A small American school district in Arkansas recently captured the headlines by attempting to arm 20 volunteer teachers and staff with handguns starting in August 2013. That initiative has simply reignited the North American debate about the best way to protect children and ensure safer schools. The school under the microscope, Clarksville High School, would be the first in the state to take this step under a state law that allows licensed, armed security guards on campus. Teachers in the program would, after undergoing 53 hours of training, function as security guards as well as educators. It’s merely the latest response of school districts to the horrific shooting at Newtown, Connecticut, in December of 2012.
The wave of parental concern after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings prompted Superintendent David Hopkins to re-evaluate the Arkansas district’s school security procedures, even though the town of some 9,200, about 100 miles northwest of Little Rock, is not regarded as unsafe or dangerous. State officials, respecting the Second Amendment (the right to bear arms) and the local law, were remarkably slow to step forward to block the plan. It will likely be aborted because Arkansas School Commissioner Tom Kimbrell favours deploying security officers rather than arming classroom teachers.
Arming teachers remains controversial, even in the American Deep South and Texas. It was proposed by the National Rifle Asociation in the wake of the Sandy Hook school massacre. State bills in Texas and Michigan fell short of passage after generating resistance from leading educators and warnings from insurance companies about the impact on premiums. The cost of supplying weapons ($1,100 per gun) and providing training also proved to be impediments. In spite of those factors, the strategy of deploying guards and arming teachers still has its supporters, especially in rural, conservative-minded American states.
Putting guns in schools strikes most Canadians as totally bizarre, even those living in troubled inner city communities. Speaking on CTV’s Question Period in December 2012, Stu Auty, founder of the Canadian Safe Schools Network
claimed that it was a matter of “weapon availability” as well a continental cultural differences. School shootings like the horrific one in Taber, Alberta, do happen in Canada, he acknowledged, but they tend to involve illegal hand guns rather than high powered assault weapons. Concealing weapons is also still extremely rare on Canadian streets.
Since the 9/11 Security Crisis and the 2005 Dawson College mass shootings, most K to 12 schools have significantly beefed-up security and instituted new internal and external emergency response procedures. Electronic security is visible at school entrances and all doors are locked except the controlled access front entrance. Many big city high schools now have armed police officers on or near the school grounds.
There is a marked difference, however, in the approach taken in Canada to ensure school safety and security. Safe School policies in Canadian school districts have tended to follow and mimic the guidelines promoted by Stu Auty and his Safe Schools Network. Most of the strategy is preventative rather than deterrent, focusing on allieviating the root causes and minimizing the risks of violence in and around the schools. Deploying guns is not part of the strategy and the intent is to keep children safe by ensuring that schools are essentially “weapon-free zones.” It is not unknown for high school students to carry concealed weapons(mostly switch-blades, or knives), but they do so knowing that they are strictly prohibited and aware of the consequences of violating that rule.
What impact can excessive security measures have on schools? Back in December 2012, Doran Horowitz, Director of the Centre for Israel-Jewish Affairs, put it best. “We try to avoid barricaded schools and classrooms,” he told CTV’s Question Period. ” It’s important to avoid adopting the ‘Fort Knox’ mentality in schools.”
Why are American school districts increasingly deploying guns and armed guards in the schools? Is arming teachers a sensible or an effective strategy? Do we know how students react to their teachers when they come to class armed with concealed weapons? Does it create a chill that discourages student engagement in learning? What is really achieved by barricading the classroom and looking upon the outside world with a fearful set of eyes?