A Shrewdness of Apes

An Okie teacher banished to the Midwest. "Education is not the filling a bucket but the lighting of a fire."-- William Butler Yeats

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Should teachers be armed?

So I was reading the Carnival of Education #28, and read a thought-provoking post which you can find at http://ticklishears.com/?p=82 (Someday, my browser may let me do all those nifty techie things on this blog, but for now I apologize for the lack of formatting).

Seems a teacher/blogger suggests that in a post- 9-11, post-Columbine world, we need to accept reality that SWAT teams don't work and that teachers should be armed. The author states that terrorists intend to strike soft targets, and US schools, being not very secure, are ripe for a Beslan-type attack. He also states that police are reactive, not proactive, as the slow bleeding death of teacher Dave Sanders at Columbine proves that the police response model is outmoded and ineffective. He cites the fact that Israeli teachers are armed, and claims that that is why there are no school attacks in Israel any more.

So should teachers be the ultimate line of defense? Here are my thoughts.

I have some experience with firearms. I could be certified to carry a weapon if I chose to– I can load, unload, clean and accurately fire a weapon. I am completely comfortable with them, and am in no way squeamish around them.

I also possess the unique skill of being able to convince kids --either with words, commanding voice, or as a last resort, physical leverage-- to stop fighting. Don't get me wrong-- I am a friendly, open person who never raises her voice in the classroom. I am not some thuggy crone who scares the bejeezus out of kids. But, for some reason, I am good at separating junior pugilists, often without having to touch them. It must some kind of subconscious teacher voodoo vibe, like those whistles that only dogs can hear.

Do I choose to own a weapon? No. They don't make me feel safe. I don't think you can get a feeling of safety from having access to a thing. I feel safe because I trust myself and my inner resources. And besides, I have small children who want to eat off mommy's plate, drink out of mommy's drink, and play with mommy's toys. If I did have a gun around, there's no way it would be either loaded or unlocked, no matter how much the NRA claims that they successfully teach kids to go get an adult if they see a gun. This means that, by the time I've got a gun in firing condition if I DID have a need to kill some hopped-up intruder, it would be far too late to use it. And I was taught not to pull a gun out unless you feel a necessity to kill someone with it.

The kind of situations I have encountered in my career certainly have not come close to that standard. The author of the blog I read stated that, during a shooting at a high school in Pearl, Mississippi, a few years back, the assistant principal credited with stopping the shooter used a gun he ran and got from his car, and that the mainstream media hid this fact. Well fine. If true, he got lucky. But it's very possible he could have gotten the shooting to stop in other ways. It's also possible he could have been shot by the assailant even with the gun in his hand.

I currently study two different martial arts– one which includes striking, and one which includes grappling. Not because I am some strutting tough tomboy, but because I need to get in shape and because I enjoy the discipline involved. It also doesn't hurt to add these skills, though, now that I'm getting older, I admit.

Do I use these skills when I monitor troublesome areas in my school? The awareness of one’s surroundings and the projection of a calm, confident mien, yes. But strike or choke a student? No. And the odds are incredibly great that I will never encounter a situation like those at Columbine in which striking or harming a student would be necessary and even, in my opinion, required. And yet it is suggested that I and my colleagues should carry guns.

In a violent or potentially violent situation in a school, we should always seek to use the least amount of force, and once you introduce lethal weapons, you are tacitly upping the ante of teacher response in lesser situations.

When I break up a fight among students, (it’s very rare, but I can do it and have done it over my career) I use the skills and reflexes and open yet commanding demeanor I have honed to assess the situation, and use the least amount of force possible. My main response in a violent situation is neither to watch idly while one kid busts open another kid’s head, nor to bust open a kid’s head myself, but to TRY TO PREVENT PEOPLE (myself included) FROM BEING FURTHER HARMED. (And of course many other teachers and the NEA disagree and tell me not to intervene– fine for you, but I have to live with myself. I do admit I am still a bit resentful of the big strapping male colleague who stood softly chanting "stop, stop" while I did the Heisman on two fighting teens a while back, especially since I had just returned from maternity leave, but that's another story for another day.) How would that dynamic change if I had a .357 strapped to my hip?

One should use a gun when one wants to use the greatest amount of force to resolve a situation, not the least amount. Having teachers carry weapons would be a mistake, for a number of reasons.

1. Most people with access to weapons, being reasonable, law-abiding citizens, hesitate to pull the trigger, but they don’t hesitate to pull the gun out, hoping that the perpetrator will be dissuaded by the mere sight of a weapon. Instead, what happens all too often is that the weapon then gets taken away from them after a violent game of “chicken.” So now the perp has TWO weapons. And if he’s really determined, there’s already a dead or wounded “hero” on the ground– because the perp is NOT a reasonable, law-abiding citizen with deep, unacknowledged doubts about his own ability to use violence. We cannot assume that most teachers really have the will to kill, if necessary. That’s why we’re teachers, not cops.

2. Oh, but killing isn’t necessary, you say. Just shoot to disable or wound. But most people don’t have the training to do this, and they know it. Even the police have a less-than-perfect record at this, which is why both cops and civilians hesitate to pull the trigger in the first place, as mentioned previously– reasonable people know and recoil from the permanent consequences of sending that projectile irrevocably down that barrel.

As my gun-loving Uncle “Roy” taught me when he taught me how to use a gun, “Honey, if you pull out your weapon against some threat, you need to know you’re going to use it, and use it until it’s empty.”

And even if teachers were willing to do so, we don’t have hours a week to spend training ourselves to become this skilled– we’re already drowning in a plethora of tasks just to try to educate our students.

The blogger I read noted that the Supreme Court held in the case of Castle Rock v. Gonzales in 2005 that the police have no legal obligation to intervene in a violent situation (Yep, you can look it up at http://www.law.duke.edu/publiclaw/supremecourtonline/certGrants/2004/casvgon.html). If police response is inadequate to handle a potentially lethal situation at a school, it is not the job of teachers to take on the task of being the armed presence to deter violence. Likewise, let me emphasize that I choose to intervene in fights and scuffles at school, but there is NO WAY in our current litigious society that any teacher could be required to do so. And having just some teachers carrying weapons certainly wouldn't be a good idea.

And, finally, I can't seem to say this enough: there has to come a point when society realizes that schools cannot be all things to all people– we can’t be community centers and therapists and year-round cafeterias and social services providers and barbershops and planned parenthood clinics and daycare facilities and at the same time pretend to be focused on education. The more we dilute our attention away from the main mission, no matter how noble the cause, the more we make sure we won’t be good at ANYTHING, especially the all-too-difficult attempt to encourage the attainment of skills and knowledge by our young people. And packing heat is in no way related to my attempts to encourage learning; indeed, I would say it would greatly detract from my main goal.

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