has been explicit where firearms in schools are considered.
The law itself, Democrats pointed out, does set the goal of creating safe school environments that are “free of weapons.” And following the Parkland shooting, Congress also allocated $50 million each year for school safety grants and specifically barred the use of the funds to provide guns to school employees or for firearms training.
Beyond the question of congressional intent, arming teachers is simply a dangerous and unhelpful idea.
Because it’s been largely untested, of course, there isn’t much research available on the effectiveness of arming teachers. In most states firearms are not allowed on school campuses, and only a handful of districts have allowed teachers to carry guns in the classroom.
But research under development by Sheldon Greenberg, a Johns Hopkins University education professor — and a former police officer — raises questions about the necessity and wisdom of arming school employees.
Greenberg has studied the issue since the Columbine, Colorado, school shooting in 1999, reports CityLab. Greenberg’s working paper points out that even considering their extensive training and familiarity with high-risk and life-threatening situations, evidence shows that police do not always shoot accurately in a crisis.
A teacher with far less training is not likely to perform better than a veteran cop.
And in a roundtable discussion that Greenberg led with law enforcement in 2013, police expressed a number of concerns, including the potential for an armed teacher and a plainclothes officer to mistake each other for the shooter and the increased potential for accidental shootings in schools.
The likelihood of a school shooting also should be weighed against those consequences.
Earlier this week, an investigation by National Public Radio found that the incidence of school shootings in 2015-16 outlined in a U.S. Education Department publication were likely over-reported. The agency said that nearly 240 schools reported at least one incident involving a school-relating shooting. Among the nation’s more than 96,000 schools, that figure would represent a shooting at two-tenths of 1 percent of schools.
The figure is likely much lower, however. NPR, checking with individual school districts, could confirm only 11 reports of firearms being discharged. In 161 cases listed in the federal report, it said, districts said no such incident took place or couldn’t be confirmed. About a quarter of schools didn’t respond. Most of the discrepancies were attributed to data entry and other reporting errors.
While terrible and tragic, school shootings are very uncommon. Arming teachers is an over-reaction, and a dangerous one.
There are other solutions to increasing safety that don’t turn schools into armed camps. Putting more “good guys with guns” into schools would actually make our children less safe.