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Educators on school shootings: 'Arming teachers is not the answer'

President Trump and the NRA have proposed arming teachers as one response to the Parkland, Florida mass school shooting that left 17 dead. Local teachers and principals say it's a bad idea, arguing they need to be armed with more resources to help students, not weapons.
Jeffrey Larsen, a high school teacher from Lowell

Jeffrey Larsen, a high school teacher from Lowell /Morgan Jarema

Underwriting support from:
Larry Johnson, head of safety and security for GRPS

Larry Johnson, head of safety and security for GRPS /Charles Honey

Forest Hills teacher Ingrid Fournier, who keeps her classroom windows' blinds closed, is opposed to arming teachers

Forest Hills teacher Ingrid Fournier, who keeps her classroom windows' blinds closed, is opposed to arming teachers /Erin Albanese

By Erin Albanese, Charles Honey and Morgan Jarema, School News Network

Ingrid Fournier keeps the blinds closed in her classroom so no one can see in. The Spanish teacher at Central Woodlands 5/6 School in Forest Hills Public Schools has a small space where she will corral her students and secure them, if she ever has to, in the event of an active shooter.

Fournier carefully follows measures every day to ensure her students are safe, but the idea of arming teachers is one she is strongly against.

She looks around the hallways as students head to class and cheerfully greets a boy in Spanish. For her, teaching is about lifting children up, creating warmth and joy so they can learn. Banners with the words “Stand Up,” “Speak Out” and “Stand With” hang overhead. Her steadfast belief is that school needs to be a safe place to learn, an enriching, supportive environment.

It’s no place for guns.

“Ultimately, schools should be the heartbeat of the community,” Fournier said. ”There was a time this was the case. Now, we have heightened security and we practice lockdown drills where we tuck in a corner of the room with the blinds closed and the doors locked.

“The children are frightened. The teachers are scared. But arming us will not solve the threat.”

Divisive views on Trump proposal

A proposal to allow certain, specially trained teachers to voluntarily carry weapons has drawn both criticism and support. Although President Trump surprised lawmakers last week by voicing support for gun-control measures opposed by the RNA, he has stuck to his idea that teachers “adept at firearms” should be able to use them, first suggested in a meeting with students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School following the Feb. 14 mass shooting at their school in Parkland, Florida.

Bills are reportedly being drafted in the Michigan Legislature that would allow teachers to be trained and have access to locked-up weapons, or to allow teachers with concealed weapons permits and extra training to carry them into schools. A package of bills introduced to the Florida Legislature includes a provision to arm trained teachers to voluntarily carry guns. Some states already allow the practice.

Some Parkland students and parents have opposed the idea, as well as an officer of the National Education Association. Closer to home, a Grand Rapids student leader working to end school shootings said the proposal essentially concedes they will continue.

“The plan to arm teachers just says, ‘Classrooms shootings, it’ll happen, for sure. So here’s what we’re going to do so that a teacher can defend (their) students,’” said Ellie Lancaster, senior class president at City High in Grand Rapids Public Schools. “I think that’s ridiculous.

“I’ve talked to a lot of teachers at school. They would rather quit than have to carry a weapon in the classroom, which is supposed to be a very safe learning environment. It’s not supposed to be a place where you’d feel the need to defend yourself, ever.”

Her GRPS superintendent, Teresa Weatherall Neal, agrees.

“Teachers do not need to bring a gun to school,” Neal said. “We need to support these teachers. Let them teach, and then hire people to do the (security).”

Larry Johnson, head of safety and security for GRPS and a former Grand Rapids Police SWAT team supervisor, doesn’t believe it’s realistic – or wise – to expect teachers to undergo the extensive training needed to wield guns in active-shooter situations.

”I don’t think our teachers, who spent four years in college studying to be a teacher, are ready to arrive at a school not only with their books, but arrive with a handgun,” Johnson said. “That’s putting a lot on teachers, and putting a lot of false hope in our students.”

Jeffrey Larsen, who teaches AP literature at Lowell High School, said he would get in between a shooter and his students. He thinks other teachers would too. But Larsen said he wouldn’t carry a gun. And if they were allowed to be carried by staff in his school, he said, “I would think about leaving teaching.”

'Having (students) see me shoot someone ... I just can't even imagine the long-term damage that would do.' -- Forest Hills teacher Ingrid Fournier

Grandville High School writing teacher Amanda Fischer tweeted, "One side wants teachers to carry guns; to be responsible for ending attacks in schools. The other wants us to walk out as a way to force legislation which would also make us responsible for ending attacks in schools.

“At what point does society stop sending us this problem? I want to be responsible for teaching kids, not solving every social issue."

Some teachers torn on idea

As in every profession and sector of society, educators have different views on the matter. Grandville Public Schools Grand View Elementary teacher Gerald Neff said that “Anything is worth trying when it comes to protecting students in the school,” including guns – in the hands of the right people.

“I think the best solution would be to have ex-military or retired policemen stationed in a school building,” said the 20-year kindergarten teacher, but he added that the cost means it likely isn’t possible for already cash-strapped public schools.

While he admits he’s torn about the idea of arming teachers, he said he does know those who have concealed pistol licenses and would be willing to be trained, but that he would be in favor only if training was continual. And he worries about the mental health of students who might witness their teacher having to shoot an armed intruder.

Kent Transition Center culinary arts teacher Ryan Marklevitz is a veteran who served in the U.S. Navy for four years on a nuclear submarine until 1996. He said he’s still processing the issue.

“With my kids in school I’d like to see them safe and protected,” Marklevitz said. “I’m not 100 percent sure where I’m at on the whole thing, but right now I think it would lead to many more problems than solutions.”

