Teachers Respond To Trump's Push To Arm School Staff

Feb 24, 2018
Originally published on February 25, 2018 2:57 am

President Trump repeated his suggestion to arm teachers on school campuses as a solution to protecting students from gun violence.

"We have to have offensive capability to take these people out rapidly before they can do this kind of damage," Trump told reporters in a joint news conference with the Australian Prime Minister on Friday. The president suggested staffing schools with veterans who would carry concealed weapons.

In a White House listening session on Wednesday with teen survivors of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High, Trump said Aaron Feis, a popular coach at the high school, could have stopped the gunman if he'd been armed.

Many teachers unions and organizations have spoken out against this proposed solution. Lily Eskelsen Garcia, president of the National Education Association, said "parents and educators overwhelming reject the idea of arming school staff."

Other organizations, namely the National Rifle Association, spoke out in favor of it, pointing to states and school districts that already allow guns on campus.

Joshua Grubbs, an assistant professor of psychology at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, says he grew up with guns and owns a few. Despite that, he says he's not ready for guns to be part of campus life.

"When I had a gun on me, it wasn't just this nice, relaxing part of who I was. It was something that was always factoring into my decisions," Grubbs says. "When I'm educating somebody, I can't imagine holding in my head this heightened awareness, this threat assessment, this evaluating whether or not I'm going to need to use a gun and trying to educate from a place of openness and warmth and seeing the best in my students."

Mark Zilinskas disagrees. He's a math teacher at Indiana High School in Indiana, Penn.

"We see time and time again this idea of not doing anything and people are just laying there getting shot indiscriminately," he says. "We know that there are going to be teachers that are going to respond."

Zilinskas has gone through the FASTER (Faculty/Administration Safety Training and Emergency Response) Saves Lives program. The program, presented by the Ohio pro-gun group, the Buckeye Firearms Association, trains teachers and school staff on how to respond to an active shooter on campus. Part of their training involves learning how to use a firearm on school grounds.

"There are some of us that want to have the tools and the training and have the ability to [prevent] somebody from harming the kids," Zilinskas says. If teachers carry concealed weapons on campus, he adds, a potential shooter could be deterred from terrorizing that school.

Sarah Plumitallo, an elementary school ESL teacher, says that reasoning just doesn't work. She points to the shootings at Columbine High School, Virginia Tech and Sandy Hook Elementary School. In all three shootings, the gunman committed suicide shortly after killing students.

"Many of those schools had school resource officers that were armed on campus and that didn't act as a deterrent," she says.

In wake of these shootings, Plumitallo says it's difficult to grapple with the idea of teachers putting their lives on the line for their students.

"The expectation is that we will lay down our lives," she says. "But, if I hadn't had kids when I became a teacher, I probably would have felt a little more like, 'Without question, of course.' But I'm a mom too. I have two little boys and I want to get home to them."

"We hear the stories about Coach [Aaron] Feis and Scott Beigel and how they laid down their life, but did they expect to? Did they want to? I think it's a very weighty thing and I think it affects teachers greatly," Plumitallo says.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

We're going to continue the conversation about guns by looking at one of President Trump's latest policy proposals - to arm teachers in schools. Earlier today, the president tweeted, quote, "armed educators and trusted people who work within a school love our students and will protect them. Very smart people must be firearms adept and have annual training."

We wanted to hear what teachers thought about this. We're joined now by three educators - Josh Grubbs, an assistant professor of psychology at Bowling Green State University in Bowling Green, Ohio. He's joined us from home.

Welcome.

JOSH GRUBBS: Hi, glad to be with you.

MCCAMMON: Also, Mark Zilinskas is a high school math teacher in Indiana, Pa. He joins us from member station WESA in Pittsburgh.

Hello, Mark.

MARK ZILINSKAS: Hello. Glad to be here.

MCCAMMON: And Sarah Plumitallo is an elementary school teacher in Woodbridge, Va. She's here in our studios.

