Meadville Tribune

January 16, 2013

GUNS IN SCHOOLS: Local officials, educators chime in on divisive issue

By Mary Spicer
Meadville Tribune illustration

MEADVILLE — A 16-year-old student armed with a shotgun and carrying approximately 20 shotgun rounds in his pocket shot and wounded two students in central California’s Taft Union High School in  on a recent morning. School officials told The Associated Press that although there’s usually an armed guard on campus, the guard wasn’t on duty that day because he was snowed in.

A 15-year veteran of the Jefferson County, Colorado, Sheriff’s Office nearing the end of his second year as the school’s uniformed community resource officer was on duty that April day in 1999 when shots rang out in Columbine High School. At the time, the deputy was in a school parking lot, monitoring a popular spot just off campus where students gathered to smoke cigarettes.

However, “historically, if someone confronts a gunman, many times that situation comes to a halt or it gives the first responders time to reach the scene,” says Crawford County Sheriff Nick Hoke, who served as Crawford Central’s official school safety officer during his days as a member of Meadville Police Department.

There is support among both educators and law enforcement professionals, including Meadville Police Chief Dave Stefanucci, for having full-time law enforcement officers formally trained as School Resource Officers on duty in the schools. However, because they also serve as active duty police officers when school is not in session, the cost to a community of placing an SRO in every school could be substantial.

“If you’re going to put guns in schools, I think it has to be with trained guards,” said Conneaut School District Superintendent Jarrin Sperry. “If you arm teachers and administrators, there’s always a probability that there’s going to be an accident.”

If any school is going to have an armed guard, Sperry added, it should be done right. “They should outfit that guard with the materials and weaponry needed to fully defend that school,” he explained. “That means an assault rifle. What we’ve seen with these school shootings is that the shooter comes in with an assault rifle. A guard with a pistol is at a disadvantage against an assault rifle.”



Arm teachers?

State Rep. Greg Lucas, whose Fifth Legislative District includes a northwestern portion of Crawford County, recently announced his intention to introduce legislation that would allow teachers and other school personnel to arm themselves while at work. According to Lucas — a former public school teacher whose website lists accomplishments including instructor, coach and recruiter with the National Rifle Association as well as a Pennsylvania Game Commission hunter and trapper instructor — “this would enable them to defend our students during emergencies.”

“I think it’s a horrible idea,” said Mary Lynne Peters, a long-time music teacher recently retired from Crawford Central School District and currently in training to take over the position of All-State Festival Coordinator for Pennsylvania Music Educators Association in June. “I worry about responding to violence with violence.”

Veteran educator John Amato, a Meadville resident who taught for 22 years at Meadville and Conneaut Lake high schools, coached for just about as long and served for 28 years in the military between active duty and reserves, agreed. “I don’t think arming teachers is the solution,” he said. “The answer really is that we need to fix the families. If we can fix the families, we wouldn’t have to worry about guns in the schools.”



A lively debate

“There’s been a lively policy debate about whether having teachers carry weapons makes the school safer or creates a situation where a crazed gunman starts a shoot-out situation,” said George Joseph, attorney for Conneaut School District. “It’s a good discussion. I’m not sure if there are any easy or quick solutions, but it’s a good debate to have.”

Superintendent Charlie Heller of Crawford Central School District has already made up his mind. “The people in our building are trained to educate children,” he told the Tribune. “They’ve never had any training at all with regard to any kind of law enforcement and it’s against the law for anyone who is not already a law enforcement officer to bring a weapon onto school property.”

Superintendent Connie Youngblood has already scheduled a meeting to discuss the issue directly with Lucas, whose district includes Cussewago Township in PENNCREST School District.

Although she’s reserving final judgment until after the meeting, “what would really help our schools would be money targeted to provide additional training in the schools,” Youngblood said. “Training teachers and staff, taking a look at our entrances — maybe retrofitting them to be more secure. If more money was available for steps like that, it might have more of an impact than arming teachers in the schools.”

During an interview with the Tribune following his initial announcement, Lucas acknowledged that “police or professional security personnel would be a better idea, but may not be a school district’s top priority in a time of budget cuts.”



Don’t take guns lightly

“I believe in the Constitution,” Stefanucci said. “I’m all for having guns. I don’t think there should be gun control — because I don’t think guns are the problem.”

Schools, as Stefanucci sees it, should be teaching teachers to run with their children and to hide with their children. And if guns are ever allowed in schools, teachers should be taught to shoot only as an absolutely last resort.

This advice doesn’t apply only to teachers. In fact, any current or potential gun owner needs to understand exactly what a bullet can do. For Stefanucci, the bottom line is simple: If you’re not prepared to use that gun to take another life, you shouldn’t carry it.

“A bullet can go through a wall. It can go through a body. After it’s all done, what if you find a student who was killed with a 9 mm bullet that came from a teacher’s gun?” Stefanucci asked, noting that while police officers are constantly training both physically and mentally to deal with lethal situations, teachers simply don’t have the time needed to put in the hours required.

Other factors must also be considered.

To cite just one example of the complexity, many officers who have been involved with shootings are no longer police officers. “They either can’t take the pressure from the community or their own feelings about taking another life,” Stefanucci explained. “The problem isn’t when the shooting takes place. It’s afterwards. If they don’t get the proper psychological help after they’ve taken another life, they won’t stay police officers — and if you don’t get help after that, you probably shouldn’t be a police officer. Teachers will have to think about things like that.”

Sperry, a gun owner himself, agrees. “It’s a huge jump from carrying a weapon to firing it at someone,” he said.



Protecting students

“We absolutely share and support the intent of what Lucas is trying to achieve, which is to protect our children and make our schools as safe and secure as possible,” Northwestern Region Pennsylvania State Education Association Representative Marcus Schlegel told the Tribune

“Protecting their students — their children — is absolutely instinctual and reflexive for every teacher who stands in front of kids every day and who has dedicated their lives to their well-being,” Schlegel continued. “As we saw in Sandy Hook, that includes making the ultimate sacrifice to ensure their safety.

“That being said, people armed in an active shooter situation have to have training that is far beyond what’s instinctual and reflexive,” Schlegel continued, agreeing with Stefanucci. “That’s where the conversation needs to begin: What happens in the most intense situation? Should teachers be more focused on getting their students extricated from harm rather than pursuing an attacker?”

“Then you begin to step back through all the other complexities — the first of which would be how would first responders in that scenario be able to immediately identify who the shooter is and who the school staff person is?” he said.

“We have to remember to divorce ourselves from the romantic ‘point, shoot, bad guy’s dead’ ideal that we see portrayed in the movies,” Schlegel said. "PSEA does not support arming teachers, administrators or support staff. The only ones armed should be highly-trained law enforcement or security professionals. These are the most serious, life-threatening situations — and when these occur, we want the most highly-trained people there to defend us, whether it’s our nation, our neighborhood or our schools.”



Mary Spicer can be reached at 724-6370 or by e-mail at mspicer@meadvilletribune.com.