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Educators recoil at arming teachers

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Posted on March 12, 2018 |
By John Flowers



MIDDLEBURY — President Donald Trump’s endorsement of a National Rifle Association’s recommendation that teachers become armed defenders of their respective schools is getting no traction in the Addison Central School District.

Trump declared his support for arming teachers on Feb. 22, eight days after the fatal shooting of 17 staff and students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. Nikolas Cruz, 19, faces 17 charges of premeditated murder in connection with the incident, which has given rise to more calls for gun control. Only two months into 2018, there have been eight shootings at U.S. schools that have resulted in injury or death.

Meanwhile, 18-year-old Jack Sawyer of Poultney faces an attempted murder charge after allegedly plotting a mass shooting at Fair Haven Union High School.

Middlebury-area educators, police and Addison County’s chief prosecutor told the Addison Independent they believe it would be ill-advised, expensive and counter-productive to arm teachers as a way of potentially preventing future school shootings.

“I do not support arming teachers in our schools,” ACSD Superintendent Peter Burrows said. “A central question that is at the core of this debate is impact: ‘Will increasing the proliferation of guns in schools have more of an impact on keeping our students safe, or should we focus on preventing access to guns by those who need more restrictions to access?’ There is inconclusive data on arming teachers, and there are many unintended consequences that have not been considered.”

Trump has suggested teachers who agree to be armed — and who “understand weaponry” — could be given extra training and pay to reflect their added responsibility.

The president’s suggestion is drawing strong reactions from educators and politicians.

Democrats in the New York state Senate are proposing to prohibit teachers from carrying guns on school property. 

Supporters see it as a pre-emptive move to counter potential federal legislation on arming teachers.

Meanwhile, the Vermont House on March 2 passed legislation that would, among other things, give a judge discretion in requiring any person who is a risk to themselves or others to turn over weapons as of condition of pretrial release, create a felony charge of “possession of a firearm on school grounds with intent to harm,” and allow a police officer to remove a firearm from a home if it is believed to pose a threat to a victim of domestic assault or another person.

The ACSD board last month sent a resolution to the Legislature and Gov. Phil Scott urging them to approve “common-sense gun violence prevention legislation” this session.

Before the Legislature recessed for Town Meeting week, the Senate passed a bill that would allow police to get on-the-spot warrants to seize guns from people who pose an imminent threat. But after Gov. Scott criticized the bill for being too narrow in its scope, changes were made, it was sent to the House and it is in a conference committee now.

At their annual meeting, Otter Valley Unified Union school district residents passed a non-binding resolution forbidding teachers in Brandon-area schools to carry guns (see story).

Arming teachers would not fit into the category of “common sense” gun control, according to Middlebury officials.

COMMON SENSE?

“I’m against it,” said Larry O’Connor, a longtime alternative education teacher at Middlebury Union High School and a leader of the Addison Central Educators Association.

“I don’t think adding more guns to a school would make students feel safer, or it certainly wouldn’t make all students feel safer,” O’Connor added.

He believes if a teacher were to possess a gun in class, it could undermine the educator’s mission of developing personal relationships with his or her students.

“You make those relationships so students feel safe and confortable, and then they can learn,” O’Connor said.

He believes that rather than arming teachers, state and federal government should make a greater investment in the students themselves.

“I think prevention is always cheaper than a reactive way,” O’Connor said. “So if you look at the money you need to train these teachers and you put that into identifying the disenfranchised students and giving them what they need so they don’t feel disenfranchised, I think that’s a much better use of taxpayer money.”

O’Connor also believes in tighter gun laws. He recalled perusing Facebook a couple of weeks ago and noted a post by a Vermont student seeking to sell an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle for $300.

“This 18-year-old kid is the keeper of who gets an AR-15?” O’Connor said. “I think the fact a student who has that gun can sell it to whoever he wants, is concerning.”

Middlebury Police Chief Tom Hanley said the expectations of a teacher as a protector of students needs to be more clearly defined before “arming teachers” legislation could be fully considered. Some folks might see the teacher’s role as being limited to personal defense only when encountering an armed assailant, Hanley noted. Others might expect the teacher to run to the sound of gunfire, while still others might see the armed educator only as a deterrent to a would-be attacker, he added.

“While not opposed to the concept, I’m not a proponent either if it is regarded as a simplistic solution,” Hanley said. “The Florida school had an armed resource officer. By that thinking, this should have been sufficient deterrent.”

That armed resource officer did not enter the school and confront the shooter, and his since resigned from his post.

Hanley also noted the chance of a tragic “friendly fire” incident involving an armed teacher wearing civilian clothes.

“Our policy and our training is to locate, disrupt, and engage the threat immediately and then to end the threat,” Hanley said. “We will be entering a chaotic environment, most likely without specific direction as to the location and description of the assailant(s). We will be responding armed and prepared to engage. Until the threat is ended we will not be rendering aid to the wounded. The chances then to engage and disrupt the wrong person who is armed is escalated, delaying a more effective response, and sending other responders to the wrong place while it’s being sorted out.”

There’s also the issue of how much firepower the teacher would be carrying, according to Hanley.

“If arming school staff, what do you arm them with?” he asked. “A small concealable handgun and a few bullets to engage a person with considerably more firepower? Simply thinking that arming a few teachers will resolve the problem is folly and dangerous.”

Addison County State’s Attorney Dennis Wygmans was candid in his opposition to the notion of gun-carrying teachers.

Like Hanley, Wygmans is concerned about the potential confusion it might create at a crime scene.

“From a law enforcement perspective, when you’re arriving at a scene and trying to determine who the bad guy is,” he said. “You have a number of people armed, and suddenly — who’s the good guy here and who’s the bad guy? You have another question you have to address, when you should just be addressing the bad guy.”

Marksmanship is another justifiable concern, according to Wygmans.

“Even experienced law enforcement officers are not terribly good at hitting their intended target in a fluid situation,” he said. “It’s one thing to hit a stationery target or even a target that’s moving toward you in a motorized target practice, but humans are a lot more dynamic than that, and the circumstances are a lot more dynamic than that.

“My concern would be for the safety of other individuals who are present,” he added.

The county’s chief prosecutor is also skeptical of the deterrence value of armed school personnel.

“Most of these (shooters) have a suicide plan with themselves,” Wygmans said. “Most of them don’t go out to eat and shop, like the guy down in Parkland did. They plan on getting killed or kill themselves throughout the process of committing this kind of atrocity.”

Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected]

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