Lawrence educators blast proposals for arming teachers as ludicrous and a distraction from the real issues

photo by: Nick Krug

Lawrence High students pass through the hallway on the east side of the school during the seventh hour changing period on Friday, April 7, 2017.

? Teachers and other officials in the Lawrence school district appear universally opposed to proposals that would allow some K-12 teachers to carry guns in school.

President Donald Trump’s proposals followed the mass shooting Feb. 14 at a high school in Parkland, Fla., that left 17 people dead.

Local educators’ reactions came just a few days after Republican Gov. Jeff Colyer, speaking at an education forum in Washington, indicated that he supports Trump’s proposed plans to allow some teachers to carry guns in school and to offer bonuses to those who undergo weapons training.

“This may be a good solution,” Colyer was quoted as saying in an online story published by The 74, which describes itself as a nonprofit, nonpartisan news service that focuses on education. “That’s where the students are, that’s where the security issue is immediately. That, though, is really a very local decision on how we see it — because different schools, they have a different setup and different community standards. We’re exploring this right now.”

Colyer’s spokeswoman, Kara Fullmer, did not dispute the accuracy of that quote, but in an email she offered a follow-up statement from the governor:

“In Kansas we will be thoughtful and pragmatic as we work to understand how best to prevent these issue in the future,” the statement read. “We know that most decisions are best made at a local level. I look forward to listening to our local communities and gathering their ideas on how best to keep our children safe.”

Allowing local districts to make their own choices about arming teachers, however, would require legislation because current state law prohibits anyone apart from law enforcement officers — faculty, staff, administrators or students — from possessing a firearm on K-12 school property or at school-sponsored events.

The Journal-World reached out to several educators in the Lawrence school district. None of them expressed any support for the idea of allowing some teachers to carry firearms.

“Personally, I want nothing to do with guns as a teacher,” Lindsay Buck, chair of the special education department at Lawrence High School, said in an email. “I did not go into education to become a body-guard, police officer, or solider – I went into education to teach children. I haven’t heard a single colleague or teacher with whom I’m connected to voice support for arming teachers; quite the opposite is true, with many posting opposition on social media platforms.”

Laura Sutliffe, a speech and language pathologist at Cordley and New York elementary schools, shared that sentiment.

“No, I do not believe arming teachers is the answer,” she said in a Facebook message. “Improving security at all schools through building cameras, locked entry and secure entry ways, security guards, and more metal detectors; banning all assault rifles; increasing stringent requirements and background checks for all gun purchases, confiscating guns from people/homes with any history or reported history of hospitalization are some measures that make sense to me.”

Lawrence school board president Shannon Kimball noted that the district has taken a number of steps to improve security in its buildings, including establishing a single, secure entrance to each building.

In a phone interview, she described proposals to arm teachers as “ludicrous.”

“It’s naive and it’s simplistic, and it does not address the real needs to actually decrease the likelihood that something like that will happen in a school building,” she said.

Last week, just eight days after the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida, the Kansas House was scheduled to debate a bill that would direct the Kansas State Board of Education to adopt curriculum guidelines for teaching gun safety in public schools that would be based on guidelines from the National Rifle Association’s “Eddie Eagle” program for elementary students, and the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks’ hunter safety program for high school students.

That bill was pulled from the debate calendar, however. House Speaker Ron Ryckman, R-Olathe, said GOP leaders want gun safety education to be part of a broader initiative to improve school safety.

Kimball said she strongly opposed that measure because Lawrence schools already teach about gun safety as part of their health and wellness curriculum, and she said she doesn’t think the Legislature should be involved in deciding which curriculum they use.

“I think if they want to talk about the real issues, they need to talk about more than just mental health, more than just building security. They have got to have a real conversation about gun laws as well,” Kimball said.

David Reber, who has been a lead negotiator for the Lawrence Education Association and who teaches biology at Free State High School, where more than 400 students staged a walkout last week to protest gun violence in schools, said in an email that he has no interest in arming himself at school, and he called the conversation about arming teachers a distraction from what he sees as the real issue.

“I think they know full well that most teachers reject the idea, most schools reject the idea, and there is little chance of it taking hold anywhere,” he wrote. “So, they get to offer ‘solutions’ without much chance of actually having to DO anything. Certainly not having to FUND anything. And, when their ‘solution’ doesn’t materialize, they will blame teachers for stonewalling it.”

Jeff Plinsky, who teaches in the English department at Lawrence High School, said he thinks there are better ways to improve safety and security in school buildings.

“Kansas would be better served by increasing the number of teachers, social workers, counselors, and school psychologists in each district, reducing class sizes so that teachers have time to build better relationships with students, refocusing education on soft skills and relationship building, instead of getting kids ready for standardized tests, and insuring that both schools and law enforcement have the financial and staffing resources they need to intervene with troubled students,” he said in an email.

“This solution, while expensive and inefficient in terms of financial concerns, is far better for kids, and allows schools to address the root causes of the problem — anger, loneliness, mental health concerns, emotional instability, etc.,” Plinsky added.

Jason Mendence, a special education teacher at Free State High School, said he thinks arming teachers would make schools more dangerous.

“More guns in school make school more dangerous. A shooter will still get in and do damage. All these events are planned out carefully,” he said in an email. “How about locks for all the doors and alarms on every door in every school. And having a severe penalty for opening one of those doors. As for having teachers (have) guns in school … the majority of teachers in this whole country say no.”