Arming schoolteachers to prevent mass shootings is a bad, dangerous idea, VCU expert says

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At a White House listening session, President Donald Trump proposed training and arming teachers as a means to prevent future school shootings. (Photo credit: White House)

At a White House listening session with teenage survivors of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Florida, President Donald Trump endorsed the idea of arming teachers as a way to protect schools against future mass shootings.

William Pelfrey, Ph.D., associate professor and program chair of homeland security and emergency preparedness in the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs at Virginia Commonwealth University, has studied the issue of guns in schools.

President Trump is proposing arming teachers as a way to address school shootings. What risks would you foresee if this happens?

Arming teachers is a bad idea for many reasons. There is a naïve assumption that if a “good guy” with a gun is on the scene, they can stop a bad guy with a gun. If you imagine the chaos of a school shooting, and then add a scared teacher or other school employee moving onto the scene with a gun, there are lots of potential problems. The armed school representative could accidentally shoot a student or another staff person, they could be mistaken by law enforcement as the shooter and then killed, or the gun could be taken from them. What happens if the armed school representative gets shot and a student, or a bad guy, takes up that gun?

Schools will need to have a process for selecting the armed designee, training them, and securing liability insurance for them. We naturally assume that a school principal, or assistant principal, or teacher will be the armed designee for the school. What if a custodian or groundskeeper is the only volunteer — is that acceptable? The vast majority of problems at a school are not violent, but there are occasionally violent encounters. If two students are involved in a fight, should the armed school designee come with their gun? If so, there is a risk that the gun could be taken and then a violent student is now armed with a gun. There are also issues of storing the gun and then accessing it when or if something bad happens.

You have conducted research on the topic of guns in schools. What were your findings?

The research on whether an armed civilian is effective in violent circumstances is mixed. Some studies find that an armed civilian can help prevent or minimize violence, other studies find no effect, or even a negative effect such that bringing a gun to the scene makes things worse. School shootings are such rare events that we are not able to draw conclusions about armed civilians in schools. 

My research on violence in schools indicates that a substantial portion of school violence stems from bullying and cyberbullying and these acts are preventable with effective policy, intervention, and student education and initiatives. A long-bullied, victimized student who is prone to violence and has access to guns is a very dangerous combination. The only element of that equation that a school can address is bullying victimization.

What do you think would be the psychological impact of guns on campuses and schools?

Adding a school-sanctioned gun to a school setting has dangerous psychological consequences for students, teachers and school staff. Violent cues, like guns, enhance violence through subtly influencing how people think. When students know that a school representative (not law enforcement personnel) is carrying a gun, or has access to a gun, they may shift their perspective on violence. For example, if a student intends to fight with another student (and many fights are premeditated) they may bring a gun to school instead of coming unarmed or with a knife, knowing that a gun is already present at school. The potential for violence escalation is substantial if all students know a gun is present.

We also have to consider the psychological consequences for teachers. The authorization to use deadly force is a substantial responsibility. Police are carefully selected and highly trained.  They also have a range of less-than-lethal force options, which can be employed during a violent encounter. Teachers will only have guns — not Tasers, batons or pepper spray, or training in hand-to-hand fighting. The psychologist Abraham Maslow said that if the only tool you have is a hammer, it is tempting to treat every problem like a nail. A teacher carrying a gun might intervene in a fistfight and could make the situation much, much worse. 

There are about 3.2 million teachers in the United States. President Trump proposed arming 20 percent of them, which would produce an armed force of about 600,000 persons, larger than the U.S. Army and nearly as large as the Air Force and Navy combined. 

Beyond the issue of guns in schools, are there policies that you think we could enact that would minimize the chances of future school shootings, or at least minimize the severity of future school shootings?

Schools must be keenly aware of the consequences of long-term bullying. There are effective and teachable strategies, which can help students become advocates for other students, thereby reducing the chances of violent outbursts.

Law enforcement and schools must take tips on disenfranchised and dangerous students very seriously. The research on school threat assessment teams (which are legislatively mandated in Virginia) is promising. 

Gun availability, particularly regarding assault style weapons and high-capacity magazines, is a terrible tragedy. 

Mental illness has been used as a scapegoat but that is not the real problem. The vast majority of people with diagnosable mental illness are not violent. Conversely, many of the mass shooting perpetrators are not diagnosed with a mental illness. Severe mental illness occurs in most countries at about the same rate — what differentiates the United States is the availability of dangerous guns.