Since the December 2012 tragedy in Newtown, Conn., legislators in numerous states across the country have made good on their promise to introduce legislation to allow school officials to carry guns in school.
The debate hit my home state of Kansas last April, and it fell to insurance companies to provide a voice of reason and ultimately refuse to cover schools where officials were permitted to carry firearms. Now that the Missouri legislature has sent a similar bill to the governor’s desk, it is time for another reality check.
Certainly, proposals to arm principals and teachers are borne of a desperate concern for the safety of students and educators. The concern is sincere and, as a principal, I am grateful lawmakers share it. Well-intentioned though they are, however, proposals to arm school officials could not be more wrongheaded.
I approach the argument not from a philosophical concern about turning schools into fortresses — though I do share that concern — but from the concrete realities of school shootings.
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My good friend Bill Bond, now a widely recognized school safety specialist, was principal of Heath High School in Paducah, Ky., 17 years ago when a student opened fire, killing three classmates. Since then, Bill has traveled the country helping schools avoid a similar tragedy and assisting in the aftermath of nearly every school shooting.
Bill has carefully examined the anatomy of each of those events, and his conclusions echo those of Medford, Ore., Police Chief Tim George: “In crisis situations there are a lot of very complex things happening all at once, and you have to constantly train for deadly force incidents.” Consider these factors:
Shooting incidents occur quickly. The shooting at Heath took all of 12 seconds, the shooting a Sandy Hook three to four minutes. So we would be asking school officials, trained as educators, to make a quick transition from teacher to SWAT member, arrive on the scene, assess the situation, overcome the severe nervousness that naturally accompanies a deadly-force incident, and take immediate action before blood is shed. It’s a bit more than you can cover in a typical teacher in-service.
The shooter has deadly intent, and therefore an edge. The shooter knows exactly what he wants to do. That’s why the shooter will more likely kill an armed resource officer before the officer can even fire. The shooter doesn’t hesitate. Conversely, if a school official suspects a student has a gun, and the suspect reaches into his pocket, gun-policy efficacy requires that the school official shoot the student. He can’t wait to see if the would-be shooter is just toting a cell phone. Otherwise the school official puts his own life in jeopardy.
Our solutions are rational. The shooter is not. We speak of guns in schools in part as deterrent, as if the shooter were in a healthy mental state. The shooter has already made the decision to die. The presence of guns does not deter him.
Perhaps an armed school official can intervene in time to save a few lives that would otherwise be lost. That is indeed both possible and laudable. Yet that hope bumps up against another reality: Gun-related violent behavior is closely connected to local access to guns. Increase the number of guns in a school — no matter how carefully we safeguard them — and we can expect an increase in gun violence.
Sadly, there is no simple solution to this complex problem. But we know the actual solution. It has been identified time and again by the Secret Service, the FBI and numerous researchers: The most effective way to prevent acts of violence targeted at schools is by building trusting relationships with students and others in the community, so threats come to light and can be investigated as appropriate.
The solution is a matter of school culture. It’s a matter of community engagement. It’s a matter of public health. And yes, it’s a matter of gun access. The real solution is multifaceted and complex but as each tragic event reminds us, it is work we must undertake.
G. A. Buie is principal of Eudora High School in Kansas and president-elect of the 20,000-member National Association of Secondary School Principals.