This week last year, a former student opened fire at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, killing 17 people and sparking a familiar debate: Is the best way to prevent violence in schools more guns or fewer?
In the wake of the February 14th, 2018, shooting, more than a dozen states decided it was the former, introducing legislation to arm teachers or other school employees.
Federal law generally prohibits anyone other than trained law enforcement from carrying firearms on school property, but after the Parkland shooting even the White House threw its support behind programs to arm educators. President Donald Trump said last February that providing teachers with weapons would make schools "hardened targets," and Betsy DeVos, Trump's secretary of education, floated the idea of using federal funds to support programs that arm school employees.
Parkland: One Year Later
Before Parkland, 10 states allowed school employees to carry firearms on school property. One school district in Texas began arming staff more than a decade ago. Another rural district in Ohio launched a program to arm school administrators after the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012. Wyoming passed a law in 2017 leaving it to individual school districts to set their own rules for armed staff.
Of the 14 states that introduced legislation related to arming school staff after Parkland, only Florida was able to quickly sign a bill into law that provided funding for a "guardian program" that arms staff. In the year since, 25 Florida school districts began participating in the program, according to the state's department of education. In many other states, teachers lobbied against the bills, stalling the legislation.
One rural Virginia school board serves as a good example of how the debate played out at the school board, district, and state level, where the interests of rural communities often contrast those of the state. In Lee County, Virginia, school board officials had been mulling over options to beef up security at the district's 11 schools for some time, when the Parkland shooting and a middle-school shooting in Indiana in May of 2018, in which a teacher was injured protecting students, convinced the board the time for action had come.
"We'd already added buzz-in entrance controls as well as cameras, and we'd done some other things to move toward a safer environment for students," says Brian Austin, the superintendent for the Lee County public schools. "And then of course Parkland happened in February."
In Lee County, allowing teachers to carry the guns they already owned and operated onto school grounds seemed a natural way to increase security. "Firearms are something in our community that a lot of people are familiar with because we're a rural, agriculture-based community, so how to handle a firearm for some people is just part of the culture," Austin says. "In our community we have several employees who have to make an effort not to carry on school property."
In July of last year, the school board approved a program that would allow teachers—only those who passed extensive background checks, drug tests, psychological exams, and firearms-proficiency evaluations—to be armed on school property. Austin says the program was widely supported by community members and school staff. But it was not by the state. Virginia's attorney general rejected Austin's application to register as an armed special conservator of the peace, which would have allowed him to carry a firearm on school property, effectively blocking Austin's efforts to implement the program.
The Lee County School Board is now suing the state, a suit which is sure to be a test case for the debate playing out between rural communities and states about arming teachers. But gun-control advocates are certain the idea is a poor one.
"Allowing people who don't have the training and the experience of professional [law enforcement] to carry guns in schools is a terrible idea," says Adam Skaggs, chief counsel at the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. "There's the risk of children accessing guns; there's the risk that the gun is accidentally or unintentionally discharged, potentially resulting in serious injury; and then there's the risk that an undertrained teacher or administrator might misperceive a threat. These policies decrease rather than increase the safety of students."
The role of an educator, Skaggs says, is fundamentally at odds with the role of an armed security guard. Many educators seem to agree. In 2018, the National Education Association, one of the nation's largest teachers unions, conducted a survey of its members and found that 82 percent were opposed to carrying guns in schools. NEA President Lily Eskelsen García called programs to arm teachers "ill-conceived, preposterous, and dangerous."
But for a growing number of school districts—many of them small and rural—arming staff members seems like the only viable option to protect students.
For many rural school districts, the time it takes for first responders to arrive can be substantial. One 2017 study, for example, found that emergency medical service response times in rural parts of the United States were nearly double the national average, "with nearly 1 of 10 encounters waiting almost a half hour for the arrival of EMS personnel," the study authors wrote.
"One of our fears, being a small, rural school, is that we don't have a police force," says one Ohio superintendent, who asked to remain anonymous because his district's armed-response policy requires that the participating schools and staff remain confidential. "We used to, but due to budget cuts we now get our police services from the sheriff's office and the sheriff's station is 20 minutes away from our school. So we're kind of vulnerable."
According to Joe Eaton, the program director of an Ohio-based program called FASTER (Faculty/Administrator Safety Training & Emergency Response) Saves Lives, which provides first-aid and firearm training to school staff, more and more school boards are coming around to his view that violence in schools should be treated like any other school emergency. "If you have a kid that falls into a swimming pool, are you going to stand at the side of the pool and dial 911? That's ridiculous. You're going to jump in the pool, you're going to pull the kid out, you're going to start saving lives while you're still waiting for the professionals to get there," Eaton says. "That's where the biggest mindset has changed, is that schools realize, no matter how much they prepare ahead of time, if violence starts there is always going to be a certain period of time when they are 100 percent on their own, because until that first 911 call is made, nobody is coming to help."
