A better use of federal school money

The New York Times reported that the Education Department is exploring allowing some federal school funds to be used to acquire firearms for teachers. The editorial board of the Washington Post was suitably aghast when it weighed in a day later.

While most federal school funding comes with prohibitions against use of the money for buying guns for teachers, the Student Support and Academic Enrichment grant program does not.

Needless to say, arming teachers and school staff is another very divisive issue. Unfortunately, neither side is particularly interested in a clear-headed look at the real pluses and minuses of the practice.

Putting it mildly, this is unfortunate because armed teachers and staff are already a reality in many U.S. school districts.

Texas has had armed teachers since 2007. A school district in the state began allowing teachers with state-issued Concealed Handgun Licenses to carry their firearms in school. The policy was instituted following the Virginia Tech massacre in which Seung-Hui Cho, a person with an undisclosed history of mental health issues, killed 32 people and wounded 17 others before taking his own life as police closed in.

In law enforcement response time is a serious issue. What most people fail to comprehend is that most mass shootings have a very short timeline. In the case of Adam Lanza’s invasion of Sandy Hook Elementary School, the police investigation revealed that the whole thing took perhaps ten minutes from the time the first shots were heard until officers arriving on the scene heard the final shot as Lanza killed himself.

In the Columbine shooting, Jefferson County Deputy Sheriff Neil Gardner was assigned to the school as a school resource officer. When the first reports of shots came, Gardner was parked near the school’s boundary. It took him about five minutes to arrive at the building where the gunfire had been heard. By that time, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold had already shot 12 people, killing two of them.

In May of this year, Dimitrios Pagourtzis opened fire in the art complex of Santa Fe High School. Santa Fe is a small town southeast of Houston. The Santa Fe Independent School District has its own state-certified police department with sworn officers who have full police powers. On the day of the shooting there were two Santa Fe ISD officers on the Santa Fe High School campus. They immediately responded and arrived on-scene in about four minutes. By that time, Pagourtzis had had already killed ten people and wounded more.

These incidents highlight both reasons for arming school staff members and reasons why armed teachers can’t be expected to prevent all the killings.

An armed teacher, with proper training, can theoretically respond more quickly than law enforcement. I say theoretically because the optimum outcome depends on the teacher and the shooter being in the same place or so close to each other that the killer doesn’t have time to do much damage. As we know from past tragedies, even seconds can count.

The fastest-possible response time also depends on the armed teacher having the gun on their person. The time required to retrieve a gun from a lockbox or other secure storage can mean more lives lost.

One of the least-discussed but most compelling reasons for arming teachers is the price.

Dedicated school police forces, school resource officers and other contracted officers are expensive. In most of the states that allow armed teachers and staff, the individual is responsible for supplying the firearm and paying for the carry permit and any training. They rarely receive any additional compensation or reimbursement for this. Can’t get much cheaper than free, which is why so many states have armed teacher programs.

Noted firearms expert Jeff Cooper once said, “Having a gun doesn’t make you armed any more than having a guitar makes you a musician.”

Cooper was referring to the advisability of additional training for people wishing to carry a firearm for self-defense but his comment is even more applicable to a teacher acting as a first responder or a defender.

Some years ago, NBC segment in which Cynthia McFadden covered a special needs teacher who legally carried a gun in school. McFadden was impressed but I was appalled. I don’t intend to demean the teacher; she sincerely had the desire to protect her students and was willing to put her own life on the line to do it. But she clearly didn’t have the skills, the strategies or even the tactics to be much more than an early casualty in a real shooting situation.

In Texas, the recommended but (unfortunately) not mandatory program for an armed teacher involves an extensive interview and background check, psychological testing and 80 hours of specialized training at a state-certified police academy. The training, comparable to that required for a school resource law enforcement officer, teaches much more than marksmanship.

But this training, which I think should be mandatory for anyone accepted as an armed defender, is expensive. The estimated cost is more than $5,000, not including the costs of transportation, meals and other items. Add to that the cost of an acceptable weapon and the cost of the required instruction to obtain a Texas License To Carry (LTC) and the cost of the license itself and a teacher could be on the hook for well over $6,000 if there is a training facility nearby.

Like those in many, if not most states, Texas schools have had to take major hits to funding. In a large number of districts, the money just isn’t there to cover at least some of the costs.

But the training is vital if any program like this is to be anything other than a recipe for disaster. Teachers have got to have more knowledge and skill than just being able to hit a close-range, stationary target most of the time.

Texas has, to date, a very good record. In 11 years, there have been no accidental shootings, no cases of students getting access to a teacher’s gun, and no incidents of the type envisioned by opponents of the concept. State law prohibits the release of the names of armed teachers or the specific schools that have armed teachers but it does note the districts with armed teacher programs. Currently, 172 of the state’s 1,038 school districts allow armed teachers. Another 24% have armed school resource officers and 15% have their own police forces. This means that the other 44% of Texas school districts either don’t want human security or are trying to figure out how to add it.

We don’t need federal dollars to help teachers buy guns. Gun companies routinely offer substantial discounts and rebates to police, military personnel and veterans. Surely these could be extended to teachers that volunteer to defend our children. The NRA and National Shooting Sports Foundation could consider making grants to help teachers with the costs of guns and the ammunition needed for proper training.

If federal money is going to be spent on armed teachers, let’s spend it on the training. This will make these teachers more effective and safer. After all, this is the Department of Education; its spending should be focused on educational programs.

So stop whining and worrying about what might happen if we arm teachers. That’s no different than fretting about what would happen yesterday.

Start advocating for the best training we can offer those teachers. It’s the best investment we can make in what we’ve already done.

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