The Wichita Eagle File photo
The Wichita Eagle File photo

Education

Wichita-area educators and parents weigh in: Should we arm teachers?

By Suzanne Perez Tobias

stobias@wichitaeagle.com

February 23, 2018 04:45 PM

When people visit Shelly Wiedenkeller’s first-grade classroom in Goddard, many compliment the table skirts around her students’ desks.

The whimsical fabric features tiny books, pencils, rulers and apples. It gives the place a homey feel.

Only Wiedenkeller knows their actual purpose – to give her kids cover from potential gunmen.

During crisis drills, Wiedenkeller orders the children under their desks. She locks the classroom doors, turns off the lights and tells them to be quiet and still. There they wait until given an all-clear.

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“I lie to them. I tell them we’re playing hide-and-seek,” Wiedenkeller says. “You’re sitting there in the pitch black thinking, ‘This is nuts, that we even have to be doing this.’”

Active-shooter drills and other safety measures – including bonus pay for armed teachers – are the subject of nationwide conversation, as leaders once again debate how to protect schools from mass shootings.

Kansas Gov. Jeff Colyer said Friday that President Donald Trump’s proposal to give teachers bonuses for carrying guns after the most recent mass shooting at a school “may be a good solution.”

The Kansas Legislature Thursday canceled a debate on a gun-safety education bill giving preference to a National Rifle Association program in elementary schools, opting to work on a comprehensive plan for preventing gun violence in schools.

Rep. John Whitmer, R-Wichita, said a new bill could include measures aimed at allowing teachers to carry concealed weapons or putting more armed security guards in schools.

“Whether we like it or not, whether we want to admit it or not, guns are part of our culture. That’s not going to change,” Whitmer said. “So you can either be an ostrich, or you can face the issue head-on.”

Survivors of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School have called for gun control reform on interviews and social media.

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Arming teachers

During a listening session this week with parents and survivors of school shootings, President Trump said that a teacher adept at firearms “could very well end the attack very quickly.” He later said that training and arming 20 percent of teachers could “act as a deterrent to the cowards that do this.”

In Wichita, the state’s largest school district, that would mean about 840 armed teachers. Add other public and private schools, and the number of educators carrying weapons could number in the thousands.

Many aren’t keen on the concept.

“I don’t think my kindergartners would run to me eagerly for hugs if I had a firearm holstered on my waist,” said Cathy Gray, a teacher at Wichita Collegiate School.

“I am not in law enforcement. I am an educator and I choose to educate children that violence is never the answer,” she said.

“We aren’t even supposed to touch kids when they are tearing up a classroom or being violent unless we’ve had special training,” said Natalie Aramburu, a teacher at Truesdell Middle School.

“What makes people think parents and students would want a teacher with a gun walking around?

Gaye Coburn, who teaches media and language arts at Wichita North High School, said research shows that trained professionals in law enforcement and the military have mixed results with guns in life-threatening situations.

“I would do anything to keep my students safe, I really would,” Coburn said. “But more guns in schools is not likely to achieve that result.”

A local elementary teacher who asked not to be named said she would feel comfortable and less vulnerable carrying a concealed weapon in school.

“Being in the sad state that we’re in, I think, ‘Yeah, it might be a good thing,” said the 35-year-old teacher, who has worked in public and private schools in Wichita.

She said she has a concealed-carry permit, shoots regularly and practices gun safety. Some parents might feel uncomfortable with the idea of armed teachers, but “they’re already trusting me with their greatest asset – their children,” she said.

“When I crowd 23 kindergartners into a closet and shut that door, I think, ‘What would I would do if someone came into the room?’ If it meant protecting them, I absolutely would shoot” an intruder, she said.

“If the guns are going to come at us anyway, it helps to be prepared.”

At a town hall held by CNN in Sunrise, Florida, on Wednesday night, thousands of angry students, teachers and parents booed Republican Sen. Marco Rubio when he indicated that he would not support an assault-weapons ban.

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Liability concerns

If Kansas districts allow teachers to carry weapons, they could run into trouble with their insurance carriers.

In 2013, Iowa-based EMC Insurance Companies, which insures 85 to 90 percent of the state’s school districts, said it would not offer or renew policies for districts that allowed armed employees on school premises.

Mike Rodee, president of the Wichita school board, said he doesn’t support arming teachers because of potential liability, psychological effects and other concerns.

“You could have good intentions, but bad things can happen, and I think it needs to be evaluated completely,” Rodee said.

He said he might favor increasing the number of security officers, counselors and psychologists in schools. Adding metal detectors and other security measures might help, he added, but “We don’t want to make our schools prisons.”

Anthony Huie, a Goddard parent, said he thinks schools should remain gun-free zones for the general public.

But “teachers with appropriate training and the ability to pass … law enforcement shooting qualifications” should have the option to carry a weapon with permission from police and school administrators, he said.

Maize superintendent Chad Higgins said asking teachers to potentially fire a weapon at another person – possibly a child – “is something they likely never considered … and is difficult to comprehend.”

“As a society, we need to recognize and contemplate what it means essentially to ask our teachers to be our students’ bodyguards,” Higgins said.

“Teachers’ immense devotion and dedication to their students mean they know they may need to physically defend children from risks of violence. But this alone is not the solution to a very complex issue.”

#ArmMeWith movement

Several parents and school leaders bemoaned budget cuts which over the past several years have cut programs and reduced the number of school counselors, psychologists and social workers, and they wondered how districts would finance weapons training and other measures.

This week, teachers took to social media to push for an increase in classroom resources rather than the ability to carry weapons in school. Using the hashtag #ArmMeWith on Instagram and Twitter, teachers proposed things they need to better serve students, such as more planning time and smaller class sizes.

“#ArmMeWith time and resources to truly address the social and emotional needs of each of my students,” one teacher posted on Instagram.

“#ArmMeWith books, not bullets,” urged another.

The Wichita district used to have a school resource officer in every middle and high school. About a decade ago, the bulk of that funding was cut. The district still partners with police departments in Wichita and Bel Aire to have one full-time officer in each high school, along with district security guards.

“Our school districts already can’t afford what they need to educate our students,” said Shannon Boone, a Wichita parent. “Who do they propose to pay for the training, weapons and ammo (for teachers).”

The Wichita district has spent millions on security upgrades over the past five years.

Following the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, two Wichita police officers helped evaluate school surveillance and crisis plans, and board members approved $3 million worth of new cameras, controlled-access doors, buzz-in entrances and a centralized dispatch system.

Other districts have followed suit. In Andover last year, voters approved bond issues that will pay for storm shelters, secure entrances and other security measures.

Districts also adopted the “Run, Hide, Fight” response plan for dealing with armed intruders, and have trained school bus drivers on how to deal with active shooters and other emergencies.

Wiedenkeller, the Goddard teacher, said there’s no easy answer for preventing school shootings, but she’s glad people are talking about possible solutions.

“It’s not something we want to think about, but this is a different day and age,” she said.

Suzanne Perez Tobias: 316-268-6567, @suzannetobias

Contributing: The Kansas City Star