That's just the kind of preparation that FASTER provides: not just practice time on a range, but first aid for traumatic injuries, tactical exercises, role playing—a crash course in the kind of training that law enforcement officers get. FASTER is meant to prepare teachers not to replace first responders, but just to hold their own until law enforcement can get there.
"Firearms are the last resort to stop these situations," Eaton says. "We teach the staff how to safely remove themselves and groups of kids from an area of danger; how to barricade in a room; how to deal with large chaotic crowds, and all the trauma and medical training to provide compression bandages, chest seals, airway management, to start immediately rendering the medical aid. That way when the professionals get there you actually have patients to transfer to them instead of victims"
The Ohio superintendent credits the FASTER program with giving administrators in his district the tools to prepare for the worst-case scenario, should it ever arrive. The district's armed response team conducts active shooter drills with key school staff and the sheriff's department after hours, and once a year all staff and students participate in a lockdown drill, which is mandated by Ohio law.
In some states, students themselves participate in active shooter drills. It's all but impossible to measure how much harm is avoided by these drills, but researchers suggest that they could do some psychological harm of their own by leaving kids with a heightened sense of risk and, as one 2015 study found, more afraid.
When asked how often FASTER-trained school employees have used their training to avert an incident, only a couple examples come to Eaton's mind: in one, a school principal in eastern Ohio allegedly drew his firearm on a student off school grounds, prompting the student to immediately drop a weapon he was carrying. But Eaton takes the rarity of such incidents as a sign the program may be working as a school-violence deterrent: "We hope that we never have any additional stories beyond that because one thing that we encourage schools to do is that, if they adopt this program, to be public about it," he says, "because announcing publicly should have a certain deterrent effect."
Meanwhile, Skaggs has a running list of more than 50 incidents in schools in which armed teachers, administrators, and even security guards mishandled their firearms. In one incident at an elementary school in Florida, a substitute teacher was doing cartwheels with students when a loaded gun fell out of his waistband; in another in California, a teacher accidentally fired a gun in a classroom and one student was injured by shrapnel; in Maryland, a staff member left their gun behind in a bathroom. "Some of those incidents involve professional law enforcement," Skaggs says, "and to the extent that we see folks with better training, with more experience, and we still have some problems when we introduce a gun into an educational environment, imagine how much more likely those kinds of incidents will be with less training."
Rather than arming teachers, Skaggs believes that addressing what he says are the "root causes" of school shootings—chiefly the accessibility of military style weaponry and large-capacity ammunition, a lack of mental-health services for those at risk of violent behavior, and inadequate policies to keep guns out of the hands of dangerous people—will be the most effective way to put an end to violence in schools.
But the Ohio superintendent believes that something has fundamentally changed in our society that's beyond the purview of a legislative fix. "I don't think gun control is going to solve this problem, and until this problem is solved, I believe having an armed person to protect your school is absolutely necessary," he says. "I'm not willing to watch my kids be murdered waiting for someone else to come."
For the one-year anniversary of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Florida, Pacific Standard looked at gun-violence solutions coming from the federal government, and, in lieu of those, the efficacy of a variety of local and non-governmental proposals.
What Would a National Emergency Over Gun Violence Look Like?
What could a president actually do, without congressional consideration, during a state of emergency declared over gun violence? Read the story here.
A Year After Parkland the School Security Industry Is Booming
Desperate to minimize the threat of school shootings by any means possible, schools and parents have invested in a whole array of new products in the burgeoning school-safety industry. Read the story here.
Gun Violence Spreads Like a Contagious Disease. Can School Shootings Be Cured Like One?
While gun control remains hotly contested, using public-health approaches to deal with gun violence remains politically neutral. Could these approaches curb violence? Read the story here.
Democrats Used to Disagree About Gun Control. The 2020 Candidates Don't.
In the run-up to the 2020 election, there's just not all that much variance among the Democratic candidates' positions on guns. In the field, pretty much all the major candidates are committed to gun control. Read the story here.
The 116th Congress Is Refocused on Gun Control in the Wake of Parkland
With the exception of the 113th Congress, the 116th Congress has introduced almost three times as many gun-control laws in their first month as any other recent new Congress. Read the story here.