Amid Gun Debate, What Will Actually Protect Kids?

Putting guns in schools may make people think more of Terminator than teaching. But Emily Richmond of the National Education Writers Association says that it's time to step back from the hysteria. She talks to host Michel Martin about practical ways to make schools safer.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, we'll talk with a minister whose latest assignment has provoked unexpected questions about race and faith. More on that in our weekly Faith Matters conversation. But first we return to the issue that's still so much on the minds of the nation and national leaders, which is how to keep citizens safe from gun violence while still balancing this country's historic commitment to gun rights.

Last weekend pro-gun activists staged a gun appreciation day. This weekend, a different group, including a number of well-known celebrities, will be holding a march on Washington for gun control. While all sides say they're concerned about the safety of citizens on the whole in the wake of the school shooting in Connecticut, a particular concern is making the schools safe.

And to that end, the president's proposal to curb gun violence includes millions of dollars for school districts to hire trained officers and other support staff.

(SOUNDBITE OF PREPARED REMARKS)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We will help schools hire more resource officers - if they want them - and develop emergency preparedness plans.

MARTIN: But there are other points of view. The NRA, for example, has said that armed guards should be posted in every school that wants one. We wanted to talk more about these various proposals and what educators are actually doing now. So we've called Emily Richmond. She's the public editor for the National Education Writers Association and she recently wrote a piece for The Atlantic about some states' proposals to arm teachers. Welcome back. Thanks so much for joining us once again.

EMILY RICHMOND: Thank you.

MARTIN: Could you remind us again, just what exactly are some of the president's proposals around school safety?

RICHMOND: Well, what the president is suggesting is a really gigantic comprehensive package that's aimed at improving school climate, school safety, and also improving training for teachers and staff. So we're talking about a package that if Congress approved it, it would hundreds of millions of dollars for things like school resources officers, more school psychologists and sort of a broader outreach to try to look at the root of the violence problem, which in some instances is traced back to a student's mental health.

MARTIN: Well, what exactly are school resource officers?

RICHMOND: Well, it's important that you understand the semantics of it and realize that it's more than just a difference in words. An armed guard is not a school resource officer. You know, people joke and sometimes talk about the idea of a rent-a-cop or a person who is simply licensed to carry a gun but has minimal training.

A school resource officer in most states is an individual who's actually gone through the same kind of academy training as a municipal police officer. They're a sworn peace officer, licensed to carry a gun. But they've also had training in working with children and with students. And in the best case scenario, they become an integral part of the school community. They develop relationships with the students and can help to address and understand their problems.

MARTIN: Isn't this the kind of figure that shows up in movies aimed at teenagers? Like the guy who catches the kids, you know, smooching in the stairwell or that kind of guy? Isn't that kind of the image we have of this person?

RICHMOND: I think so, but I think that's probably a faulty image. I think a real school police officer, school safety officer, the ones I used to cover when I was in Las Vegas, in those cases they are actually doing police work. They are patrolling campuses. They're looking for trespassers. They're breaking up fights.

But they're also talking to the students and finding out what the issues and concerns are. I know plenty of students who told me they actually went to their school safety office with a tip when they knew that a kid was planning to bring a gun to a ballgame or that there was some gang violence planning a fight after school.

In the best case scenario those people can, as I said, become trusted members of the community.

MARTIN: I think it might surprise people to know, as I learned from your reporting, that about a third of states already allow school personnel to carry concealed weapons on campus. According to your reporting, Oklahoma, South Carolina, and Virginia have already introduced bills - or lawmakers there have introduced bills to allow educators to carry weapons or to add armed guards to schools.

This whole question of having armed guards in schools or on school property, how typical is that now?

RICHMOND: Well, it ranges. For example, in some school districts like Los Angeles, a principal can use discretionary money to hire additional safety officers to supplement what the local city might provide. And in those cases we are talking more about the kind of armed guard security sort of personnel versus a school resource officer.

I think what's interesting is among all of the debate about these states that are talking about changing the laws, a couple of school districts have already starting doing it. They've already put it into practical application. You've got Williams County, Ohio, which in the wake of Sandy Hook said, we want to let janitors who are licensed to carry firearms bring them to school. They've already started.

In Butler, Pennsylvania they took a really interesting approach, which is they reached out to retired state troopers who were already licensed and own their weapons and said, how would you feel about coming and helping out at the schools a couple of days a week? And they've already put them on the job.

MARTIN: Mm-hmm. There have also been reports that teachers have shown more interest in getting firearms training. And I want to play a clip from Utah special education teacher Kasey Hansen who recently attended one of these classes. And Kasey Hansen told CNN that if she had additional training she would actually consider taking a gun to school and this is what she had to say.

(SOUNDBITE OF CNN INTERVIEW)

KASEY HANSEN: I would take a bullet for any one of the students in the school, if it came down to it. And I just want extra options to protect myself as well as my students. I believe I would bring one.

MARTIN: You know, I'm wondering whether this is really more of the same kind of regional cultural, philosophical divide that exists already in the country. Because it tends to be that people who live in kind of dense urban areas are more suspicious of the benefit of firearms than people who live in more rural, more Western, you know, areas, less populated areas, whatever, you know, are more open to the benefit of firearms.

