NORMAN — As post-Sandy Hook discourse on school violence and appropriate legislative response remains heated, the proposal to arm teachers has risen to national prominence as a controversial, polarizing conversation for professional educators facing an uncertain future.
State Rep. Mark McCullough, R-Sapulpa, brought the debate to the Oklahoma legislature with his December announcement of a bill he planned to bring to the House of Representatives authorizing teachers to carry firearms in schools.
Response from prominent Norman educators and community members has been mixed, but most agree that the arms debate highlights a need for addressing bigger societal problems that pre-existed the Sandy Hook massacre.
Ginger Tinney, executive director of Professional Oklahoma Educators, said her members’ response to the arms debate has been varied.
“From our membership, I’ve heard responses all across the board, and voices on both sides are very passionate,” Tinney said. “At a recent meeting, suggestions about a school security bond, using retired police or veterans as security personnel, mental illness and re-emphasizing ethics and compassion in schools were all raised. With everything coming from the state, our teachers are very stressed.”
Tinney said POE is currently conducting a poll of its membership to gauge the majority opinion on the question of arming teachers, and links to articles supporting and opposing the idea have been distributed on the group’s website.
“We want our members to read and ingest all sides of this issue,” Tinney said.
Oklahoma Education Association President Linda Hampton expressed her support for taking the gun issue out of the school safety equation, cautioning against hasty reactions.
“We need to change the focus to safety for our children, which is a much larger topic than what we’re focusing on, and the answer has to be much bigger than looking at the gun issue,” Hampton said. “We can’t oversimplify what happened at Sandy Hook and there’s no quick fix, which is the problem after tragedies.”
For Gregg Garn, dean of the University of Oklahoma’s Jeannine Rainbolt College of Education, the best answer is collaboration and planning.
“Arming teachers would not be my first suggestion, there are a lot of other things districts can do to make schools safe,” Garn said. “I think an initial assessment of security strengths and weaknesses is one of the first things districts can do, and joining the larger conversation on safety with law enforcement entities brings a lot of expertise to bear that schools just don’t have. It’s probably not your best strategy to have teachers try to solve these issues.”
“Teachers came into the profession to be teachers, not law enforcement officers,” she said.
Hampton emphasized that a major piece of the “bigger picture” must be mental health, citing shortcomings in funding as a serious obstacle.
“There need to be background checks and better counseling in schools, so as to identify problems before they happen. Counselors in schools now have very little time for one-on-one counseling with troubled students,” Hampton said. “It’s easy to identify a child with a problem. It’s another to address that problem, and mental health solutions will be very costly for our government to address,”
Cost is also a problem for potential integration of firearms, as McCullough’s suggestion for teachers receiving Council on Law Enforcement and Education Training (CLEET) to receive arms authorization would come with a huge price tag.
“Some of our members have come forward to me, saying they already have concealed carry licenses and expressing a desire to be able to carry their firearms at school, but CLEET training costs $10,000 per person,” Tinney said. “Our teachers are very committed to children, and those who talk about CCL are acting on a desire to nurture and protect.”
As an education administrator and Norman Public Schools parent, Garn said his greatest confidence is in school drills.
“Building drills into overall preparation and practicing what to do in these tragic situations that we’ve seen is very appropriate,” Garn said. “If you consider reacting to a situation for the first time with no preparation versus reacting to a situation you’ve practiced or prepared for, the outcomes will be very different.
“I have three kids in Norman Public Schools and I feel very safe because I know they’re doing that kind of preparation.”
In meantime, Garn said teachers’ maintaining a positive and communicative rapport is the best way to achieve the unanimous objective: making students feel safe.
“Students’ feeling safe and positive about school is absolutely from a good relationship with their teacher, based on clear understanding of each student’s interests, hopes, etc. I think the idea of feeling safe in schools is something teachers have been committed to, since there’s been teachers and students in classrooms,” Garn said.
Whatever the questions raised or legislation produced by the arms debate, all educators share the hope that government officials will spare no expense or resource to ensure an adequate solution.
“I think we owe it to the victims to do this right,” Hampton said. “I’m sure the parents of Sandy Hook would have said it’s worth the money.”