March 12, 2018
It didn't take a student bringing a loaded gun into Fels High School recently to remind educators that the threat of gun violence is very real.
Here in Philadelphia and its suburbs, as well as more rural South Jersey, school administrators have had to rethink not only how they might handle an active shooter but also how they respond to teachers, students and parents who are joining the #EnoughisEnough movement.
Reaction to gun violence often draws seemingly immovable lines between different factions - like NRA allies, worried parents and student protesters, many of whom have been taking to the streets and social media since the Feb. 14 shooting in Florida that killed 17 students and teachers.
One of the most outspoken survivors of the Parkland shooting, Emma Gonzales, now has more Twitter followers than the NRA. And several major retailers like Dick's have stopped selling assault rifles like the ones used in recent shootings. It points to what some are saying is a change in the way the nation is responding to mass shootings – even if many legislators might still seem stuck in the mud.
One of the most controversial ideas in the wake of Parkland came from President Donald Trump, who proposed arming teachers in classrooms.
On Friday, Florida Gov. Rick Scott signed legislation to allow some teachers and staff to carry guns in school.
Earlier last week, legislation in Mississippi advanced that would authorize schools and colleges to permit teachers or staff members to carry guns after they get firearms training.
So, should Pennsylvania and New Jersey consider similar legislation?
In response to a call on social media, several teachers from the region were willing to share their personal thoughts about this tough issue, most notably why they think arming teachers is a really bad idea. It should be noted that while one teacher asked that her last name not be used in this story, none of them speak for the schools that employ them.
Kathleen is a 49-year-old preschool teacher in Gloucester County, N.J. She's been teaching pre-K for almost a decade and while the subject of gun violence certainly isn't something that's discussed with the three- to five-year-old children in her classroom, fire and lockdown drills have become a regular part of their lives.
Kathleen says as a mom, she's seen the impact that news of school shootings can have on kids. Just last week, her teenage daughter came home from school panicked after a fire alarm went off without the customary warnings that usually precede a drill. Kids huddled in a classroom thinking that someone may have a gun at the school. Fortunately, it was just a false alarm.
A big question for some teachers is how much training would be required to actually fire a gun – and who will pay for the instruction.
Kathleen says that an overwhelming fear of guns is why she'd never want to be armed in the classroom. She fears accidents and the impact guns could have on a child's sense of safety.
"I would be worried about the gun going off," Kathleen admits. "And would I keep it on me? If so, how do I keep it away from the students? I cannot imagine sitting at circle time or playing on the floor or running around the playground with a gun strapped on. And if it isn't on me, how am I supposed to get it to use in an emergency?"
Kathleen says that teachers have enough to focus on without worrying about a loaded firearm ending up in little hands. "If I'm dealing with a gun," she says, "I'm not protecting my students."
In addition to the moral and safety concerns, a big question for some teachers is how much training would be required to actually fire a gun – and who will ultimately take charge and pay for the instruction when many school districts like Philadelphia are already cash-strapped. Add this to the fact that we only recently learned that armed deputies did not enter the Parkland school to confront the active gunman, suggesting that police training may not always be enough to handle such life-or-death situations.
"It would make schools feel more like detention centers," says Kathleen.
There's also the question of race, most notably how people feel about white teachers being armed in classrooms with black students. "One black parent said they'd pull their child out of school," Kathy says.
In fact, a recent Huffington Post and YouGov poll found the idea of teachers carrying guns is split along racial lines. About 45 percent of whites surveyed favored the arming of teachers, while half of blacks were very strongly opposed to it.
Politics also plays a role in how people see the issue. According to the same poll, nearly 70 percent of Republicans support arming teachers compared to only 20 percent of Democrats.
"It would just add so much unnecessary risk," says Kathleen, who lives and works in an area where a lot of people are gun owners. "It seems like a lot of them are all for having someone in the school building armed. More often than not they want a vet or a retired cop on site, and I've heard a few people talk about teachers being armed. They tend to talk about it in terms of letting teachers who are comfortable with guns be armed in school, but they definitely don't want to force it on any teachers."