Hi, Sarah.

SARAH PLUMITALLO: Hi. Glad to be here.

MCCAMMON: So, Mark, I want to start with you. You have been involved in training programs that are specifically for teachers and school staff to arm themselves in classrooms in the event of an active shooter on campus. So why'd you decide to sign up for that training?

ZILINSKAS: Well, I live in Pennsylvania, and right now, we don't have a provision to do that here. As a matter of fact, there's some legislation that I was involved with. I approached my senator after Sandy Hook and asked him to consider it because I knew they were doing this in Ohio. My goal was to, you know, go get educated so that, you know, anybody who would have questions or concerns about, you know, teachers having the skill set and having the ability to stop somebody in that scenario - I could answer them from - at least from somebody that has gone through the training and could answer specifically and address their concerns.

MCCAMMON: And, Sarah, you're against the idea of arming teachers in classrooms. Tell me why.

PLUMITALLO: I just don't think it makes good sense. The accuracy rate for the NYPD at hitting their target is 33 percent. During a gunfight, an active gunfight, it drops as low as 13 percent. For a teacher, whose primary job is not law enforcement, in this high-pressure situation to be called upon to have that level of accuracy so that other children aren't hit, their colleagues aren't hit - I just can't fathom it. I think the logistical concerns are numerous, and I think that when we focus on this as a solution to school shooting problems, we draw away from the more appropriate and common-sense solutions that we can put forth immediately.

MCCAMMON: And, Josh, your relationship with guns is a little bit different. You own several guns, is that right?

GRUBBS: That's correct. Yes.

MCCAMMON: And you said you enjoy shooting them, but you don't want to bring them into your college classroom. Why not?

GRUBBS: I mean, certainly I was born and raised in a gun - kind of gun-crazy household. And to this day, I still do own guns. So I've been shooting them all my life. I'm very confident with a gun. I consider myself a pretty decent shot. I don't want them in the classroom for a few reasons. I think some of what Sarah just laid out is a big part of it.

Another part of it, though, is I think it fundamentally - at least for me, having had a concealed carry weapon permit in the past, having conceal carried in the past - when I had a gun on me, it wasn't just this nice, relaxed part of who I was. It was something that was always factoring into my decision then. When I'm a teacher, I just - when I'm educating somebody, I can't imagine holding in my head this heightened awareness, this threat assessments, this evaluating whether or not I'm going to need to use a gun and trying to educate from a place of openness and warmth and seeing the best in my students.

MCCAMMON: Mark, I want to ask you - since you've been through the training for teachers to carry weapons, I want to ask you to respond to a theme I'm hearing both from Sarah and Josh - just this idea that putting another gun on a teacher in a classroom could really just make things worse potentially.

ZILINSKAS: Well, first of all, the - you know, one of the advantages, I think, is just the deterrent. You know, if you study the psychology of all these events, there's a great deal of planning by the perpetrator to go ahead and plan these attacks. And one of them is, you know, they want to have time. And they know there's going to be a window in a gun-free zone to when people are going to be able to get there that have the ability to stop them.

But if, you know, it should happen to start, you know, we see time and time again, you know, this idea of not doing anything, and people are just laying there getting shot indiscriminately. And we know that there are going to be teachers that are going to respond. And we just want to have - you know, there are some of us that want to have the tools and the training and have the ability to stop somebody from harming the kids.

MCCAMMON: Sarah, I want to ask you about that because it does - these situations often play out in a matter of minutes. Many lives can be lost very quickly. What about this idea that isn't it better that someone has a gun at least has a chance to take down the shooter before police can get there?

PLUMITALLO: I don't think so. Of the 25 fatal shootings since Columbine, 12 of the shooters committed suicide. The average length and duration of the shooting itself is about three minutes. Many of those schools had school resource officers that were armed on campus, and that didn't act as a deterrent.

