Most North Carolina educators think it’s a bad idea to let teachers carry guns in the classroom, and they say arming teachers would make schools less safe and harm the learning environment, according to a newly released poll.
The Valentine’s Day mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida that left 17 people dead has ignited a national debate about whether schools would be safer if teachers carry guns. But 78 percent of North Carolina educators say it’s a bad idea, according to an Elon University/News & Observer/Charlotte Observer poll.
The 379 teachers who took part in the survey, conducted between Feb. 28 and March 5, were promised confidentiality. But the results are in line with statements made by a number of teachers, including several who are gun owners, who were interviewed for this story.
“Look, I don’t want to die, and I don’t want to kill anyone,” said Leigh Sanders, a sixth-grade English teacher at Swift Creek Middle School in Johnston County. “I want to teach, and if anyone wants to arm teachers, please for the love of country, let it be with school supplies, nurses, counselors and, above all else, trust.”
Opposition to arming teachers has sparked the social media hashtag #ArmMeWith as some educators say they need more supplies and other resources instead of guns.
The survey showed a vocal minority of teachers want the option to be armed, thinking it could save lives if a shooter showed up at their school. Twenty-five percent of the teachers surveyed said “yes” or “maybe” to carrying a gun in their classroom if they were allowed to do so.
“To those who don’t want to arm teachers, I ask, ‘Would you want an armed or unarmed teacher standing at the door when a killer shows up at your child’s school?’” said Jean Fitzsimmons of Hickory, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran who retired after 21 years teaching in western North Carolina.
Hundreds of school districts around the country, mostly small and rural, already give teachers access to guns. But after the Florida school shooting, President Donald Trump proposed training and arming teachers to serve as a last line of defense at schools.
In North Carolina, state lawmakers say a new school safety committee will want to hear what educators and law enforcement think about arming teachers. State Schools Superintendent Mark Johnson announced last week he’s against arming teachers and instead wants the state to provide more money to hire additional school resource officers – armed law enforcement officers assigned to work at schools.
In an informal online survey of teachers conducted by Johnson, only 25 percent said they wanted to carry a gun at school and 40 percent said they’d support having some teachers and administrators gain access to firearms if they had extra training. But critics have questioned the survey, which drew more than 20,000 responses, because the survey link was made public, meaning non-teachers could participate.
The scientific Elon survey found general opposition to arming teachers, even if those educators had extra training. The margin of error ranges from plus or minus 5 percentage points to 6.6 percentage points on different questions.
There was little variation in the results, in terms of region, school setting or school level, in thinking it was a bad idea to arm teachers. One of the few large variations was along partisan lines: 95 percent of Democratic teachers and 78 percent of independent teachers said arming teachers was a bad idea, compared to 57 percent of Republican teachers.
More than two-thirds of teachers thought it was likely that a gun carried by a teacher would fall into the wrong hands.
“It sounds like a Hollywood fantasy to me,” said Justin Parmenter, a seventh-grade language arts teacher at Waddell Language Academy in Charlotte. “The chance that a teacher would shoot a bad guy coming into the classroom with an AR-15 is very slim. An accidental shooting or a student getting hold of the gun is much higher.”
More than 65 percent of the teachers said arming teachers would harm the overall school learning environment, and 61 percent said it would make schools less safe.
“Teachers holstering weapons inside school buildings will not provide a feeling of safety and comfort to our children, particularly for our black and brown students,” said April Lee, a language arts teacher at Benson Middle School and president of the Johnston County Association of Educators.
Several other teachers echoed the concern that arming teachers would send a negative message to minority students, who account for 52 percent of the state’s public school students while 80 percent of full-time teachers are white.
“If you have an environment where almost all of your students are students of color and most of your teachers are white, and the teachers are carrying around weapons, how is a teacher going to establish the kind of love and trust and nurturing environment that is necessary in order to learn?” said Dov Rosenberg, a computer teacher at Rogers-Herr Middle School in Durham.
Angie Scioli, a social studies teacher at Leesville Road High School in Raleigh, said the thought of teachers carrying guns causes stress and fear among her minority students.
“I think we should listen to the students,” Scioli said. “They also have moral authority. I can especially tell you my black and brown students are particularly vocal about their opposition to this idea, and their perception is their reality and their fear is real to them.”
What if only a few teachers had guns?
Several teachers said the idea of potentially taking the life of a student, even if it’s to save the lives of others, goes against all they’re trained to do as educators.
