Arm teachers at school? Most metro Atlanta districts say no

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A week after 17 people were gunned down at a Florida high school, several hundred gun-control advocates gathered at Liberty Plaza Wednesday to urge lawmakers to make changes to the state's firearms laws.

Laura Morse said the idea of adding first-responder duties to teachers by giving them guns is not one she welcomes.

President Donald Trump said Wednesday he would like to see some teachers armed and trained to assist during school shootings, saying they would impact a situation faster than it would take law enforcement to arrive.

After last week's shooting at a high school in Parkland, Fla., where 17 students and staff died, most metro Atlanta school districts remain vehemently opposed to arming teachers to deter potential school shooters, leaning more toward a bigger law enforcement presence to prevent incidents. State law gives school districts the authority to decide whether staff can carry guns at school. No Georgia school district allows staff to have guns on school campuses, but Bleckley County Schools, about 90 minutes southeast of Atlanta, wrote last week on Twitter it was considering a policy that would allow staff to carry guns.

Morse, who has two children attending DeKalb County’s Lakeside High School, said teachers already are overwhelmed dealing with everyday concerns related to class sizes and standardized testing without being trained to handle a potential attack.

“My mother was a teacher,” Morse said. “We all know teachers don’t make enough money. They’re overwhelmed. To add this responsibility would be too much. Outside of thinking about all the things that could go wrong with that, you have now exited an adult from a space where children need an adult to contain (their anxiety).”

Education experts say there is no immediate fix, but add that if teachers were to be armed they would need the same level of training as law enforcement.

“There’s training to be a teacher, and then there’s training to be a law enforcement officer,” DeKalb County School District Superintendent Steve Green said in a statement Thursday. “Both are unique careers with a specific purpose. We believe our teachers can be most effective by focusing on the task at hand — deep teaching and learning — while the district and its schools work closely with law enforcement on a collaboration of undercover and uniformed officers.”

Marquenta Sands Hall, Atlanta Public Schools’ executive director of safety and security, echoed those sentiments at a news conference last week.

“We want to arm our teachers with awareness and education and protocols that they can use so that when they show up in the classrooms in the mornings they can do what they have committed to do and that is teach,” she said.

Clayton County Public Schools Superintendent Morcease Beasley said through a spokeswoman that the issue was “more complicated than a simple yes or no (for or against); it will require a multifaceted response from more than a single entity making a decision.”

The nation’s two big teachers unions — The National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers — also decried proposals to arm teachers.

“Anyone who wants guns in schools has no understanding of what goes on inside them — or worse, doesn’t care,” AFT President Randi Weingarten said in a written statement.

R. Leslie Nichols, a consultant based in LaGrange who helps develop child and youth safety and protection programs across the country, said there is no instant solution to eradicating school shootings. Districts considering arming teachers, he said, should look at their individual capacity to respond well under stress.

Arming teachers “would need to be done at law enforcement standards,” he said. “You have to know they can handle it under stress.”

Nichols was national vice president for safety with the Boys and Girls Clubs of America after the December 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., when he said he fielded calls from after-school program coordinators worried about having armed staff at different locations.

“The concern would be (having armed personnel) in and of itself doesn’t necessarily make everyone safer,” he said. “What you have to look at is looking at the standard of care for defending others, particularly children who are under your care. When you look at the way law enforcement is trained, the way they’re certified, the way they pick a firearm, and their capacity to do that is maintained … why would we expect any less (training) if we’re going to do that for teachers.”

Police undergo extensive training. Yet, a study by the New York Police Department showed between 1998 and 2006, officers only hit their target 18 percent of the time during a gunfight.

Joyce Morley, a DeKalb County Board of Education member and licensed psychotherapist, said school districts need to place more emphasis on their counseling programs. She’s battled with her board members to prioritize funding for school counselors at DeKalb’s nearly 140 schools. Currently, Morley said, there’s maybe one counselor for about 500 DeKalb students.

It’s also imperative that parents be engaged by staff and administrators, she said.

“We’ve got to start having conversations with our parents when they come in. Ask them ‘How are you doing?’,” Morley said. “Many times, most of the children are depressed because their parents are depressed.”

Monise Seward, a teacher who has two children attending Gwinnett County Schools, said she would immediately seek a transfer for her child if she discovered the teacher carried a gun. She also worries about all the things that could come with teachers being armed, including risks to their own safety.

“Can you imagine how many wrongful deaths we could have because a black teacher was armed on the way to school, but got pulled over by police?” Seward said. “I’m not naive. I know that there are teachers who hold implicit biases against black kids. It’s one thing to deal with those biases with teachers who are not armed. But dealing when those biases when they are?

“That’s what scares me.”

Staff writers Vanessa McCray, Arlinda Smith Broady and Education Columnist Maureen Downey contributed to this article.

The National Association of School Resource Officers says it opposes arming teachers for several reasons:

1. Law enforcement officers who respond to an incident at a school could mistake for an assailant a teacher or any other armed person who is not in a uniform. 

2. Anyone who hasn’t received the extensive training provided to law enforcement officers will likely be mentally unprepared to take a life, especially the life of a student assailant. 

3. Firearm skills degrade quickly, which is why most law enforcement agencies require their officers to practice on a shooting range frequently (as often as once per month), under simulated, high-stress conditions. Anyone without such frequent, ongoing practice will likely have difficulty using a firearm safely and effectively. 

4. In addition to maintaining marksmanship, ongoing firearms practice helps law enforcement officers overcome the physiological response to stress than can reduce the fine motor skills required to accurately fire a weapon. 

5. Anyone who possesses a firearm on campus must be able to keep it both ready for use and absolutely secure. Law enforcement officers receive training that enables them to overcome attempts to access their weapons. 

6. Discharging a firearm in a crowded school is an extremely risky action, with consequences that can include the wounding and/or death of innocent victims. Law enforcement officers receive training and practice in evaluating quickly the risks of firing. They hold their fire when the risks to others are too high.