The other thing that I think about is these armed teachers - are they going to leave their students and abandon their post as their protector to go seek out the shooter? If they're not, then what then becomes the deterrent? Then it's just that one classroom that is protected. And is the gun that the teacher's going to carry really going to be a match for the AR-15, which is what is overwhelmingly being used time and time again? I mean, there's just no comparison between the two weapons and the amount of rounds they can fire, the velocity, the damage they can do.

MCCAMMON: And Mark, I'm sure your colleagues must be aware of some of the training you've received regarding having guns in classrooms and your work in your state legislature to that end. What do your colleagues make of that?

ZILINSKAS: You know, it's not for everybody. I know my particular colleagues - we've discussed this. There are some that are against it. There are some that want to go through this training. I know in my building alone, out of 50 people, there are at least 10. We have six buildings in our district. I've spoken to other teachers in other buildings. They're willing to go through it. And there's also a large number of people who just - it's not for them, but they'll feel safer if somebody's there to be able to, again, stop somebody from killing.

And I brought this up in our faculty meeting. When do you close the door? If the kids are out in the hall and the attack is occurring in the hallway - Scott Beigel just died not going into his room at some point and trying to get more and more kids into his room. When do you close the door? And then if you do, and you hear kids dying outside the door, how does that affect you for the rest of your life? And it's really a bad position to be in. And so therefore, we do see teachers that are going to do whatever they can with whatever they have at that moment to make an attempt to stop this person from harming the kids.

And in the rural districts - you know, you look at the schools near the cities of Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, they have police officers that are in their buildings with metal detectors, and it's probably not for them. They don't need that. But we do have some rural schools where you're looking at a police officer at a good response time being, you know, somewhere around 20 to 25 minutes, and - depending on where they are, and that's just how remote they are. So again, where you have people in a helpless state and none of the preventive measures address the intervention phase of an event.

MCCAMMON: Mark, you just mentioned your students. And I'm curious for all of you, in no particular order necessarily, but how are you talking to your students these days? What kinds of conversations are you having in the classroom?

PLUMITALLO: So I think for me at the elementary level, it's a little bit different because we focus on making sure that the students feel safe, feel protected, feel loved. It's very, very difficult to look a 6- or 7-year-old in the eye and tell them everything's going to be all right when you're just not sure yourself if, in that situation, it would be.

In my first year of teaching, Sandy Hook happened. And I'd been a teacher for three months, and we had a class meeting the day after Sandy Hook. And I will never forget that moment as long as I live because my students knew that they were the same age as some of the victims. And one little boy looked me in the eye and he said, Miss Plum, if that happens, are you going to cover us with your body like that teacher did? And ever since he asked me that question, I've kind of played it over and over in my head - this idea that this is the expectation. The expectation is, without question, we will lay down our lives.

So, of course, we always answer yes. We'll do anything we can to protect you. But if I hadn't had kids when I became a teacher, I probably would have felt a little bit more, like, without question. Of course. Of course. But I'm a mom, too. I have two little boys, and I want to get home to them. And I feel like we don't often talk about this expectation of martyrdom - that without question, you're going to be a hero in that situation.

And I think what we see in the days coming out from the Parkland shooting is that we see the school resource officer not going into the building. And he's trained. He has a firearm. He didn't go into the building. And we hear the stories about Coach Feis and Scott Beigel and how they laid down their life. But did they expect to? Did they want to? I think it's a very weighty thing. And it - I think it affects teachers greatly.

MCCAMMON: I've been talking with Mark Zilinskas, high school math teacher from Pennsylvania, Josh Grubbs, an assistant professor of psychology at Bowling Green State University in Ohio and Sarah Plumitallo, an elementary school teacher in Woodbridge, Va. Thank you all for being with me.

PLUMITALLO: Thank you for having me.

ZILINSKAS: Thank you.

GRUBBS: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF ODDISEE'S "AFTER THOUGHTS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.