He said the firearms training he received in the military would not directly apply to carrying guns in school. “Training would be a huge thing. I wouldn’t feel comfortable without training for those very specific situations.” he said.

He said he has lots of questions: “Who’s going to take care of the guns, pay for the ammunition? What if a teacher was to carry a gun, what are they expected to do: run toward the gunfire or stay and protect the class?

“Right now, I’m on the side of it not being a good idea. I see a lot of problems rising from this,” he said, adding that he works with special-needs students who are cognitively and/or emotionally impaired. “It takes trust to build relationships with them, and seeing a teacher with a gun would be jarring and could affect that relationship.”

He said he sees it as shocking on a personal level too. “The whole idea would be jarring. I have two kids under 4. If I walked in and a preschool teacher was packing, that would be jarring.”

‘Arm us with what we need’

The age of lockdowns and enhanced security is a reality educators don’t deny.

North Godwin Elementary School Principal Mary Lang was a bit unnerved Thursday morning following a lockdown during after-school activities the evening before in her building, West Godwin Elementary and Godwin Heights Middle School following an armed robbery at a nearby business. Students, staff and parents were shaken up.

But she said arming teachers would just compound problems and increase fear.

“I’m 100 percent against it,” Lang said. “I don’t think it’s getting to the root cause of what the problem is. I don’t see it as being helpful. I see it as being dangerous. I would never choose to (carry a gun) even as a building principal, even though my main goal is to always keep all my kids safe.”

She said solutions must include providing schools with the resources they need to help students with mental health issues.

“I’m very passionate about the fact that we are not reaching the root of this problem, which is mental health issues in our children. You can’t tell me any mass shooter of any kind is not mentally ill,” she said, adding that people often have several hoops to go through before getting the mental health treatment they need and end up going without. “We are not serving that population, whether it be in schools or communities.”

North Godwin has no counselor or behavior specialist. The responsibility to deal with severely troubled students falls to Lang and a Kent School Services Network clinician. It’s not enough, she said. She’s seen months go by without needed care for students.

“There have to be more resources,” she said, adding budget cuts led to mental health support staff members being cut at the elementary level.

“It’s horrible choices that we have to make. We sit in meetings and we know we are making terrible choices because we have no options. We don’t have the funds to do it all. We know there is a need.”

Her message to legislators: “Arming teachers is not the answer. Arm us with the resources we do need.”

Too many hypotheticals

East Grand Rapids Middle School Principal Anthony Morey said he believes having teachers carry would create war-like zones.

“I certainly understand why some people, after tragedy, would see that as a solution,” Morey said. “I understand the logic in trying to find an answer to the violence, but I think it’s a terrible idea fraught with unintended consequences that would create new problems that would put our students at risk.

“Schools should be a sanctuary for learning where students should be able to come each day and feel secure. Guns, except in the hands of law enforcement, create more risks.”

Even training and arming a single teacher or a few just doesn’t make sense, he said

“To think the person more trained is going to come to the scene or, through happenstance, be in the position to bring the shooting to an end, that’s based on a bunch of assumptions,” he said. “Because we don’t have answers, we try to break down to a script the theories of ‘if, then’... hypotheticals that are never how a situation unfolds.”

Greg Pratt, superintendent of Lowell Area Schools, says more than one solution is needed to end school shootings. He doesn’t think putting guns in the hands of teachers and other school staff is one of them.

“There’s a lot of things in play when you’re talking about what happened in Florida,” Pratt said, adding that teachers have a very difficult job already. “Classroom management, instruction – to give them that overbearing burden of carrying a firearm, I don’t agree with. I can’t even fathom the idea of arming a teacher.

“To me, it’s just too much to ask. That’s what law enforcement is for.”

Since 2014, Lowell has had a school resource officer from the Kent County Sheriff’s Department who rotates among buildings. The district also has installed safety vestibules in all its schools, and hired two general education social workers in the last two years to be available to students. They also started a program to make counselors available to district students and families who cannot afford counseling or need help to meet the cost.

Like Lang, he said more resources need to go toward mental health.

“We believe there needs to be something more done in the area of mental health,” Pratt said. “So many kids are coming to us with so many different issues. Mental health is definitely one of those areas that is underserved across the country.”

More guns aren’t the answer

Central Woodlands teacher Fournier remembers keeping her classroom windows open to let the breeze in 20 years ago when she was a teacher in Detroit. The idea of a shooter never crossed her mind. Today it’s a scenario she thinks about too often.

Watching the footage of the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School compelled Fournier to speak up. “That changed me forever. I’m done being polite about it. It’s just time to do something.”

'I would never choose to (carry a gun) even as a building principal, even though my main goal is to always keep all my kids safe.' -- North Godwin Elementary Principal Mary Lang

Fournier was a Peace Corps volunteer. “That is the lens through which I view the world. Teaching was a profession where I felt I could have a positive impact on children, but never, in 20-plus years, did I imagine that the responsibilities, which have increased yearly, would include carrying a gun in order to protect the students in my care.

“Some people have said that teachers carrying guns will make the students feel safer. That may be true for some students. But I have had to talk third-graders through understanding that thunder was not going to hurt us. Having them see me shoot someone … I just can't even imagine the long-term damage that would do.”

Fournier said she supports outlawing assault weapons, enforcing background checks, and requiring classes and testing in order to earn a firearms license.

“I am the daughter, sister, aunt, sister-in-law, and daughter-in-law of gun owners,” she said. “I have shotguns. I was raised around rifles because my dad ran an apple orchard and was a hunter. I am not trying to take away all guns.

“I am just saying that guns have no place inside a school. None.”

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