Arming teachers won't end school violence

Arming teachers won't end school violence
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As leader of the sixth-largest school district in America, I know firsthand the importance of securing our schools against those who would harm students and staff. Unfortunately, over the last seven months, I have had to focus most of my time and energy as Broward County’s Schools superintendent dealing with the aftermath of the horrific shooting that occurred at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.

During these months, I have spent a lot of time working on the issue of school safety, and in the process have consulted with national experts, parents, teachers, students and the public about the efficacy and merit of arming teachers to combat in-school shootings. Without a doubt, the general consensus is that arming teachers to “fight fire with fire,” so to speak, is a bad idea.

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I personally believe that arming teachers is a poor use of school funding, would negatively impact the learning environments of schools, and could lead to unintended deadly outcomes. That is why I am troubled by news that the federal government allows states and districts to arm teachers through the use of federal funds. 

Like the many teachers I have spoken with, I am insulted that money can be so easily found to purchase guns to arm teachers, but so hard to find for improving teacher pay and working conditions. Hence, with no improvement in classroom conditions, and no overall pay increase, teachers would be given the additional duty and awesome responsibility of policing their classrooms with a deadly weapon. 

This is simply untenable. Arming teachers runs counter to the recommendations of thousands of security experts and hundreds of organizations that have signed on to a call to action to prevent gun violence in America, and of the United States Secret Service model for preventing targeted school violence.

All of the additional firearms in a school building would certainly pose more danger. Accidental discharges, stolen firearms, and guns falling from holsters are a few of the foreseeable problems that may ensue. In the event of another tragic shooting requiring a teacher to pull out a gun hoping to intervene, it is impossible to guarantee that responding law enforcement can distinguish between a teacher they have never met and the active shooter. 

Additionally, the negative psychological impact of tasking teachers with carrying handguns on their hips, or rifles across their backs, is undeniable. Shortly after the MSD tragedy, the Broward Sheriff’s Office issued rifles to school resource officers on our school campuses. There was significant pushback by parents and school staff concerned about how the visibility of such weapons was impacting the mental state of our young children. I have spoken with students who have expressed feeling less safe because of the heightened security measures and continuous conversations on school safety. None of these students would feel safer in a school with armed teachers.

Instead of trying to arm teachers in Broward County, we have enhanced school safety by hardening our schools, consistently enforcing safety protocols, and making sure we provide enough mental health services to identify and help troubled individuals before problem behavior escalates to violence.

Months before the Stoneman Douglas tragedy, the school board authorized $26 million to accelerate the completion of single-point-of-entry projects at all schools. We recently upgraded our surveillance systems, which include over 10,000 cameras. The district has also worked diligently over the summer to meet a new state law to provide trained law enforcement and security staff at all of our 234 campuses. Also, we hired an independent security firm to conduct a full risk assessment of all schools and recommend further security improvements. 

This year, $5 million in state funding will address another critical security need: enabling our district to expand mental health services to help troubled students as early as possible. In addition, we will invest funds from a recent voter-approved referendum to hire more counselors, social workers and behavior specialists. While hiring and training school counselors and social workers won't generate eye-catching headlines, their intervention is one of the most important things we can do to prevent another community tragedy. 

Teachers and parents don't want or need guns in our classrooms — and the leaders of some of the nation’s largest education systems agree. The members of Chiefs for Change, a bipartisan network of diverse education chiefs, of which I am proud to serve on the board, oppose policies that encourage and incentivize arming teachers. The $1 billion in Student Support and Academic Enrichment grants under Title IV should be used to harden school sites in more meaningful ways and should fund the behavioral and mental health services that so many of our students urgently need. 

To end school violence, we need solutions that focus on prevention and get to the root cause of the problem. We can’t allow political posturing and fear to lead to policies that will only create a mere facade of safety.

Arming teachers is not the answer — it is irresponsible and dangerous. It won’t keep our students safe and might put them at even greater risk. 

Robert Runcie is superintendent of Broward County Public Schools and a member of Chiefs for Change, a bipartisan network of state and district education chiefs.