To pack or not to pack? If El Paso County Sheriff Terry Maketa has his way, that may soon be a relevant question for local teachers.
Last month's slaughter of 26 people, including 20 small children, at Connecticut's Sandy Hook Elementary School has touched off national debate about how to better protect kids from mass murderers. Locally, Maketa was lauded last week for his offer to train teachers in gun use and safety, and to waive concealed-carry permit charges, so they can carry arms into schools.
Both national and state laws ban concealed-carry on school grounds, except for law enforcement officials. The state Senate is beginning to look at eliminating the Colorado ban, which would bring the gun-rights vision closer to realization, but Democratic Sen. Pat Steadman says he expects even that effort to fail.
"It will probably die before I ever see it," he says. "Most law enforcement people have concerns about that, from what I've heard, because they're really worried about the training and qualifications of somebody running around a school with a gun."
For those disappointed that Maketa's training isn't likely to be tested in the classroom anytime soon, it's worth noting that various professionals consulted for this story agree there are major concerns with arming teachers.
Would it work?
To Dr. Kathryn Seifert, a Maryland-based psychologist and national expert on youth and family violence, it's pretty basic. "Unless people are highly, highly trained like police officers are, their ability to respond quickly, accurately and with good judgment in a crisis situation I don't think can be that reliable," she tells the Independent.
Police officers, she continues, tend to have very different personality types than teachers, and are trained to act without emotion in crises. On the other hand, many people unaccustomed to violent situations will freeze, she says. Others will act with impaired judgment.
"People get upset, they get nervous," she says. "... I think it could be tragic instead of helpful."
When asked about the issues associated with arming teachers, representatives at the Colorado Springs Police Department stressed the risks of such a scenario. Lt. Sal Fiorillo, Tactical Enforcement Unit commander, explains that police receive special training for mass shooting situations.
"[T]hat particular type of training involves people who regularly train in tactical situations and active shooter situations, which most often, non law enforcement or non military people don't have access to," he writes in an e-mail to the Independent.
Police spokesperson Barbara Miller adds via e-mail: "We would have to caution citizens that having the proper credentials and training alone would not necessarily prepare them for an active shooter situation. When faced with a tense and stressful situation, there's always the potential the [citizen] shooter would miss the intended target and hurt an innocent person."
Kevin Vick, president of the Colorado Springs Education Association (Colorado Springs School District 11's teachers union), opposes arming teachers. He says a teacher could also absentmindedly set down a gun where a child could reach it, or fail to properly lock it.
"Being a teacher, and talking with a lot of teachers, one of the things that really comes out is there are just too many unanticipated events in a teacher's day to really guarantee the safety of a firearm in that environment," Vick says. "And it would be such a tragedy to have an accidental shooting in a classroom."
Teachers' guns could be put in a special lock box, as Seifert points out is often the case in prisons. (In fact, at the county jail controlled by Maketa, no lethal weapons are allowed inside the secured part of the facility.) But, she says, if the guns are stored far from classrooms, they won't be much use against an intruder with a semiautomatic weapon.
Another approach is to station specially trained, armed police officers — called school resource officers, or SROs — at every school. The National Association of School Resource Officers has lately been championing its cause. And the idea has some traction, though even some supporters concede it'd be expensive.
Vick is a supporter of SROs, as is Seifert, who says, "I would rather see a resource officer in every school than see us arm teachers."
The Colorado Springs Police Department has 14 school resource officers stationed at city high schools. They also regularly visit middle and elementary schools. Police Lt. Patty Feese, supervisor of the Springs' School Resource Program, says SROs are given mandatory, yearly training sponsored by the Federal Emergency Management Agency on dealing with an "active shooter," as well as quarterly training with weapons.
But Feese says the job goes beyond being ready for an attack. By staying in touch with students, these officers can often intervene in problems early and prevent crimes from happening.
Ultimately, Seifert says, that proactive approach is what the country needs. Training teachers, psychologists and social workers to identify potentially violent patients and get them help immediately would do more than anything to solve the problem, she says.