Rebecca Ragno Talaia, 43, teaches at the epicenter of protests over gun violence in schools: Florida. And while she had taught for many years in Pennsylvania, she says the most recent shooting and subsequent organizing are having a big impact on the conversation about gun violence.
"We are all very shaken by the event that recently occurred in our state," says Talaia. "We are all thinking about the safety of our children in the schools."
"As an educator, I would not feel comfortable being armed. You never know what could happen...." – Rebecca Ragno Talaia, 5th-grade teacher
She says there's something noticeably different now about the conversation people are having, even compared to just a year ago. And during her own more than two-decade tenure as a teacher, she's seeing a different mood even among gun enthusiasts.
"When I taught in PA," she says, "many of my students hunted. We didn't have school on opening day of deer season. But we also weren't considering having guns in our schools."
As someone who grew up hunting with her grandfather, this fifth-grade teacher knows her way around guns. While she was in college, Talaia took a hunter safety course. She's also shot clay birds and done skeet shooting.
"As an educator," she says, "I would not feel comfortable being armed. You never know what could happen, who may see the gun or know that it was in school. Although I teach younger children, their irrational anger is very real, I would never want any weapon in our schools."
As we collectively wait to see what legislators may do to help curb mass shootings - like banning bump stocks or raising the age that someone can purchase a gun - Talaia thinks that the idea of arming teachers is merely "a quick fix" intended to detract from the tougher issues of mental health.
While elected officials and the gun lobby are talking about adding more guns and guards, teachers are taking a different approach, one that focuses more on mental health, and specifically getting in front of a potential problem before it ignites.
"As educators, we are thinking about helping the whole child," says Talaia. "Among my peers there is a lot of talk about increasing guidance counselors in the schools, identifying students that have extra obstacles in their paths, making sure our most at-risk kids are having more contact with positive role models."
Simply put: Talaia does not want guns in the classroom. Instead, she'd like to see at least one guidance counselor for every 250 students. Her present school has 750 students and just one guidance counselor.
"The atmosphere at our school has changed drastically since the last shooting," she says. "We have tightened up security and changed our procedures to better ensure student safety."
At McCall Elementary School in Center City, Leslie Greenberg is working with students to plan a March 14 walkout over gun violence.
"My eighth-grade students chose gun violence and mass shootings as their topic for our Need in Deed Service-Learning project," she says. She'll be joining her students for a trip to Harrisburg to speak with legislators about the issue.
"This issue directly impacts my students," says Greenberg, 38, "because we live in a city with everyday gun violence." School, she says, is supposed to be a safe place. But when students walk outside the door, there's no real guarantee.
Megan MacTurk, a teacher at a charter school in West Philadelphia, says that gun violence is an issue her students deal with every single day.
"Our school serves students from underserved communities," says MacTurk, 30. "Many of our kids have been affected by gun violence outside of school."
For them, she says, the threat of gun violence is something that's very real in their own neighborhoods. Many kids have seen family members and friends become victims of gun violence. As such, finding ways to provide a respite from fear at school is a real challenge for most inner city teachers.
"The last thing a 10-year-old should have to worry about while navigating middle school," says MacTurk, "is the danger of a person shooting them while they're learning their multiplication tables."
MacTurk believes that racial prejudice also has a bearing on how this issue is addressed in the community where she teaches. She's not confident that adding more guns won't beget more violence. When she tries to imagine what would happen if a teacher was even just seen outside of the school with a gun, well, "they would most likely be shot on the spot," she says.
"If a school shooting was to happen and a teacher of color had a gun ... I don't trust that a first-responder wouldn't mistake that teacher as a threat and do more harm."
Dr. Susan B. Sorenson, professor of social policy at the University of Pennsylvania, has conducted extensive research for two decades on gun violence. She most recently worked with the Philadelphia Police Department on a study of how guns are used as tools of intimidation.
One of the most interesting surveys Sorenson conducted focuses on college-age students. "They are not in favor of having armed guards or arming people in school," she says. "My sense is they tend to see security in schools as monitoring them."
For decades now, Sorenson has found through her research that adolescents have repeatedly said they feel safer when there are fewer guns.
