Asking the Impossible: Why Schools Can’t Solve School Shootings (Alone)

Kalyn Cody & Kyrstin Delagardelle Shelley, NLC Des Moines

For the past thirty-odd years, shootings on college campuses, at movie theaters, and within the walls of our K-12 institutions have haunted the conscience of Americans. As of May 18, 2018, twice as many students have died at the hands of active shooters in the halls of their schools as U.S. active duty troops.

Each year, a new wave of tragedies reminds students how vulnerable they are. Columbine. Virginia Tech. Sandy Hook. Stoneman Douglas. The current generation of students have never known a school experience free from the threat of being shot in their classrooms. This is a generation raised in the shadow of recurring, unpredictable violence. Students, staff, and teachers live in a world that in less than a generation went from the shock of what happened on that April day in Colorado, to school shootings that are little more than B-roll on the 6 o’clock news. Culturally, the death of youth within classrooms has become unthinkably mundane.

Schools have had to make changes in the wake of these gun-related disasters. Students and teachers now routinely practice drills and have safety conversations from poems and songs in Kindergarten through lockdown and evacuation procedures in high school. The halls of schools are dark due to closed doors and covered windows in preparation for a threat that would place the local school on a list of statistics. Our schools are evolving from friendly communities to bleak, closely monitored ghost towns. This constant state of readiness places students and teachers under a particular emotional and psychological strain due to planning based on a variety of contingencies.

Teachers’ responsibilities continue to expand. They’re expected to have a continuously-updating mental map of the nearest exit, carry car keys and cell phones throughout the school day, and be aware of which items hold enough heft to surprise or disable an intruder. For example, co-author Kalyn — a math teacher — keeps a bundle of meter sticks behind his desk. Not only must teachers be adept and creative lesson planners, content experts, and kind and caring mentors, but they must also now be fierce and prepared protectors of the students in their care. The number of hats a teacher is expected to wear becomes increasingly difficult to bear, particularly when we start discussing becoming an armed guard.

Keeping kids safe in schools seems like a relatively benign and simple concept. All parties agree that protecting kids at school is a priority. But the level of solutions range from emergency preparedness to the “good guy with a gun” to other more colorful solutions. Each comes with a range of drawbacks and positives, particularly when one considers that the main business of school is learning.

Arming teachers requires them to undergo a fundamental shift in mindset. Most teachers enter the profession because they want help students learn and grow into productive, functioning, happy adults. Unlike police and military personnel, who are trained to identify and neutralize threats, teachers need to be welcoming and prepared to teach whoever is in front of them.

When we arm teachers, we are asking them to protect students using lethal force, perhaps from another student. We are demanding that they be physically and mentally ready to identify a current or former student as a threat, and take that young person down without hesitation. This is incompatible with a teacher’s goal of building trusting relationships in order to educate each child.

Training is another major obstacle. Do we want teachers to be prepared for teaching or for guarding students? Is it reasonable to expect teachers to be expert educators and police simultaneously?

Further, the cost could be prohibitive. In a nation where many districts’ funding levels have not yet recovered from the Great Recession, what would schools need to trade in order to pay for weapons, ammunition, training, and gun storage? Or would teachers bear the cost? Many teachers already spend their own money to keep their classrooms stocked with necessities. On top of all the pencils and tissues, would we expect teachers to also stock their own arsenals?

One commonly proposed budgetary solution to accept funds from private entities. In the 2013–14 school year, there were nearly 100,000 public elementary and secondary schools in the United States, and about 33,000 more in private institutions. With handguns costing around $500 each, that amounts to approximately $66 million, before factoring in ammunition, training, and maintenance. Even if funding were to be located, how would we ensure that the resources were distributed equitably and not just dropped into the suburbs that house the children of the donors?

Another idea that has received increasing attention is the hiring of armed guards, whether military veterans, former police, or others. Once again, this comes back to the magnitude of the issue. Placing a “good guy with a gun” in 133,000 buildings at $35,000 per guard per year — many buildings would require multiple and all would require at least a substitute — comes to at least $4.6 billion annually. Using volunteers could help defray the cost; however, think of the sheer number of hours that would need to be covered. 133,000 schools times 180 days times 7 hours makes for about 167 million hours of protection each year. And that’s assuming one, highly qualified, properly background checked, and ethical guard per school is enough. The scale of the problem, not to mention further objections to putting more guns in schools, regardless of who wields them, prevents armed guards from being an effective solution.

A more affordable measure for schools across the country, including in our home state of Iowa, is drilling in case of emergency including evacuation, shelter in place, or other responses. To aid in a quicker and more efficient lockdown process, some districts have invested in Lock Bloks or other similar devices. Without proper practice, an evacuation or lockdown can quickly descend into chaos. Students, teachers, and staff must rehearse repeatedly in order to act without hesitation in the event of an emergency. This will naturally necessitate time out of class. What proportion of a child’s classroom time is appropriate to spend in drills?

Other more colorful solutions have also been proposed across the country, such as arming teachers with buckets of rocks or mini baseball bats, both reducing and expanding the number of entrances and exits into schools and classrooms, and adding bulletproof inserts for backpacks to school supply lists. Evidently, anything is better than confronting gun culture.

Over the last twenty years, public schools have seen an influx of gun-related violence within their walls coupled with an increase in the responsibilities of teachers to provide social and emotional, as well as academic, support for their students. We expect our education professionals to not only teach but also fill the roles of mentor and protector. Schools across the country have tried or are currently attempting to implement many of the outlined solutions above. It is not for lack of imagination or empathy that our schools cannot keep children safe. We cannot expect schools alone to solve a societal problem, particularly with dwindling resources and overburdened and underpaid teachers, administrators, and staff.

The issues of gun violence must be addressed at a systemic level. We must advocate for universal background checks, closing gun show loopholes, and other policy changes to limit the availability and destructive power of firearms. 74.6 million elementary, secondary, and post-secondary students across the U.S. will return to their classrooms in the fall. Trying to keep them safe by educating them in armed encampments would sacrifice everything that makes schools a special place for students to learn and develop.

Kalyn Cody (NLC Des Moines, ’17) is a 6–8th grade math teacher and building representative for his local teachers’ association. He serves as the finance co-chair for NLC Des Moines and is exhausted by gun violence. He can be reached at kalyn.cody@gmail.com.

Kyrstin Delagardelle Shelley is a proud union educator serving as a middle teacher-librarian and is a co-director of New Leaders Council Des Moines where she was a 2017 fellow. She serves as a founding board member for Iowa Women for Progressive Change and was elected as a Director At-Large to the Des Moines Independent Public Schools Board of Directors in September 2017. She can be reached at kshelley@newleaderscouncil.org.