Teachers on the front line

Arming teachers isn’t the answer to school shootings; addressing mental health and limiting access to guns is a start

August 2, 2022 7:00 am

Following the Uvalde, Texas, school shooting, a group of women stand outside the Tennessee Capitol protesting lax guns laws. (Photo: John Partipilo). Courtesy of the Tennessee Lookout.

In 1987 I began my teaching career. The classroom that I taught in then is now a vestige of the past and we are continuously redefining what the modern school or classroom should look like.

Student discipline is a complicated and often uneven process in our schools, with board policies and state laws often failing to keep up to date. To be fair, students in schools have always misbehaved, impacting their ability to learn along with the other students around them. These problems have escalated to such a point that it has helped drive good people out of the classroom and negatively influenced people willing to become teachers. This is especially true in schools with a reputation for having a culture of discipline issues or weak community support.

We are seeing violence against teachers and other children escalate. While active shooter events in schools are still rare, since 1970, there have been 2,069 incidents involving the discharge of a firearm on school property and 684 people have died with 1,937 injured. We know 43% of the incidents have involved a student attending the school.

Youth violence is one of the greatest crime problems faced in the United States. The FBI has done an extensive study on this subject and has partnered with state and local governments to develop prevention and enforcement programs.

Ed Week observed that school shooters normally have several things in common: “They suffered early-childhood trauma and exposure to violence at a young age. They were angry or despondent over a recent event, resulting in feelings of suicidality.” Mental health is now a critical element in public education.

It bears reiterating that active shooter events in schools are still rare, when they happen, they have tragic outcomes.

On May 24, the deadliest school shooting in Texas history occurred in a Uvalde, Texas school that was safe, according to its written safety plans but had a “culture of noncompliance with safety policies.”

Even the police responders ignored their active shooter training. The result was that two teachers and 19 elementary school students were senselessly murdered, and seventeen others injured. The Texas House of Representatives issued a report that “found systemic failures and egregious poor decision making” by law enforcement.  More importantly, they failed to establish “reliable communications.”

The report pointed out something that every community and school is aware of: “No school could ever be built to prevent every conceivable threat, but they can be built and operated in ways to better mitigate risk and impede potential threats from outside attackers.”

School safety is now something all educators can no longer ignore and must confront. Teachers are now at the front lines of the school safety debate. We can no longer ignore the threat.

As a Marine, I carried an M16A2 assault rifle. I also used to fire a .50 Caliber Machine Gun and M60. The M16 fires 5.56mm (or .223 caliber) ammunition. The AR-15 is the most popular rifle—a type of which was used in the Uvalde mass shooting— in the country today and is remarkably like the M16. The rounds come out of the barrel at a high rate of speed, when you hit a person, they often leave sizeable entry and exit wounds that are not clean. The fragments puncture and damage the adjacent tissue.

The medical community is pushing for people to learn how to stop victims from bleeding out before first responders arrive in shootings. Broward County Medical Director Dr. Peter Antevy said, “We have to have the general public understand that they are the first line of defense.”  Our guess is the Stop the Bleed program will also be added to the growing list of tasks that educators must learn.

Soldiers sometimes get numb to death, but it is unnatural to kill someone else and educators never expected to address institutional safety from an evidence-based best practice approach focusing on the social, emotional, mental, and physical factors in their job description. They never expected a debate that they need to carry a firearm to even teach a class. They never thought they may need to learn how to stop a child or colleague from bleeding out before first responders arrive.

Mike Conrad, a teacher in Detroit said, “I think that the moment that you put a gun on the hip of a teacher in a classroom, that we have accepted the norm that school shootings will not stop, that we are now on the front line to defend against them, instead of trying to find a way to stop them.”

We need real solutions to these problems. A starting point includes the need to make our schools and classrooms safer with updated security features.  We suggest including better tracking and reporting of conduct problemsdelinquencyacting out problemsstudent aggression and violence, and social information processing variables.

Parents should restrict children’s exposure to violence in media and social media. It is critical to identify children who pose a possible risk with input from parents, educators, school resource officers, school counselors, and mental health professionals. We also suggest limiting access to guns by minors by restricting the purchase of some weapons until 21 while holding adults more responsible. Access prevention laws can reduce suicide and unintentional gun deaths and injuries among children. These are just a few suggestions.

One of the highest priorities we can have in American society is the safety and protection of children – and the people who teach them. Real lives, those of children and adults, are at stake in our schools. Schools must be safe zones for all students and teachers. This must be a priority.

This commentary was published earlier by the Tennessee Lookout, an affiliate of the nonprofit States Newsroom network, which includes the Florida Phoenix.

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J.C. Bowman
J.C. Bowman

JC Bowman is the Executive Director & CEO of Professional Educators of Tennessee. He began his career in education in Tennessee public schools, where he taught high school social sciences and special education for thirteen years. He has been the executive director of Professional Educators since 2011.