End the Test-and-Die era, part 3: the prime operational reasons for not arming teachers

Law enforcement professionals, including Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd, generally do not allow detention deputies to carry weapons as they do routine oversight of inmates in their jails. This is sound thinking and policy.

A jail is a confined space full of people who live within it involuntarily. Some of them, although probably not as many as you would think, are volatile and violent. A gun is power. In a confined space, with involuntarily confined people, it exerts a constant gravity and the endless possibility of violent disruption.

Law enforcement professionals know this. That’s why they don’t carry unless they have to.
Here’s what Sheriff’s Office spokesman Scott Wilder said when I asked him about it a couple of days ago:

“Detention deputies / corrections officers don’t carry firearms inside the facilities because they directly supervise a bunch of criminals, many of them with violent histories. The possibility of them getting together and overwhelming the deputy/officer is an issue. Transportation deputies, bailiffs, etc. do carry.”

The obvious concern there is that they would take the gun and wreak havoc in a confined space — because out-of-control guns in confined spaces can kill lots of people.

Guns and impulsivity don’t mix well in confined spaces — or anywhere

A school is not a jail.

Children are not criminals. But some commit criminal acts at times. And schools can be violent places. They were violent, at rare times, when I was a child. They are violent now, at rare times. And like jails, schools are full of children compelled to attend who mass together in confined spaces. 3,000 or more of them in some schools.

Like jails, schools are full of human immaturity. These children are developing. Depending on their ages, they can be grabby, impulsive, angry, depressed. Some have disabilities that impair judgement. Some feel suicidal. A gun is power. It will exert the same gravity and endless possibility of violent disruption in a classroom that it will in a jail. It is a deadly, shiny object.

And unlike school resource officers, whose jobs don’t involve the intense focus of mass instruction inside a classroom, teachers are likely to forget about the weapon they’re carrying for long periods of time. All of that sounds like a recipe for disaster to me.

Ignoring data: the flawed assessments of relative threats

In all honesty, I do not understand why Sheriff Judd does not apply his own operational logic and leading practice here. I guess someone could say to me, “Oh you’re comparing our kids to criminals.” But that’s just an emotional, political response. And you know it’s not true. I’m thinking through scenario models. You can make similar points about chains of grocery stores, which have  a similar operational structure to school districts. Publix produce managers don’t carry.

I’m thinking about the operational reality of the impulsive childhood brain in a confined space confronted with a gun attached to an employee distracted by the demands of his or her job. I don’t know why the sheriff isn’t thinking about that. I guess you’ll need to ask him.

I suspect the sheriff and supporters of this plan see the very unlikely threat of an external shooter as large enough to justify the comprehensively present threat of a gun interacting in a confined space of kids. And they think the likelihood of stopping such an attack is high enough to justify the risk.

I see both of those equations as highly flawed and contrary to data.

As I’ve written before, fewer than 25 of the 75 million kids who have passed through high school in the mass shooting era have committed mass murder against their classmates in school or college. For the vast majority — 99.99 percent — of schools, we will be introducing this ever-present threat for nothing.  And for the handful that do experience a mass shooting attempt, there is no guarantee at all that armed staff will do anything but add to the body count. It’s a complete dice roll, and the dice seem loaded in the wrong direction.

It shows the power of these shootings to terrorize the imagination into action that seems operationally irrational.

No record of success; but there is a record of failure

To my knowledge, no school shooting/college shooting has ever been stopped by concealed carry small arms fire from someone on site who was not a uniformed police officer.

In fact, during the Umpqua College shooting in Oregon a few years ago, an armed recent veteran with a concealed carry permit decided not engage the shooter because he knew there was a good chance SWAT would confuse him for the shooter. Check out his story.

Indeed, a trained deputy armed with a handgun failed to engage the shooter at Douglas. These shootings are extraordinarily intense human moments. Even well-trained people may not react in keeping with their training. You just don’t know.

Moreover, we have very recent examples of carelessness and misuse of firearms by armed teachers within classrooms.

Here’s one from Idaho.

Here’s one from Utah.

Southeastern is a very different institution than a compulsory education public school district

Moreover, arming public school teachers/staff is a very different proposition from the Sentinel program that Sheriff Judd and Southeastern University have adopted.

Southeastern, for which I have great affection (more on that to come in a subsequent post), is a private Christian university that serves adults who choose and pay for that learning experience. They are choosing the Sentinel program with full knowledge. It isn’t imposed on them. And physically, the campus is more spread out with smaller concentrations of people than public schools or jails.

I have no real opinion on the Sentinel program — other than to say that’s it really none of my business and that I never feel any sense of extra concern or security when I’m there, which I am quite a bit. If there’s ever an active shooter at Southeastern, maybe the Sentinels will engage him successfully, maybe they won’t. It’s impossible to know until it happens.

You never know how humans will react in the most extreme of circumstances. It is absolutely possible that an armed teacher saves the day heroically. It’s also possible that an armed teacher snaps and massacres a classroom. Or leaves a gun in his or her desk drawer. Too often, gun owners do a lousy job of securing their weapons. It’s perhaps my greatest critique of the culture of gun ownership as a whole (I’ll discuss that in part 4). So you have to ask yourself the risk versus reward equation. I think it’s pretty clear.

It’s impossible to know much for certain until it happens. But part of keeping your head during times of crisis and generational change is thinking through distinctions and the implications of actions. It is weighing the likelihood of risks against each other, making a rational judgement, and the explaining it calmly. I owe you all that obligation, even if you throw me out of office for it.

Indeed, I think many of these discussions are really about establishing who gets the blame, politically and personally, for the next shooting. I don’t care about blame. I do care about you and your children. If, god forbid, a mass shooting should ever happen here or we arm a teacher with deadly consequences, the least of my concerns will be what TV talking heads — or anybody else — say about me and what I should have done. I hope you can understand that. But if you don’t, that’s fine too. I work for you.

The next edition of this series will examine guns more generally and their relationship to politics and power in a county and country that lacks popular consensus about many aspects of “the gun debate.” I’m not a prohibitionist. I don’t want to ban guns in any general sense.  I do think they should be treated very much like cars. And I’ve yet to hear a good argument against that model, which would be much more helpful in cross-referencing them against people with violent mental health manifestations.

Here are parts 1 and 2 of this series if you are interested in reading.

We must end the Test-and-Die era, part 1: You can’t untangle mass school shootings from school grades and stress-based education

We must end the Test-and-Die era, part 2: “Why do people think I’m a school shooter? What have I done to deserve this.”

One comment

  1. Barb Boykin

    I typically agree with you. So I am okay that some of your statements make me uncomfortable this once.
    1. We need consequences that are appropriate for actions as far as “bad” student behavior is concerned. Especially at the upper levels.
    2. One day we hear a student has been confined in lines with the Baker Act, only to return to class a day or two later. Those with real issues are being momentarily confined, not treated.
    3. Conceal carry should be concealed. Hopefully, we are not talking about arming people with pistols strapped to their hips. Students have to need to be notified of which adults are carrying. Better to have the bad guys have to guess.
    I feel compelled to protect “my kids”, just as I expected the teachers of my children to do what was necessary to keep them safe. As a parent, that was my only option. With the shoe on the other foot, I am left with a door lock and a fire extinguisher to use to do the best I can. I do not envy those assigned with developing a solution, as none will satisfy all; but something needs to change.