Arming school staff is not the answer

and Robert Scheelen

We appreciate Rep. Dennis Richardson's concern about gun violence in the schools as expressed in his public statements and guest opinion. Obviously he sincerely wants to address this tragedy.

However, we do not believe the answer is only arming staff in the schools. We see his proposal as having complications he does not address.

In some ways Richardson's plan parallels the presence of unidentified marshals on airplanes, but schools introduce very different and crucial factors:

Risk: If a terrorist is aboard a plane, every passenger's life is already in jeopardy. Unless he is stopped, the entire group could perish. The addition of another armed person does not add to the risk. In schools, however, the presence of weapons and ammunition, even stored safely in a desk, closet or pocket, introduces risk not otherwise present.

Nature of the individuals being protected: The majority population of schools is made up of children who by nature are curious and still developing in their self-regulation and discipline. This increases greatly the possibility of child involvement in unexpected ways with the school defenses.

Training: An effective marshal must be highly skilled, a crack shot in order not to incur damage through his/her own actions. On a plane the attack possibilities are limited in scope and can be practiced more effectively. In a school, the possibilities are more open-ended and would be more difficult to train for.

Access to the weapons: An air marshal can readily carry a concealed weapon. If school personnel had a gun in a desk they might not be able to reach it when needed. If they carried it all times, it would likely get in the way of their teaching or other duties.

As many of these considerations demonstrate, using regular law enforcement personnel is a more appropriate fit for the school environment. School staff trained on an occasional basis would be less likely to be effective than law enforcement officers who receive regular intensive training.

Uniformed law enforcement officers have ready access to weapons because a weapon is part of their regular equipment and would not interfere with other duties. Officers would not need to store a weapon that might then be reached by inquisitive children. Law enforcement could move freely throughout the school, not being limited by their other duties to a classroom or office.

One exception in which arming school personnel might be more appropriate is in smaller, especially rural, school districts where law enforcement presence would be less cost effective and response times for outside law enforcement much longer.

We suggest that schools need to be supported in other ways as well. We have both spent our careers working with children with disturbed lives, Bob in child welfare and Dolores in special education as a behavior specialist and autism consultant. We have witnessed the elimination of child development specialists and reductions in training of school personnel in areas of behavior management.

There needs to be increased skill development in teachers and other school personnel (office, cafeteria, playground and bus staff) in what to do with children who exhibit out-of-control or withdrawn behaviors.

It is critical for our society to look more broadly at safety in day-to-day settings, such as offices, malls, theaters and streets, not just in schools.

We believe a vital strategy is implementing some controls on the availability of guns and ammunition, including: 1) limits on large magazines and assault weapons and 2) universal pre-purchase clearances (eliminate the gun show exclusion). The Second Amendment surely does not exclude such constraints in the interests of public safety, as the recent Supreme Court decision reinterpreting gun rights itself makes clear.

Another necessary prong is adequate provision of mental health services to both children and adults. The well-intended deinstitutionalization of mental patients has been disastrous to our society because we failed to implement the broad system of community mental health centers that were supposed to take the place of inpatient care.

We hope this recent tragedy brings together otherwise disparate sectors of our country's political spectrum to work together to protect our children, their teachers and society as a whole. In our federal system different states may want to experiment with varied solutions, including Richardson's. As part of dealing with these issues, it is also vital that we fund continuing research on the effectiveness of various approaches, to provide data to move us beyond the slogans that tend to dominate too many of our discussions.

Dolores Scheelen is a mother, grandmother and semi-retired autism consultant and behavior specialist. She is the author/editor of two Oregon Department of Education manuals, Behavior Cadre Technical Assistance Manual and Getting Started and Moving Ahead: Intervention for Children with Autism. Robert Scheelen is a stepfather and grandfather. He retired as an assistant regional director for child welfare services after 24 years as a worker, supervisor and manager. He does child welfare reviews for the federal government. They have lived in the Rogue Valley since 1978.


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