In the wake of another mass shooting on a school campus, politicians from Trump down are floating the idea of formally encouraging teachers to be armed. Trump has even suggested that teachers willing to do so be given a bonus.
First, let me get this out of the way: I know that there are already teachers who bring guns to school, whether or not it’s legal. There are parts of the country where putting on one’s gun is as natural as putting on a watch in the morning.
That’s not what we’re talking about. We’re not talking about teachers here and there skirting or breaking the rules, or localized gun culture communities; we’re talking about systemic, organized arming of teachers, on a national or state level, regardless of the current climate of the community or school. We’re talking about paying teachers extra to do something that is outside our traditional job description.
Here are twelve reasons why this is a terrible idea.
1. Teaching is a chaotic job. People who talk about arming teachers seem to be acting as if there are two modes: Those occasional catastrophes like the one in Parkland, and smooth flowing waters. The reality is that schools are in a state of frequent or perpetual chaos. Asking teachers to keep track of a gun and ammo, kept separately, on top of our other duties is impractical.
In one scenario, a school fight escalates out of control. The teacher panics and gets their gun to regain the peace. Only a few years ago, a Detroit teacher hit two fighting students with a broom. She was praised by the media, and settled out of court for a third of a million dollars. Ten years of salary and national praise for a broom… in that moment of panic, what would shooting at the students earn?
2. Teaching is a stressful job, and teachers are underpaid and underappreciated. A recent poll by the AFT and BAT found that two-thirds of teachers find “work ‘always’ or ‘often’ stressful, twice the rate of other workers.” A quarter of teachers report being bullied at work, with about one in eight saying they’ve been bullied by a student.
I’d love to say that teachers never lose their temper at students. But it’s far too easy to find evidence to the contrary. Numerous people I’ve talked to, including fellow teachers, have mentioned the fear that a loose cannon teacher would brandish their firearm during a temper tantrum.
3. Teaching is best done with focus. Normally, a teacher has between twenty and forty students at a time. We’re supposed to communicate information, keep the flow, adjust when students are confused, and maintain their attention. We’re supposed to track the time, monitor for distractions, keep school events in mind, and otherwise juggle a bunch of details. Adding another thing to that list, something which if forgotten can have deadly consequence, further dilutes the ability of a teacher to focus on teaching.
Imagine: A responsible teacher has a momentary lapse of judgment. The key for the gun lockbox is kept with the room key. The teacher and some students are working somewhere else in the building, and a student asks to get something out of the teacher’s room. The teacher hands the keys over, forgetting (fatefully) about the lockbox key.
4. Students can overpower teachers. Darren Wilson was cleared of wrongdoing when he shot Michael Brown, because of his narrative: Brown attacked him and reached into his car, trying to get control of Wilson’s gun. If a police officer, someone who is ostensibly trained to use guns far greater than needed for a gun permit, someone sitting in their own vehicle, is exonerated for shooting someone, what chance do teachers and students have?
5. Teaching has a race problem. Some of the more infamous videos of teachers losing their tempers involve white teachers berating black and Latinx students, including one that literally threatened to shoot a student. Interracial trust is already difficult enough to build without black parents having to worry about white teachers who might shoot their child.
6. Public schools are woefully underfunded. As a public school teacher, I deal with broken technology. Every school I’ve been in has had some sort of issues in furniture, services, supplies, or other basic needs. In some public schools, mold grows in the hallways. Some schools lack heat. So who’s paying for these guns? How are they getting replaced when they fall into disrepair?
7. Good guys with guns look just like bad guys with guns. There are plenty of stories about “good guys” who get assaulted or shot at by confused police officers. Philando Castile was a school employee. He was killed after telling a police officer he was legally carrying a firearm.
8. Tragically, we already have a school-to-prison pipeline. We don’t need to make our schools feel even more like prisons. Many of my students are from traumatic backgrounds. They don’t need more fear and hostility in their school, the sort that guns bring. They need to feel safe, but true safety comes from removing guns entirely, not from adding more.
9. You’re asking teachers to shoot former students. Police themselves struggle with shooting perpetrators when they need to. In Parkland, the person whose primary job it was to secure the premises failed to enter the melee. And even when they do return fire, police only hit their mark about a fifth of the time. If a trained professional, someone who has committed to shooting people if needed, misses four out of every five shots, what would be the success rate of a teacher shooting into a crowd of students? How many innocent people will be shot in the crossfire?
10. Financial incentives can backfire. Paying teachers a bonus to be armed sounds like a good idea to people who don’t remember which teachers are paid most poorly. Opportunities like after-school tutoring are most attractive to teachers at the low end of the pay scale, those of us struggling especially hard to make ends meet. Given that teacher burnout and stress levels are highest in the first five years of teaching, and given that those are the teachers most likely to be attracted by this bonus… Not a good mix.
And who accepts the liability when there’s an accident? If you’re asking teachers to carry guns as part of their duties, even voluntarily, then you’re opening the district up for a lawsuit when a gun goes off by accident. If you’re paying them a bonus, that’s even more liability. And there absolutely will be accidents. Several of the on-campus shootings listed by Everytown have been accidents.
11. Eventually, it won’t be “voluntary.” The claim is that only those teachers fully willing to be armed will be given that opportunity. But it’s not a long road from that to administrators asking about willingness in job interviews. Teachers who aren’t willing to be armed might keep their current jobs, but it will be more difficult to find new positions. I’ve been told that there’s too much of a shortage of teachers right now for administrators to really think that way, but I’ve seen too many administrator decisions that don’t make much practical sense. This wouldn’t be different.
12. What will it really change? Even if it discourages shooters from coming into the school building (which is a big “if,” considering the suicidal nature of many shooters), people who are committed to causing carnage will adapt. In 1979, a school shooting involved a teenager firing on the elementary school across the street; this was the basis for the Boomtown Rats song “I Don’t Like Mondays.” In November 2017, a shooter on a rampage drove past an elementary school and opened fire out his window. We need to take guns away from dangerous people, and we need to better address and fix those dangers.
People who suggest we arm teachers are looking at specific incidents. Honestly, there’s little doubt in my own mind that school shootings like Newtown or Parkland would have gone differently had there been a more significant threat of armed personnel on campus, be it officers, teachers, or others.
But those are still very much statistical blips compared to the issues we teachers face daily, issues that would escalate into violence much quicker with the presence of guns. Perhaps we’d have fewer mass school shootings, but we’d have far more shootings overall.
Everytown tracks school shootings. So far in 2018, they report 18 on-campus shootings, only two of which were mass shootings. The day after the shooting in Parkland, a police officer accidentally fired their gun in a school in Florida. During a lockdown drill.
Adding guns won’t solve the problem. Let’s use the money that we suddenly seem to have found for funding an arms program for teachers, and use it instead for a national program for addressing toxic masculinity and boys. That will solve the problem far quicker.
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