“I find it hard to wrap my head around the idea that I’m supposed to spend a semester building relationships with students and trying to reach them and also be ready at any point to shoot and kill them,” said Bryan Christopher, an English teacher at Riverside High School in Durham. “That’s a very different dynamic than the training someone in law enforcement or a military setting would receive.”
Teachers like Christopher and Lauren Genesky say arming teachers would cause them to consider quitting, because it would change the environment at their schools.
“I kind of get up in arms when I think I have to make a decision about my beliefs in safety and what a school should be, and the career I’ve had for a decade,” said Genesky, an English teacher at Millbrook High School in Raleigh. “It makes me very angry that I’d have to make that choice.”
Most proposals to arm teachers focus on arming only a small number of them after they’ve received extensive training and sometimes only if they have prior military or security experience. But even under those limited circumstances, 69 percent of teachers in the Elon survey were opposed.
“Any person who’d be excited about having a gun on campus probably shouldn’t be teaching,” said Seth Ashburn, a Wake County high school sociology teacher. “It’s not a natural logical thing.”
But retired teacher Thomas Townsend said that if it’s done the right way, with background checks and advanced training in how to respond to a shooter on campus, then arming teachers makes sense. He said armed teachers can complement the school resource officer, who may not always be on campus.
“It’s been done quite successfully for a number of years in other states,” said Townsend, who retired in December from Albemarle Road Middle School in Charlotte, where he taught business computer technology.
Townsend, who is vice president of the Classroom Teachers Association of North Carolina, isn’t surprised that many teachers oppose arming teachers. “You’re scared of something you don’t understand,” he said of guns.
But he thinks of that Stoneman Douglas High School football coach who used his body to shield students from a shooter. “If he had been armed and trained, he might have saved a lot more lives,” Townsend said.
‘You don’t even trust me to heat a child’s lunch’
Fitzsimmons, the retired teacher from Hickory, said all a teacher can do now is sacrifice herself or himself, “a delay of a few seconds before the killer can proceed, unhindered, to kill the students in the class.”
“The question to be asked to school boards and teachers is, ‘If a killer comes into school to your class, would you use a firearm to save your children?’ My bet is that the answer will be a unanimous ‘yes.’” Fitzsimmons said.
But Steve Oreskovic, an eighth-grade social studies teacher at Randolph Middle School in Charlotte, worries about the possibility of teachers shooting the wrong person. He notes that even trained soldiers kill each other in “friendly fire” incidents, with almost 25 percent of deaths attributed to such episodes.
“Are we OK if 25 percent of incidents in schools end with friendly fire?” he said.
For those worried about the collateral damage a gun-wielding teacher could do, Townsend suggested equipping them with bullets that could stop a shooter but not tear through classroom walls and doors. “There are a lot of things can be done to make it as safe as possible,” he said.
Considering how teachers aren’t allowed to put bandages on students or microwave a student’s lunch, Brittany Brisson said the idea of arming teachers “reads to me like a bad Onion article.”
“You don’t even trust me to heat a child’s lunch for liability reasons in case it gets too hot, but you’re going to give me a gun?” said Brisson, an art specialist at Eastway Elementary School in Durham.
Other security measures
The Elon survey showed significantly stronger support for school safety options such as banning the sale of semi-automatic high-capacity rifles, ensuring background checks on all gun sales, mandating at least two armed police officers be at schools at all times and increasing funding for mental health.
“I do believe that we could use more resource officers, or even more security associates (unarmed school guards), in every building,” said Taylor Conner, a biology teacher at West Charlotte High School. “That way teachers would feel safe and then of course students would feel safe as well.
“As a teacher I want to teach the whole child, I want to grow that whole child, without having a weapon in my hand.”
Some teachers say steps such as uniform security measures requiring all doors to be locked and buzzer entry systems at all schools could also help improve security. But for many educators, arming teachers is not the right option.
“People want easy solutions to the problem, but this isn’t going to be a simple fix like taking away everyone’s guns or giving everyone guns,” said Jessica Stockham, a science teacher at Freedom High School in Burke County. “When we have children killing children, we have a bigger problem than whether there are enough guns or not enough guns.”
View the survey
Go to https://www.elon.edu/e/elon-poll/poll-archive/030818.html to view the survey on “What North Carolina Teachers Think About Guns in Schools.” The poll is from Elon University, The News & Observer and the Charlotte Observer.