With the new school year upon us, it is understandable that we are still engaged in a heated debate about weapons in schools. The mass murder of 26 children and faculty at Sandy Hook Elementary School occurred during the 2012-13 academic school year and rocked the psyche of anyone charged with keeping children safe. However, I respectfully suggest that arming or not arming school personnel is the wrong question.
Will students be safer with an armed school resource officer walking their halls or teachers carrying concealed weapons? Many, including the National Elementary and Secondary School Principals Associations, have gone on record with a resounding “no.” First and foremost, it is the responsibility of all educators to foster a safe, orderly, warm and inviting environment. Schools must be perceived as havens where students want to be. The presence of armed school officials conveys just the opposite message to students and the community. The real question is, what practices will result in children being more safe at school? The answer is knowledge and training.
Columbine, Virginia Tech and Sandy Hook will be forever remembered as acts of pure evil and insanity. Could these incidents have been predicted? Most likely not. As FBI profilers note, there is great variability to school shootings. For example, the shooter at Sandy Hook did not speak to anyone, therefore attempting to reason was out of the question. But the shooter at a high school in Taft, Calif., just two weeks after Sandy Hook, was talked into giving up his weapon by two courageous and insightful teachers. Both armed intruders, but different circumstances that called for very different responses. Therefore, instead of drilling to secure in place when an armed intruder invades a building, all school personnel need to problem solve. They must be trained and empowered to make the decision, in the moment, that carries with it the greatest probability of shielding students from harm. For example, school staff should decide individually, based on real time circumstances, if evacuation, securing in place, attempting to de-escalate the shooter or fighting back is the best response to an armed threat.
In addition, school violence statistics reveal that students and/or a disgruntled community member bringing their grievances into the building pose the greatest threat to school security. It is clear that a variety of situations can threaten the well-being of students. Therefore, everyone charged with ensuring the safety of school children -- administrators, teachers, support staff, cafeteria workers, bus drivers and custodians -- must train and retrain on research-based practices. For example, with one of the greatest dangers in school buildings being student-to-student violence, all school personnel should be trained in safe crisis management. Safe crisis training is a comprehensive continuum of prevention, de-escalation and safe emergency intervention strategies for responding to bullying/aggressive behavior in schools.
We must also work to create a school culture whereby everyone takes responsibility for safety. Some simple, low cost and effective ways to nurture a community of shared responsibility include:
n Inviting students to participate in safety planning. They, more so than adults, know the hidden or less trafficked areas of the school that are more likely to be dangerous.
n Encouraging students to relentlessly promote compliance with school rules and resist peer pressure to act irresponsibly.
n Arranging anonymous reporting systems for students. Make sure student hot lines and “suggestion” boxes are always available and acted upon.
And finally, educators must be trained to have conversations with families about gun safety. We should follow the lead of the American Academy of Pediatrics who argue that inquiring about guns is “a cornerstone of pediatric care.” We remind parents to make their children wear helmets when biking and buckle up in the car. Now, like our physician colleagues, we must also ask whether parents keep guns at home and whether they’re stored safely -- with the ammunition and the firearm kept separately in locked cabinets and the key tucked away from children. This is not the time to avoid difficult conversations. After all, as District Judge Marcia Cooke from Florida notes, counseling a family about firearm safety “does not affect nor interfere with the person’s right to continue to own, possess, or use firearms.”
On any given day, educators must be prepared to respond to a myriad of emergencies wherever they are in the building. Reframing the debate from arming school personnel to training school personnel will ensure that funding is appropriately allocated. It is only by committing to responsive and on-going safety training that everyone charged with the well-being of children can respond to the unique needs of K-12 educational communities.
Barbara A. Marinak
is a former school administrator and Associate Professor of Education at Mount St. Mary’s University’s School of Education and Human Services.