In the aftermath of the Sandy Hooks school shootings a number of politicians, particularly in my home state, have called for allowing public school teachers to be allowed to carry concealed handguns in their classrooms. Political figures like Texas governor Rick Perry argue such a move would empower teachers who legally own guns and are licensed to carry them to protect their students in a attack situation. Texas lieutenant governor David Dewhurst recently called for state funding to support teachers who want to receive firearm training. Before we all open our wallets, or strap a Glock next to them, let us pause and consider what it means to bring weapons in our classrooms.
Without a doubt, teachers have a sacred duty to protect – physically as well as psychologically - their students. We should strive to create safe and orderly classroom environments where students are able to focus on learning and be free from the distractions of bullies, unclear expectations, and their strong, unending desire to post to Facebook in the middle of the school day. When I first began teaching, I thought real classroom authority rested in my ability to raise my voice and be heard above my students; in other words, I was a yeller. A mentor quickly helped me see the power in waiting for total silence before you speak. I now know teachers with the best classroom management rarely raise their voices or become visibly frustrated. They administer consequences with consistency and a smile. Who among us has not learned the almost Jedi-Knight-worthy power of “the teacher look?”
Teachers can play an essential, life-saving role in a school shooting situation I have written before about those heroic teachers who disarm shooters by persuasion or by physical restraint. We saw this again this past week when a California teacher convinced a 16 year-old boy to lay down his shotgun. But the school shooting story that springs to my mind when I think of arming teachers occurred in my community here in the Rio Grande Valley. Last January, 15 year-old Jamie Gonzales was shot multiple times by school security guards after brandishing a pellet gun at his middle school in Brownsville, Texas. On the one hand the boy’s teachers and family members described his actions as uncharacteristic and expressed shock at the lethal force used by the school security. On the other hand the security guards justify their actions as completely necessary. Who can blame them (except, perhaps, Jamie’s family)? What would you do if you had a gun and a student pointed a weapon at you? But what if you did not have a gun?
The German-American political theorist Hannah Arendt escaped the Holocaust and witnessed the harrowing testimony against the Nazi officers at the Nürenberg trials. In reflecting on these horrors she wrote “violence is mute.” Even having lived through one of the most horrific moments in human history Arendt specifically rejected the power of violence as impotent. To what extent would a teacher armed with a handgun attempt to talk down a shooter? I worry providing teachers with the option of shooting diminishes their willingness to negotiate with the shooter who is likely a merely child.
Experts seem to agree the incredible fire power used at Sandy Hooks could not have been stopped by handguns. Those who are not calling for tighter gun control focus their attention on the need to identify and provide support for the mentally ill. Regardless whether or not we should ban high capacity magazines and assault weapons or provide weapons training to teachers, we should certainly expect teachers to play a critical role in supporting young men and women with mental illness. However as a teacher my time and resources are overwhelmed by planning lessons, grading, tutoring, supervising, coaching, and other essential tasks that I overlook warning signs. I still feel deeply guilty about one student I taught who clearly exhibited obsessive-compulsive tendencies. He was “different” and “a bit odd” but he made really high grades and seemed functional - until the day he could not get out of bed and come to school. I never saw him again.
Teachers play a critical role in preventing school shootings. But instead of spending money on weapons training let us hire more social workers and licensed councilors to support our overworked educators. Let’s spend money training teachers to recognize the signs of mental illness and provide them with resources to help when needed. Perhaps guns are a necessary tool of school security guards or police but they are a poor fit for teachers. Our sphere of influence is our students’ minds and characters – a gun is ill suited to shaping these precious resources.