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Northland educators oppose arming teachers with guns

Congdon Park Elementary School (News Tribune file photo)

You won't find much support for arming teachers among Northland educators and school leaders.

"As a parent of three kids, I would be terrified to send my kids to school where teachers are armed," said Jim Carlson, an art teacher with Duluth's Congdon Park Elementary School. "The whole idea ... is the most ludicrous thing I have ever heard."

Local educators reacted to last week's news that President Donald Trump has suggested arming teachers in the wake of the Feb. 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., where 17 people — mostly students — were killed. Trump later said it should apply to "gun-adept" teachers, and the decision should be up to states.

The state teachers union Education Minnesota last week said it was more important to meet the mental health needs of students, reduce access to "weapons of mass murder" and build secure schools.

"Educators know arming all the teachers is a terrible idea," said Denise Specht, union president. "Schools aren't secure. Kindergartners get into everything because they are curious. High school students can often overpower their teachers. Finally, we don't want law enforcement officers on the scene of a real, chaotic incident to accidentally shoot an armed teacher."

Myers-Wilkins Elementary teacher Jim Olson said he grew up hunting in the Northland, but he would never feel comfortable carrying a gun in school.

"We're not trained professionals for that," he said, and to become adept in the ways of handling something like a school shooting falls within another career category entirely.

There are multiple problems with arming teachers, Olson said, citing lockdown protocol as one. School lockdowns for active shooter situations typically involve turning off the lights and corralling kids into a corner of the room, with a teacher working to keep them quiet and calm. Who protects that class if its teacher leaves to find a shooter, Olson asked.

A child seeing a teacher shoot a gun could add a layer of trauma to an already-traumatic situation, said Duluth Federation of Teachers president Bernie Burnham.

"Do you really want to have kindergarteners watch their teacher, who they trust and love, pull out a weapon and shoot somebody?" she asked. "That sounds horrific to me."

Laura MacArthur Elementary third-grade teacher Emily Glomski said one job of a teacher is to create a safe school culture by promoting kindness and inclusivity. Arming teachers sends the wrong message, she said.

"We need more school counselors, psychologists and mental health practitioners," she said, for those who need more support, "to prevent them from becoming someone who feels their only chance to eradicate their pain and sadness is by shooting teachers and other students."

Hermantown superintendent Kerry Juntunen said he opposes arming teachers, and so does his district's school resource officer.

"You have to be trained to make a decision and be willing to take someone else's life," Juntunen said, and teachers shouldn't be tasked with that.

He, too, said it's more important for educators and school staff to find and work with "kids who are hurting."

Proctor superintendent John Engelking agreed.

"We don't need guns in our schools," he said. "Teachers are here to teach."

Schools should instead rely on trained professionals in dangerous situations, and do other things that make sense to each local community to increase safety — things that don't turn a school into "an armed camp," said Ronald Stephens, executive director of the National School Safety Center in Los Angeles.

"One of the biggest things schools can do is to up their game on threat assessment protocols and rumor control," Stephens said, "and getting to know the students, letting them know why it's in their self-interest to report those things — rather than adding another layer of target-hardening."

Duluth East High School social studies teacher Catherine Nachbar said proposals like arming teachers hurt educator recruitment efforts and perpetuate "a culture of fear," at a time when it's tough to get qualified people interested in teaching.

The first major school shooting — which happened in 1999 at Columbine High School in Colorado — was during Nachbar's second year of teaching. School violence and shootings weren't part of her teacher education in college, she said, but they've been happening during most of her career.

"It's a greater social issue," she said, "and placing guns in the hands of teachers is not going to fix it."