Arkansas Arms its Teachers

School day mornings at my elementary school smelled like Folger’s coffee.  For six years, bright-eyed, happy teachers greeted me as I strolled into the classroom with or without my homework.  With or without toothpaste on my face.  With or without my socks and underwear on right-side out.  They waited for me at the front of the classroom with their coffee and their lesson plans.

Every once in a while, Mrs. E, who was barely taller than the third graders she taught, got up from her perch in front of the overhead projector, her face lit up, and she’d energetically shake her whole body as she cried out, “pizzazz!” twanging the last syllable. I didn’t understand exactly what pizzazz was, but it seemed to beam down through her and out onto us.

But I don’t think she would’ve shaken it so vigorously with a gun on her hip.

Violent gun attacks are increasingly common in America’s schools.  The horrifying massacre of twenty children at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut last December precipitated an intense national debate about guns and how to prevent future attacks in schools.  The dichotomous debate revolving around gun-control laws became even more divisive when the National Rifle Association’s proposed using armed teachers to defend schools.  While the National Education Association (NEA) reports that educators overwhelmingly oppose the NRA’s position, many Republican lawmakers champion the idea of enlisting armed school employees as the first line of defense against attackers.

Eighteen states already permit adults to carry firearms on school grounds if given permission by school authorities.  And just last month, Arkansas voted to allow thirteen school districts to use teachers and school administrators as armed guards despite opposition from the state’s attorney general.

An American child is three times more likely to die by gun violence than an American soldier in Iraq or Afghanistan.  According to a report by the Children’s Defense Fund, the number of American children killed by gun violence since 1979 exceeds the combined number of American military casualties in Vietnam and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. This should put us all to shame.

But the concept of arming teachers is simply a reactionary solution to an execrable reality.

Teachers are charged with perhaps the most important task in American society: education.  The relationship between a student and her teacher is sacred. Introducing a gun into that relationship would create a devastating barrier.

America’s children deserve better than this, and so do America’s teachers. None of us would be where we are, reading this article, analyzing it, formulating a counter argument, if it weren’t for the men and women who dragged us, often kicking and screaming, through the alphabet and fractions, comma splices, the Revolutionary War, the French subjunctive.

Teachers built the foundation we’re standing on. Many would not hesitate to put themselves between a bullet and a child, and many did at Sandy Hook.  But charging teachers with keeping our children from being gunned down demonstrates a collective disregard for the most important profession in America.

It is not the responsibility of teachers to keep gunmen out of their classrooms.  If a teacher is chasing down a gunman in the hallway, who is watching and comforting terrified children? Who is stuffing them into cabinets and lowering them out of windows, actions taken by teachers at Sandy Hook that saved many young lives?

Not all teachers would agree to be armed, and the thought that a few teachers with license to carry would provide an effective deterrent against a psychologically unstable shooter is naïve.  Moreover, training and arming teachers effectively would be logistically nightmarish and costly.  It’s one thing to fire a gun, something else entirely to take fire.  In order for this to work, teachers participating in this program would have to undergo intense training.

A report called the School Shield Program funded by the NRA, who claims it had no influence in the study, recommends training and arming school employees.  Former Arkansas Republican Congressman Asa Hutchinson led the twelve-member task force who issued the report.

The report found that “local school authorities are in the best position to make a final decision on school safety procedures, specifically whether an armed security guard is necessary and supported by the education and citizen community.”  The report supports the security training of willing school employees and cites the lack of funding for the gaps in many schools’ security.  But arming teachers is a specious solution to a problem state and federal government should be willing to bankroll.

America’s teachers are already overworked and underpaid.  In 2009, following a report by The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the New York Times reported that every year, American teachers spend an average of 1,080 hours teaching, the most in the developed world.  But when it comes to pay, American teachers rank 11th according to that same report.

According to the U.S. Census, in 2007 American teachers made on average $50,758 a year.  A study funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation reported that America’s teachers work an average of 10 hours and 40 minutes a day.  The National Council on Teacher Quality says American teachers work about 185 days a year.

185 days x 10.67 hours ≈ 1974 hours

$50,758 ÷ 1974 ≈ $25.71/ hour

On top of this, it is an egregious error of judgment to ask teachers to bear the psychological and emotional cost of being responsible for school security.

Asking a teacher to provide security is to expect her to be prepared to take the life of a child, possibly a student she knows.  Do we hold teachers in such low esteem that we would nonchalantly ask the guardians of our children to be prepared to shoot one of them in the head?  Killing, no matter how justified, always has a price.  Teachers should not have to bear that cost.

The United States currently has over 2 million qualified individuals.  A report by the Institute for Veterans and Military Families at Syracuse University found that unemployment rates among veterans aged 20-24 are among the highest in the country.  These young men and women are well-trained and more than capable of protecting our nation’s schools if employed as armed guards.  State and federal governments could surely find the funding to finance such a program in cash-strapped districts, and the classroom would continue to be insulated from the creeping threat of violence that an armed teacher or a gun locker in a classroom represents.

Arming teachers communicates to children that attempts to massacre them are expected and as much a part of childhood as spelling tests and field trips.


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