RICHMOND: I think that's an interesting question and I think it would be fascinating to lay out a map of the United States and do a color grid and see where this actually sort of falls out. Are we are going to see this more in the Western and Southern states, which have, as you describe it, more of that sort of open-mindedness in a sense about the idea or the value of a gun.

But I think it's important to note that a lot of the teachers who are going for this training have never touched a gun, in some cases have never seen a gun, except for maybe in a movie or in a display case. So the idea of removing some of that fear over what a weapon is isn't necessarily a bad thing.

And also, it's important to note that that training that teachers are going through in some cases, it's more comprehensive than just sending them out to target practice. It's giving them better ideas of what to do if an intruder comes into a room, how to stop somebody with physical force and how to respond.

And the training that the president was talking about, those scenarios and drills, it's a really interesting issue because what he pointed out from a White House survey that was cited, is that about 85 percent of schools have these plans in place. They have a plan for what to do if a shooter comes to campus.

But just over half of them have actually practiced it. And one of the schools that actually practiced it was Sandy Hook, and it saved children's lives that day. We all saw the photograph of the little kids running across the parking lot crying. You look closely at the picture, they each have their hands on the shoulders of the child in front of them.

That was how they were taught to exit the building. So that kind of practice and training. The teachers at that school put that practice and training into effect when they hid the children as best they could. They locked the doors of their classrooms and they closed the window blinds.

MARTIN: We're talking about proposals to make schools safer from gun violence. I'm speaking with education reporter Emily Richmond. She's been reporting on this. Talk more about that, if you would, what are you hearing from educators about this? I mean, it is interesting that there's been a lot of volume around this from a lot of advocacy groups on both sides of this.

But I am really interested in what teachers have to say about this and who better to tell us than a person who writes and talks about teachers and interviews them all the time?

RICHMOND: The teachers I'm hearing from are really divided. There is a sort of painful reality to this that here's one more thing we're asking teachers to do. Here's one more example of where the burden for societal problems are being shifted back into the schoolhouse. And the idea of a school being a community center where if the children don't thrive the community doesn't thrive.

But at the same time, how do you ask a teacher to - along with studying for the practice licensing exam - to go out and do target practice? How is this going to work in a practical sense? Who is going to be doing the background checks on the teachers, making sure that they're certified? And, really, what is this emphasis going to be?

We have a host of new initiatives coming in right now related to curriculum and instruction. There's the common core state standards. There's all sorts of things we're asking teachers to do to improve their instructional quality. And now suddenly we're also asking them to be armed guards. I think it's a good conversation that's happening because it is emphasizing that, if you don't fix the schoolhouse, you're not going to fix the community and I think teachers appreciate that.

MARTIN: You know, I could - what you said, though, about a lot of teachers pursuing this kind of training simply for exposure. I mean, you wouldn't take kids to the lake if you didn't know how to swim, so you can certainly understand why teachers who are just sort of trained to absorb and impart information would be interested, at the very least, in educating themselves about this issue.

But what about sort of more broadly? Is there any credible body of work or research on this question of why school shootings? Why do they happen at school, near school? The mass shootings that get so much attention, as well as the individual disputes that are actually a bigger deal in the lives of a lot of kids and families in other parts of the country that you don't hear so much about. Is there any research on this?

RICHMOND: Well, what a lot of people have been pointing to is the pattern that we're seeing and the mass shootings that have been most recent have been perpetrated by young men who are believed to have mental illness, whether either diagnosed, undiagnosed.

In some respects, we're, of course, still building the profile of the shooter in Sandy Hook, so we don't know for sure, but indications are that there was a mental illness issue. So the question is then, is it the school's responsibility to diagnose it and treat it? Are they going to be held accountable if they don't? And what is the fallout when that person decides to pick up a gun?

And, of course, if the schools block all of the guns they want on campus, that doesn't stop a kid with mental illness whose mother is a gun aficionado and leaves the case key where he can get it. That's not something that a school can solve.

I think the bigger issue for schools, in addition to how to address those mental health issues, is what kind of places do they want schools to be? In all of these discussions about how to improve school climate and safety, you want to make schools a place where kids want to be. If you want them to learn, they have to enjoy the environment they're in. So how do you balance that against having this sort of lockdown mentality of armed guards at the door, metal detectors at every doorway? How do you still make that a place where students want to come every day and learn?

MARTIN: What do you want to know next? Where is your reporting taking you next on this question?

RICHMOND: You know, I think the thing that I'd like to know next is, is there a practical way to approach this conversation and sort of steer a little bit away from the hysteria? The idea of nursery school teachers suddenly having, you know, Linda Hamilton "Terminator 2" biceps and, you know, double barrel shotguns blazing through the hallways. You know, still, schools are statistically the safest place for a child to be during the day and the idea of putting all of that pressure on teachers to protect them, I think, is unreasonable. There has to be a way to steer the conversation back to - how do you address some of these underlying issues, the climate in the community, the mental health issues and make schools an integral part of that without trying to shift blame.

MARTIN: Emily Richmond is the public editor for the National Education Writers Association. She was kind enough to join us here in our Washington, D.C., studios. Emily, thanks so much for joining us once again.

RICHMOND: My pleasure. Thank you.

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