2018-02-28 / Front Page

Should teachers carry guns?


In the weeks following the Parkland, Florida, high school shooting that left 17 dead and 14 wounded, one idea has made it to the forefront of the national conversation like never before: arming America’s teachers.

It’s a position that the National Rifle Association championed after the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, but the notion has gained traction since President Donald Trump embraced it last week.

In addition to raising the age for buying firearms from 18 to 21 years, enhanced background checks, allowing law enforcement to take away firearms from the mentally ill and banning bump stocks – which allow semiautomatic guns to shoot like automatic ones – Trump has floated the idea of arming trained teachers in response to the shooting. Trump says arming teachers and giving them extra pay as an incentive would make schools less appealing targets for shooters.

Since Trump’s championing of the idea, the debate over arming teachers has made the rounds of the national press. Virginia Republican candidate for U.S. Senate Corey Stewart recently weighed in on the matter as well, tweeting, “Training and arming a few teachers in each school would make these attackers think twice about ever opening fire.” With all this discussion taking place, is there any possibility of armed teachers in Chesterfield?

Shawn Smith, spokesman with Chesterfield County Public Schools, says the division isn’t considering it.

“With very limited exceptions, weapons are not allowed on school property or in vehicles on school property,” states Smith via email.

According to the Code of Virginia, anyone aside from a law enforcement officer, retired law enforcement officer, school security officer or licensed armed security officer is guilty of a Class 6 felony if they knowingly bring a firearm onto school grounds. If a person intends to use, attempts to use, or displays a firearm in a threatening manner, they are also guilty of a Class 6 felony and are subject to serve a mandatory minimum prison term of five years. Exceptions apply if it is part of a school’s curriculum or activities.

While the code doesn’t appear to definitively state whether schools can or cannot arm teachers, Eugene Volokh, a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles School of Law, says that as long as a teacher fits state law’s provision of having served as an active law enforcement officer within the past decade – as its armed security guards must – he doesn’t see the issue. “It shouldn’t be that difficult for a school to … deputize some teachers as armed security officers,” Volokh says, adding that a school system would probably want to put such language through the legislature to be safe.

Currently, the Chesterfield County Police Department has school resource officers at every middle- and high-school-level campus in the county, with patrol officers routinely visiting elementary schools. Security guards are also employed at county high schools.

Capt. David Fuller, who runs the county police division that oversees school resource officers, says there hasn’t been any talk of assigning additional officers to schools, and declined to comment about arming teachers.

Regarding the training undertaken by school resource officers, Fuller writes that “all officers are instructed to locate, isolate, and contain the threat, by limiting the threat’s ability to move, and to directly confront the threat to seek compliance with law enforcement commands or more drastic actions, if necessary.”

That the school system appears uninterested in arming its teachers is welcome news to Sonia Smith, president of the Chesterfield Education Association. Smith says being expected to operate a firearm in a crisis is too much of a responsibility on top of the other stressors that come with being a teacher. Too quickly, a common incident like a fistfight could turn deadly, she says.

“When you add ammunition to that equation, somebody’s child could accidentally be shot,” Smith says.

David Van Buren, owner of and instructor with TAC-Solutions, a Chesterfield company that conducts firearm and active shooter training, says the conversation about addressing school shootings needs to include either arming teachers or plainclothes security officers.

“We’ve got to have a deterrent for that person walking through the door,” says Van Buren, who advocates for mental health screenings. “We have to minimize the vulnerability of our schools.”

If we trust educators with children for the length of a school day, he says, we should trust them with guns.

Lori Haas, Virginia state director with the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, disagrees with arming teachers.

“It’s a bad idea on so many levels,” says Haas, whose daughter was shot twice during the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre and survived. “We need to do a better job of disarming people whose behaviors put them at risk of future violence.”

Only five states have “red flag laws” – statutes that can be used to temporarily seize guns from people deemed a threat to themselves or others. A bill to establish such a procedure in Virginia was defeated by the General Assembly in January.

Florida also doesn’t have the procedure, which meant that although the Parkland shooter gave off warning signs that he might commit acts of violence, it wasn’t enough to bar him from possessing guns.

“They had no legal authority to remove his firearms,” Haas says. “Let’s give law enforcement the tools that they need.”

While armed teachers may not be coming to Chesterfield any time soon, the school system announced last week its creation of a School Safety Task Force, which will examine school safety, student and mental health support services.

Though Smith, the Chesterfield Education Association president, welcomes these developments, she also wants smaller class sizes and less mandated testing so teachers have more time to build relationships with their students.

“Everyone’s tired,” Smith says. “We’re tired of seeing such tragedy and loss, time and again. We’re not addressing the real issue, and putting a gun in a teacher’s hand is not addressing the issue.” ¦

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