The absurdity of arming teachers

I, too, was saddened and angered by the massacre at the elementary school in Newtown, Conn., last month, but I wasn’t frightened for the safety of the children in my life until last week, when I heard that Maine lawmakers will soon consider a proposal to arm teachers with guns.

The Maine Public Broadcasting Network reported that state Sen. David Burns, R-Whiting, plans to introduce a bill that would allow school districts to arm teachers and “support staff” (like who, lunch ladies?). These teachers and staffers would be given about a week of gun training and some sort of “psychological testing,” as MPBN put it, “to determine their fitness to carry a weapon.”

(Which brings up an interesting question: If you express a desire to carry a firearm in your classroom and are then deemed mentally unfit to be given that responsibility, in what universe are you still allowed to be a teacher?)

My stomach sank further when I heard the remarks of Maine Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen. “How do you make our schools more secure?” Bowen asked in the news report. “Whether having people, adults, inside the building with guns makes them more secure or not — I really don’t know.”

Is he truly undecided on the issue, or is he letting politics cloud common sense? He used to teach social studies. If one of his students had more than a month to consider this question and came up with “I really don’t know,” would he be satisfied with that answer?

Bottom line: Introducing more guns and bullets into the panicked scene of a school shooting in progress will not make anyone safer. Until the police arrive, the first priority of teachers and staff should be getting students into a secure place (such as locked classrooms, behind desks), not engaging the assailant or assailants in a firefight.

The armed teachers would most likely become the primary targets in this scenario. How would we protect them? Would they be armed with a pistol or a weapon with firepower more equal to that of the gun or guns an assailant is likely to be carrying, such as a semi-automatic “hunting” rifle? If teachers are equipped with AR-15s, where would these weapons be stored during the school day, inside the classroom?

Do armed teachers wear bulletproof vests to work? And if we’re really serious about providing students with armed bodyguards at school, we need to protect them inside and outside the building. That means arming coaches, crossing guards and bus drivers, too.

The more you think about the idea of arming teachers, the faster it spirals down the rabbit hole of absurdity.

I’m actually more concerned about the larger, long-term effects of arming teachers than the more immediate risk of fatal accidents or the (thankfully) extremely rare instances of gun violence inside Maine schools. The atmosphere and behaviors students experience in school teach them as much about life as textbooks and laptops do. And the lesson they’d learn from gun-toting teachers has no place in the curriculum of a civilized society.

The lesson would be simple and brutal: If you want to survive in this country, you need to pack a loaded gun and be ready to kill at all times.

The sight of an armed teacher every school day would be a constant reminder of past massacres and of the possibility that today could end in a bloodbath. Over the years, the paranoia this instills in children would harden into cynicism or dissolve into hopelessness. How meaningful learning takes place in an armed environment is a mystery to me.

I understand the impulse to protect lives with guns. It stems from a genuine desire to keep people safe, and no one should be faulted for that. But it’s also an impulse rooted in violence and fear that only begets more violence and fear.

I’m encouraged that, while Bowen apparently wavers on this issue, superintendents are making their opposition clear. Portland’s new superintendent, Emmanuel Caulk, is among them.

As lawmakers consider Burns’ bill and others like it, I hope they will listen to people like Caulk who have experience managing schools and school districts, not political appointees.

Will the LePage administration put common sense and safety above the interests of the gun lobby?

At this point, I really don’t know.

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Chris Busby

About Chris Busby

Chris Busby is editor and publisher of The Bollard, a monthly magazine about Portland. He writes a weekly column for the BDN.