By Charlene Mendoza
In the wake of school shootings that have plagued us at least since the late 1990s, the debate about protecting students and teachers while at school rages. In my home state of Arizona, one possible solution being bandied about is arming teachers – or just the principal. After all, having a single armed adult on campus, rather than many is safer, right? If there are too many teachers with guns, students might gain access to them, increasing the likelihood of accidents.
Then, there are all the logistical considerations of having armed personnel in school. Safety protocols would seem to necessitate gun safes and separate lock boxes for ammunition, as well as questions like what to do with your weapon when you have to go to the bathroom. I don’t mean to make light of this, but, really, what am I to do, leave it in the top desk drawer with the spare pencils and dry erase markers?
Another suggestion is to assign an armed posse member on campus to help ensure students and staff are safe. Is this the Wild, Wild West of old movies? (Although, in my recollection, posses were put together after a crime had occurred, in order to assist the law enforcement personnel in catching a suspected criminal.)
I continue to be amazed that suggestions such as these merit discussion among logical, thinking people. I believe that everyone is intent on making schools and college campuses safer. Nevertheless, these suggestions, and others like them, generalize and objectify real, live human beings in a way that is all too common today.
I have been a classroom teacher since 1998. During that time, I have helped real, live students process and cope with a litany of tragedy: the Columbine shootings and others that followed; 9/11; wars; a classmate being shot and killed in front of her own home; the January 8th shooting in Tucson; a classmate committing suicide with a gun; a family member of a student killing another family member with a gun and then himself; and innumerable accounts of youths witnessing or being victims themselves of domestic violence, gang activity and sexual assault — many of which involved a gun. Still, even in the face of these challenges, the great majority of these young people have shown an amazing capacity for resilience, remaining focused on academic achievement and optimistic for a future full of bright possibilities.
It’s difficult for me to imagine those same faces being so hopeful surrounded by adults who are armed with guns. For a lot of us, guns don’t make us feel safe, guns make us feel scared. Guns are objects used to intimidate and inspire fear, not create security and safety. Guns are used to hurt, not help.
Thinking back to my own training, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs comes to mind. In order to be able to reach and teach youth, their basic needs must be met. These include adequate food and sleep, as well as the ability to feel safe and open to learning. The proposition of arming the teachers and administrators on school campuses runs the risk of making sure school is not that safe and secure place for teachers and students.
Put that in the context of placing trained, armed posse members on campus. The tragedy of Trayvon Martin’s death and George Zimmerman’s trial should give us all cause to consider if this is a wise or practical solution. When we know that trained professionals can make mistakes and might observe something that is not what it appears to be, I can’t help but worry about more people with guns on school campuses. My concern goes back to the fact that for many of us, men and women with guns are dangerous to us. Sometimes those people are criminals intent on committing heinous acts of violence. Sometimes they are well-intention human beings who make a mistake. As we have all learned, a mistake made with a gun is nearly impossible to correct, and the effects are life-altering for us all.
I am a teacher! I say that proudly with the faces of my students, current and past, running through my mind. When I imagine myself faced with the proposition of a person on campus who is armed and bent on harming the students and teachers with whom I have the honor to work, I know I would do whatever I could, whatever was possible to protect them. I believe this is true of all of the teachers I know and many I don’t. However, when I imagine myself or any other educator armed with a gun in the name of protecting the children, I know it is time to speak out. These are not common sense solutions. We can do better. We must do better.
Charlene Mendoza teaches AP English Language and Literature at an Arizona charter school. She’s been a teacher for more than 15 years, and was a member of the VIVA Arizona Idea Exchange Writing Collaborative.