Educators talk about allowing guns on campus
CU News Corps
Dolores County School District Superintendent Bruce Hankins is a soft-spoken man who is passionate about education and the wellbeing of his students — which may be why he carries a gun at his district’s schools.
Dolores County was the first in Colorado to arm school personnel, four years after two teenage boys plotted a lethal shooting at Dove Creek High School. Now, Hankins and one other administrator carry firearms on campus.
Not all educators believe that adding guns to schools is a good idea, though. Nearly two out of five Colorado teachers surveyed by CU News Corps said that, if permitted, they would carry (22 percent) or consider carrying (17 percent) a firearm at school. More than 700 teachers from 61 cities and towns across the state responded to the February survey, which also determined no apparent regional divide.
Should a Colorado House bill introduced by Rep. Patrick Neville become law, teachers — and anyone with a concealed carry permit, for that matter — would have the right to arm themselves on public K-12 school campuses. Of the teachers surveyed by CU News Corps, 35 percent said they support Neville’s bill, and 53 percent said they do not.
A handful of Colorado schools have already armed teachers, administrators and other personnel.
For Dolores County, the path to on-campus carry was not straight and narrow, nor did it come with a map. Hankins and the Dolores County School Board spent months considering who would be allowed to carry, how to collaborate with law enforcement and even how to revise the district’s insurance plan to incorporate the addition of firearms to schools.
But the superintendent doesn’t preach what he practices, nor does he support Neville’s bill.
“I’m not in favor of people carrying guns on campus,” said Hankins, who believes the risk of accidents outweigh potential benefits. “I am 100 percent opposed to teachers having guns in their classrooms. I am 100 percent supportive of having a quick response time.”
Neville’s bill would expand this allowance to all concealed carry permit holders, and it would not require permit holders to report a concealed weapon to administration or local law enforcement.
This doesn’t sit well with Hankins, who believes that he and his school board strategically prepared for the addition of firearms to their schools. He said what’s right for his district isn’t necessarily “one-size-fits-all” for every Colorado school, and that each district should create custom security plans which reflect their campus and community.
Proponents of Neville’s bill are confident that people who can obtain concealed carry permits are trustworthy to handle a gun responsibly. Colorado is currently a “shall issue” state, which means law enforcement officials must issue a permit to anyone who meets certain minimum requirements.
Harvard University Professor David Hemenway said these permits are rarely denied. Hemenway is the director of the Harvard Injury Control Research Center and author of the book “Private Guns, Public Health.”
“There’s this notion that people with guns will protect people,” Hemenway said, “but there’s no real evidence out there supporting this.”
So who should — and shouldn’t — be permitted to carry a gun at school?
In the CU News Corps survey, 317 of 733 teachers said they own a firearm, but a 2013 study published by the Center for Homicide Research revealed that even teachers with concealed carry permits are capable of committing gun violence at school.
The study examined cases of firearm discharges by teachers between 1980-2012, the majority of which occurred on school grounds.
“A person primarily occupied as a teacher is in no way different from any other shooter,” the study reported. “Teachers suffer from mental illnesses, commit acts of domestic violence, and make mistakes like a person from any other profession.”
NO REGIONAL DIVIDE
High school teacher Lee Robinson wants the right to choose to carry a gun at school, despite the improbability of having to use it.
“In the very rare circumstance that we have an active shooter at our school, I want the ability to defend,” Robinson said. “While whisking kids into a supply closet and wrapping arms around them in an attempt to shield them is loving, it is hardly a way to protect them from a deranged person with a gun.”
Robinson lives in Buena Vista. Though the labels aren’t perfect, Colorado can be divided into three geographic areas: the Mountain West, the rural Eastern Plains and the Front Range.
The state is also sharply divided politically. Last year, 11 counties considered seceding from the state. The CU News Corps survey, however, did not reveal a geographic divide in response to the question, “Would you carry a firearm at school?”
Teachers who said they would carry a firearm replied from cities in all three geographic categories. Seventy-five percent of the “yes” responses were reported from non-mountain towns on the Front Range. The Eastern Plains and mountain towns represented one-third of those who said they would not carry a gun at school.
However, some rural teachers hold fast to the idea that their needs differ from those of Front Range schools, and that state law should reflect this.
Margaret Chouinard of Yuma, supports Neville’s bill and teachers’ right to carry at school.
“If [the bill] passes, there are going to be people in Denver and Boulder screaming bloody, black and blue murder,” Chouinard said. “But the kids in Douglas County don’t need the same thing as our population.”
In Boulder, Odette Edbrooke said she will leave teaching if Neville’s bill becomes law. Abby Loberg from Granby expressed similar sentiments.
“If Colorado passed a law like that,” Loberg said, “I would not only quit teaching, I would also pull my own children out of school and probably move to another state.”
THE BILL TEACHERS WOULD WRITE
CU News Corps survey results show that 89 percent of Colorado teachers feel safe at school. Even those teachers said they would arm themselves or consider it.
Hemenway is not surprised. The chances of getting into a car accident are slim, he explained, but people still buckle up. It’s about having a “safety mindset.” Still, he insisted that the addition of guns to the classroom would lead to a higher number of firearm accidents.
“The answer is not more guns in more places,” Hemenway said. “If the world was post-apocalyptic, then you’d want to be armed, but guns have not made us safer.”
Protecting or defending others with a weapon is a duty foreign to modern educators. And the chances of a teacher effectively responding to an active shooter scene is dubious, said John Nicoletti, an Aurora police psychologist who was on scene of the 1999 Columbine shootings. He also responded to the 2006 Platte Canyon shooting and contributed to an assessment at Virginia Tech after a 2007 shooting spree left 32 students and faculty members dead.
“Unless the person carrying the weapon has had combat or law enforcement experience with real life simulation, there is a strong possibility that they will miss with several of their shots,” Nicoletti said. “This lack of accuracy increases the probability of bystanders being hit. Shooting at a paper target is a lot different than shooting at a human who may be firing back.”
Ten teachers and administrators from across the state said that if they could write a bill aimed at preventing school shootings, it would focus on mental health. Some also added that they would increase school funding for counselors and social workers.
It’s not abnormal for the counselor-to-student ratio at Colorado schools to be 1-to-300 or more. High school counselors are primarily responsible for guiding students with graduation requirements and college preparation, not mental or emotional issues.
Like Hankins, Principal James Long of Mapleton Early College High School in Thornton believes that classroom climate and culture, and the addition of counselors and psychology professionals to schools are topics that merit more legislative attention.
“When you talk about school reform and the bills that are in front of state legislature or federal legislators, nobody’s talking about mental health,” Long said. “How about we just create schools that are engaging and we help kids so that they want to come to school because that’s their safe place?”
The same group of educators who emphasized the importance of mental health services unanimously agreed that their highest priority is to teach kids, not to police their school.
“Tragic things happen. Sad things happen. Life happens,” said Robinson, who favors well-regulated on-campus carry. “But I think that a school’s sole purpose is still to educate… Now it’s almost like learning is an afterthought. We have to meet the safety and security needs first, and then we get to teach.”
Lo Snelgrove is a first-year journalism master’s student in the College of Media, Communication and Information at the University of Colorado Boulder. CU News Corps is a news project within the Department of Journalism in the CMCI at CU Boulder.
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