No Guns for Teachers, American Educators Say, Demand Mental Health Resources Instead

Nowhere is America's problem with guns more striking than in the nation's schools. Columbine, Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook, Marjory Stoneman Douglas, to name just a few: hundreds of schools and colleges across the country have been the scene of traumatic shootings.

In a mocked-up classroom at the Global Education Skills Forum in Dubai this weekend, three American teachers—Brian Copes of Hoover City Schools, Principal Nadia Lopez of the Mott Hall Bridges Academy, and Mark Vondraceck of the Evanston Township High School—shared their experiences in fighting violence and mental health problems among their students.

All three rejected calls for teachers to be armed, stressing that more resources must be committed to treating mental health issues in school and that teachers must get more support as front-line educators.

That the organizers decided to dedicate a whole session to violence in U.S. schools is telling. School shootings are largely, though not exclusively, an American phenomenon. While their number is not increasing, contrary to public perception, the nation is still failing to meet the challenge.

The solutions to the gun violence epidemic—by no means restricted only to schools—have largely focused on revamping security procedures in schools. Metal detectors, bag checks, armed security guards and even armed teachers have all been introduced, but the killings continue.

Arming teachers—a long-standing idea supported by President Donald Trump—is a particularly divisive approach. Spearheaded by the National Rifle Association (NRA), gun-toting teachers are—second amendment supporters argue—the epitome of the so-called "good guy with a gun." The final line of defense between a shooter and students, an armed teacher could make all the difference.

But many teachers and experts dismiss the idea out of hand. Indeed, not one of the panel members at GESF said they would be willing to carry a weapon on campus. "Absolutely, not," Vondraceck said bluntly, when asked if he would agree to arming himself.

"Politicians aren't in our classroom, we're the ones in the classrooms," Cope said. "We're the ones that know their heartbeat, we know their desires, we know the issues—we know our kids…What kind of a learning environment is it if we are turning our schools into something like more of a prison?"

Mental health issues are also a major drivers of student violence, the teachers explained, all three calling for greater resources to help treat such conditions.

"There's no conversation that happens inside of the school by those who create the policies, by those who feel like the best way to remedy this is to add more training for the teachers as opposed to adding more resources that can help alleviate some of the issues," Lopez explained.

Vondraceck mentioned the "20/20" principle, which estimates around 20 percent of teenagers will exhibit some from mental health issue, but that only 20 percent of these sufferers will get the treatment they need. In a country as large as the U.S., "that's an astronomical number of kids out there who have some kind of mental health issue, and who don't have any kind of treatment," he said.

Many schools also lack a full staff of counselors, school psychologists or social workers, Vondraceck added, recalling one school where there were nearly 1,000 students to just one counselor. "How do we provide the support that kids are going to need?" he asked.

"In the United States, at least, more than half of the counties nationwide don't have a single facility for mental health…It's a systemic problem within schools, it's a systemic problem within our society as a whole…That's what we're really going to try and push."

For those who survive mass shootings—or even those who prepare for them with via regular in-school drills—post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a significant risk. Vondraceck said more than 200 schools with some 223,000 students have had school shootings in the past 20 years.

Around one quarter of those who experience traumatic incidents of this kind will develop mental health issues, meaning more than 60,000 students from those schools are at risk. Indeed, just this weekend, a survivor of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting—19-year-old Sydney Aiello—took her own life, citing survivor's guilt.

Mental health can contribute to shootings and scar those who survive. It is a vicious circle, with students ultimately shouldering the physical and mental burdens. And too often it boils down to a politicized argument over gun rights. "It becomes the NRA versus everyone else," Lopez said, while the debate remains bogged down as it has for decades.

The gun control debate will be a significant element of the 2020 presidential election. While Trump has been courting—though not always successfully—second amendment advocates, several prominent Democratic candidates are taking a harder line.

For example, every senator running for the Democratic nomination—Kamala Harris, Corey Booker, Elizabeth Warren, Kirsten Gillibrand, Amy Klobuchar and Bernie Sanders—have co-signed a bill sponsored by California Senator Dianne Feinstein that would ban assault weapons.

Other nations have quickly limited gun ownership in the aftermath of mass shootings. Anglosphere nations including the U.K., Australia and—as of this week—New Zealand, have all passed sweeping firearms legislation after dozens of their citizens were gunned down in schools, tourist sites and places of worship. The apparent inability of American lawmakers to follow suit is a constant frustration to victims of gun crime and anti-firearms advocates.

"If one or two kids are injured by a toy, there's an outcry nationally to pull those toys off the shelves," Vondraceck said. "We're talking about more than 220,000 students being affected by gun violence, within the schools—that doesn't even include the additional violence that takes place outside the schools in the neighborhoods. And yet we haven't done anything in the United States."

teachers guns in schools mass shootings
School teachers and administrators fire guns during a course at Flatrock Training Center in Commerce City, Colorado on June 27, 2018. JASON CONNOLLY/AFP/Getty Images

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