With the phenomenal scope of school shootings in the USA, and masses of students protesting their right for a safe education, some cannot resist weighing in with reactive, solutions. Following the tragic events of February 14, 2018 at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, the impulsive, notion to arm teachers with concealed hand guns was raised. The misguided suggestion that teachers be armed with concealed handguns may gain traction in some locations owing to the White House’s public endorsement. The truth is, however, that turning schools into armed compounds is counter-productive to sustaining long-term, proactive school security while maintaining effective schools.
As a previous school principal and head of security in two Jewish Day Schools in Canada, schools are hectic, complex work places with limited operating budgets. They are specialized learning environments whose foundations are based on constant interpersonal interactions between children, staff, and visitors. Like cycles of tides and waves on the beach, everyday life at a school is in constant flow, a rhythm of human interactions. This ebb and flow of human traffic is driven by diverse schedules, timetables and calendars which frequently change according to myriad factors including the unpredictability of people’s lives, and the school’s unique culture.
Successful schools maintain a calm learning environment where students are free to contemplate their next math test, athletic competition or school production and their teachers weave their art of teaching without being forced to look over their shoulders in fear. To accomplish this, they invest heavily in maintaining a culture that promotes safety and security for everybody within the school community and all the time. Key words are for everybody and all the time.
In terms of violence in the work place, such as in schools, there is often a blurring of distinctions between maintaining school safety and school security. The former refers to ongoing proactive planning, policies and practices regarding the safety of playground equipment, snow removal, keeping floors dry, ensuring clean washrooms. In contrast, the latter refers to the policies and practices relating to issues of crisis management, including bullying, threat assessment, armed intruders, and bomb threats.
Without proactive checks and balances, school security measures can be a very expensive enterprise, a constant drain on tight school budgets. This can highjack schools to the point of distraction, at the cost of learning. It falls upon school leadership to recognize the need for security and maintain a balanced approach. Selecting suitable staff to lead on school security, creating a security committee, and forging excellent relationships with the skills and procedures unit of local law enforcement, are only some of the initial prerequisite steps. I link security practices to two aspects which cannot work in isolation and provide the school with a positive security practice. Firstly, there is the human and cultural component or “software” which interacts with the environment. Additionally, there is the technological and physical “hardware.” Both must work in concert for developing effective school security systems within the school landscape.
Prior to becoming a teacher and a principal in Calgary, Alberta and Richmond, BC, I was an undercover policeman in Jerusalem, and a soldier (and platoon sergeant) in the Israel Defense Forces. In my experience, maintaining shooting accuracy on a supervised range with a rifle or with a handgun requires practice. Combat training requires working with teams, exercising consistent control and coordination in fluid, complex scenarios. A team’s successful live firing exercise, or “wet” exercise, always followed what seemed to be an endless routine of “dry” exercises without live ammunition. I was wounded by bullet and shrapnel by Egyptian forces in 1973. In later years, in active paratrooper reserves, I was treated to a second bullet from friendly cover fire while participating in a “wet” training exercise.
I am the first to admit that shooting a hand gun with consistent accuracy presents greater challenges. With the handgun’s much shorter barrel one must line up the target together with the eye and firearm by maintaining a rigidly straight arm stance. Even in conditions devoid of distractions, any slight movement of the short barrel from its straight trajectory to the target will result in bullets missing the target.
To accomplish consistent shooting accuracy with a handgun regular shooting practice at supervised ranges is mandatory but not sufficient. One must stay in shape, have controlled breathing and build up strong muscle condition in the shooting arm and wrist. Although the latter cannot be underestimated, few individuals will shoot accurately at moving targets amidst emotionally driven chaos. Panic, paralyzing adrenalin, deafening noise, poor lighting, smoke, and violence will cause even trained hands to shake whether holding a rifle, a handgun, or a small child’s hand.
As an undercover policeman in Jerusalem I observed the repetitive cycle of human reactions to terror. Civilian vigilance waned within short weeks of the most recent attack. Over time, complacency sets its course. Individuals forget their earlier passions for change, fading away like new resolution diets. Older, comfortable, deep-seated behavior patterns, temporarily maligned and ousted, regain their composure with quiet dignity. When complacency sets in having armed teachers throughout the school will add to the mental burden of school leaders.
Finally, some closing considerations for sleep deprived school administrators currently pondering (or being pressured to at least consider) the White House’s recent endorsement to arm their teachers. Are you familiar with the mental well-being and personal stress levels of individual staff members? Who among staff is or will be involved in marital separation/divorce, custody battles, or bullying situations with other staff members? Can you predict who will become a disgruntled employee? Should individuals employed in child care have access to concealed firearms at work? If you choose to arm your teachers, who will they be and why?