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Assessing the Risks of Arming Teachers

As the Trump administration and NRA continue to push the idea of arming teachers, what are the actual statistics around putting more guns in schools?
Attendees try out model pistols at a gun show on January 17th, 2012, in Las Vegas, Nevada.

The Trump administration doubled down this week on its support for arming teachers, announcing that it wants to help states provide teachers with "rigorous" firearms training. Trump also appointed Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos to lead a commission to study ways to prevent school shootings; DeVos has said that schools should be able to arm teachers "if they choose to use the tool." (In a very pointed 60 Minutes interview on Sunday, DeVos also admitted that she "couldn't ever imagine" the prospect of seeing an armed version of her own first-grade teacher, Mrs. Zorhoff.) Florida just passed a law that allows teachers to arm themselves.

(Meanwhile, a reserve police officer teaching a public safety class accidentally fired his gun in a classroom at a Northern California high school on Tuesday afternoon; one student was struck in the neck by bullet fragments.)

The National Rifle Association supports this controversial policy, while most groups in education oppose it, including the country's largest teachers' lobby, the National Education Association, and many students—a significant number of whom protested school shootings and gun violence in a national school walkout recently on the one-month anniversary of the shooting in Parkland, Florida, in which a 19-year-old killed 17 people with a semi-automatic rifle.

With emotions running high, it's particularly important to consider relevant research on arming teachers. Data on the practice, however, is scant. Not only is the idea itself new, but school shootings are extremely rare. But a new working paper by Sheldon Greenberg, a Johns Hopkins University education professor, considers law enforcement officers' track record on encounters with armed assailants as an indicator of how teachers would likely fare in similar situations. (As CityLab's Richard Florida recently explored, the large number of private security guards in United States schools means that these facilities are very well represented in "America's already outsized security-industrial complex.")

Greenberg is a former police officer, and he's been tracking the idea of arming American teachers since it first emerged after the Columbine school shooting in 1999. The notion gained more traction after the Sandy Hook massacre in 2012. Before Parkland, 18 states already allowed adults to carry loaded weapons on school grounds with permission of the principal or school board, and some school districts, such as Kingsburg, California, and 40 districts in Ohio, had authorized teachers to carry guns in school.

Greenberg believes that encouraging such a policy only adds to unfounded fears about school shootings. "These incidents are terrible, but they are extraordinarily uncommon," he said. "Schools are probably the safest places in our country on any given day, and we're creating an entire generation of young people who fear being in them."

Whether teachers could use their firearm effectively in an active shooter situation is, said Greenberg, a "crapshoot." The working paper notes that, despite police officers' extensive training and familiarity with high-risk and life-threatening events, the evidence shows that they do not shoot accurately in a crisis encounter. It's likely that teachers would be far less effective.

In two roundtable discussions Greenberg held with law enforcement in January of 2013 (in the aftermath of Sandy Hook), police officers voiced a range of other concerns about arming teachers, including the erroneous assumption that a teacher would be in proximity to the shooter, the likelihood that an armed teacher and plainclothes police officer (who would be the first to arrive on the scene) would mistake each other for an active shooter, and the fact that teachers' firearms training would be a one-off event. "This means that a lot of teachers would be oriented, not trained, to use a gun," Greenberg said. "That's a big difference."

As the incident in Northern California demonstrates, there's also a possibility of firearm-related accidents in and out of classrooms. Greenberg cited many potential problems in having teachers take their guns home, where children could access them or where they could be used in a domestic violence situation. Suicide is another concern: In a study of 30 known cases between 1980 and 2012 in which teachers discharged a gun, 63 percent committed or attempted suicide.

"Basically, it's highly unlikely that there will be an incident in the first place," Greenberg said. "And the risks outweigh the potential benefit."

Greenberg also stressed the danger of having an armed teacher in confrontation with an unarmed student. "Will the teacher use the gun on them?" he asked. That's a question many scholars and analysts are bringing up, especially due to the extensive research showing that students of color are punished more severely than white students for the same minor infractions, such as disrupting class or swearing, raising the likelihood that they will embark on a path to prison, dubbed the "school-to-prison pipeline."

"When we look at suspension rates, we see the bias," said Jonathan Stith, national coordinator for the Alliance for Educational Justice, a network of intergenerational and youth-led organizations working to end the school-to-prison pipeline. "Arming that bias with a gun is frightening. It creates a powder-keg situation."

Prudence Carter, dean of the Graduate School of Education at the University of California–Berkeley, is a leading researcher on educational inequality, and she believes that the prospect of armed teachers endangers students of color in particular. "There's too much room for mistakes,"she said. "Research already shows that there are triggers in people's minds when they see black faces and bodies."

Stith said that youth affiliated with his network are protesting arming teachers today. "These young people of color know that more guns in schools will continue the criminalization of their education and their lives," he said. (The Trump administration is taking the opposite tack, blaming school shootings on an Obama-era policy that sought to curb suspensions and expulsions of minority students, though most of the perpetrators of mass shootings have been white and from largely white, suburban areas.)

Groups of young people in such cities as Chicago, Philadelphia, and Columbus joined the national school walkout and also called on city and school officials to decrease police presence in schools, institute restorative justice practices—in which students talk through an incident and make amends instead of receiving detention, suspension, or worse—and provide better access to mental-health support.

Berkeley's Carter hopes that elected leaders listen to them. "We need mental-health services in schools, and then we have to work to destigmatize them," she said. Since kids often spend more time in school than with their families, she added, "it's critical that these spaces are well-equipped to handle young lives. That's what our policymakers and practitioners should be considering—not arming teachers."

This story originally appeared on CityLab, an editorial partner site. Subscribe to CityLab's newsletters and follow CityLab on Facebook and Twitter.