"It's not a brand new thing," she says. "They say they would feel less safe knowing their neighbor had a gun. People have been pretty consistent for quite a long time."
There are actually very few gun violence researchers in the United States – and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is banned from studying gun violence even as the country experiences an uptick in mass shootings. But over the time Sorenson has studied the issue, she has seen a range of laws come and go with little to no fanfare. In the 1960s and 1980s, for example, laws were introduced banning several different guns - not the least of which was antithetical to the Constitution.
"The question is how do we preserve something in the Constitution and present people the right to life and happiness?" she says. "When two things are in conflict we need to have policy makers stand up and consider what we're going to do."
In other words, while Sorenson says there are certain rights to own guns, these rights are not limitless. Laws must ultimately reflect the culture in which they serve.
"It's OK to have some limits," says Sorenson, without erasing the Second Amendment. For example, it's illegal to possess a sawed-off shotgun in the United States. But it's perfectly legal for a teenager to own an AR-15 assault rifle, the same semi-automatic gun used in the most recent Parkland shooting. In many cases the laws need to catch up to the technology.
As for allowing guns on campus, Sorenson is adamantly opposed. "Oh, I would not want that," she says. "You want to be able to challenge students and when they are reaching for something in their backpack ... well, it runs counter to the idea of increasing peoples' sense of safety. It engenders mistrust."
At Temple University, Brad Windhauser, 43, teaches writing, literature and film on the main campus. He's gotten creative about how the issue of gun violence is addressed in his classroom.
"In a comp class where we discussed film," he says, "we might address the message violence sends and how that then surfaces in our society."
One issue that tends to solicit passionate response is whether educators like Windhauser, who's been teaching for 17 years, should be armed. The answer for him is no. Though for some teachers, like those in Sidney, Ohio, having a gun in the school is the norm, according to The New York Times.
"I feel safe at Temple. We have security everywhere. But, let's say in class, with an armed teacher, a student is having a bad day. And let's say that the student, in a rage, assaults that teacher and disarms him."
With a semiautomatic Glock handgun and several magazines stashed in a bookshelf in the district headquarters, superintendent of schools in this rural area, Josh Scheu, told The Times, "We can't stop an active shooter, but we can minimize the carnage."
It's a question that is being asked over and over again with every new mass shooting - whether having more or less guns is the problem. It's estimated that a few hundred school districts, mostly in rural parts of the country that often seem light years away from downtown Philly, already have firearms in schools. The hashtag #ArmWithMe has been used to rally support around the idea on social media. But for many teachers, it begs the question about what a teacher's job is in the classroom.
"A teacher's job is to teach," says Windhauser. "I want no part of being in law enforcement."
He believes that arming teachers would create a very negative environment for students.
"I'd obviously have to carry a gun on my person, which likely means that it would be visible as I'm teaching," he says. "Can you imagine having students fixate on a gun while they're being taught research skills, the use of character?"
There seem to be many more questions than answers when it comes to arming teachers.
"How would the gun be used, only in active shooter cases?" Windhauser asks.
Who is supposed to shoot and who is supposed to hold back? Would a teacher be considered a kind of officer or agent? Would students also be encouraged to carry guns? Is a teacher's job to protect students at all costs? What about a teacher's life? Would all of this be folded into a teacher's contract? How much would a teacher be compensated for carrying a gun and training to use it?
Perhaps the biggest question for Windhauser is what happens if a student gets hold of a gun that he or she wouldn't normally have access to.
"I feel safe at Temple," he says. "We have security everywhere. But, let's say in class, with an armed teacher, a student is having a bad day. And let's say that the student, in a rage, assaults that teacher and disarms him."
A student who maybe didn't have access to a gun before, or would not think to buy one, suddenly has one. And what if that student actually uses it either on himself or someone else?
"It's possible that having a gun in a classroom creates a situation that might have not been created," says Windhauser. "In the unlikely situation where a college student assaults a teacher in class, the teacher will likely survive a physical altercation. What happens if a gun is introduced into this scenario? This scenario is what worries me."