Arming Teachers: Is It Worth It?
In early 2018, a gunman opened fire in Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, killing 17 people and injuring 17 others. In the wake of the horrific shooting, Florida legislature established the Guardian Program, which aimed to protect students by allowing trained school staff, excluding teachers, to carry guns in school. To the Republicans of Florida’s legislature, however, this wasn’t enough to reduce school shootings. They proposed, earlier this year, to extend the program to include teachers as well. The proposal was, however, met with backlash from House Democrats in the minority, who argued that it would prove to be not only ineffective but also a danger to minority students. After a long, heated debate within the Florida State House, the proposed bill won approval and was put into law this October.
The idea of arming teachers to protect students isn’t an entirely bad idea on paper. Republicans imagine a disturbed, psychotic person entering a school with a gun and consequently being gunned down by a teacher who cares for his or her students. Surely bringing more guns into the equation will stop or at least deter people who hope to terrorize our schools, right? However, Republicans have misplaced their faith in the abilities of America’s teachers as secondary “first responders” to put even a dent in the problem we now face. They forget that some states already arm their teachers and they haven’t done much to reduce school shootings. Moreover, as the Florida House Democrats argued, the law could have unintended negative consequences for minority students, who could suffer a much more lethal form of discrimination by teachers. Given the observed ineffectiveness and potential counter-productivity of arming teachers, America should move on from this debate and think of alternate approaches to the problem of gun violence in its schools.
There are already 14 states that allow teachers to be armed: Alabama, Arkansas, Colorado, Idaho, Indiana, Missouri, Montana, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Dakota, Texas, Utah, and Washington. Texas, which has had one of the largest numbers of school shootings since 1970, has been arming its teachers for over a decade. And the results are underwhelming. After 2007, the year Texas began procedures to arm its teachers, the state’s rate of school shootings began to dip but later rose way above the averages of the other 49 states. Republicans cannot claim that armed teachers have reduced the number of casualties, either; the rate of casualties in Texas school shootings has also rested above the averages of the other states and has shown no sign of decreasing. If this hasn’t proven to be a wake-up call for Texas’s legislation to find an alternate solution to the problem, I’m not sure what will.
The problem of arming teachers goes deeper than the effectiveness of adding more guns. There’s also the question of whether or not teachers can be trusted with guns. There are a number of factors that affect the decision-making process of armed teachers in a dangerous situation–in this case, a scenario in which an armed intruder enters the school: stress, impulsiveness, the affiliation of the armed intruder with the school (e.g student, former student, no affiliation, etc.), accuracy with a gun, ability to quickly and properly assess the situation, etc. Military and police officers undergo years of extensive training with not only guns but dangerous situations like an armed assailant. They’re taught, significantly longer than teachers, to be aware of all of the circumstances mentioned earlier. Compare that to the procedures teachers undergo in order to legally carry a gun in school: a measly two-week training session that scratches just the surface of proper shooting techniques and situation assessment.
In addition, there’s little reason to trust teachers with the responsibility of protecting their students. They may be closer shields than the police, but their under-training makes them a heavy liability. Compared to most military and police officers, teachers have a very limited capacity to keep their cool when chaotic situations arise. With guns, they may make impulsive, spur-of-the-moment decisions that can yield bad results. This can be explained by the phenomenon known as the “weapons effect.” In 1967, psychologists Leonard Berkowitz and Anthony LePage ran an experiment that consisted of one hundred male university students. All of them were told that they would receive, randomly, either one shock or seven shocks by a peer. Afterwards, those who received the shocks were told they could administer as many shocks to their peer as they wanted.
The portion of students who were placed in the presence of guns generally gave the most shocks (of that portion, half were told that the gun belonged to their peer). The results, which were successfully replicated in 56 other experiments, supported Berkowitz and LePage’s hypothesis: guns make people more aggressive. Now, imagine a stressed, nerve-wracked teacher with a gun and very limited training in the event of a school shooting or even a fight. The knowledge of the teacher that he or she has a gun as well as the suspicion by a student that the teacher may have one may amplify any perceived threat to dangerous levels. There’s an impulsive, fatal mistake by either parties just waiting to happen.
That’s not the only factor that could affect the lethality of such situations. When a minority student is put into the equation, things could get worse. Racism hasn’t ended since the Civil Rights Movement and is still prevalent in our schools today. According to data collected by the Department of Education, African American students, who make up 15 percent of the student body, make up 35 percent of the students who receive one suspension and 44 percent of those who are suspended more than once. Moreover, according to a report by the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI), minority students said they had comparable or greater experiences of harassment, threats, and even being hit. Given this data, we can reasonably expect minorities to be the targets of racist teachers who make spur-of-the-moment decisions in a bad situation.
When the Florida legislature discussed arming teachers, Republican Representative Byron Donalds of Naples argued a similar point: “…the one thing that we have to acknowledge — as unfortunate as it is — is that when a psychotic person enters a facility, a school… the first responders, the real first responders, are the school staff that love our children.” It’s true that many teachers in America are compassionate for their students and that they want to protect them when the police cannot. But let’s not get carried away and treat them like secondary cops. That’s not what they are. Additionally, given that handing them guns has had little effect on the rate of school shootings, it’s time for us to come up with another solution.