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Another State Could Let Teachers Carry Guns. What We Know About the Strategy

Tennessee may soon join about two-thirds of states in allowing teachers to carry guns in public schools with administrator approval and some training.

A bill passed this week, which awaits Gov. Bill Lee’s signature, would make Tennessee the 34th state to allow teachers to carry guns in public schools with administrators’ permission.

It’s a growing trend among state legislatures as high-profile school shootings continue, and the law’s passage in Tennessee is notable: It was the site of 2023’s deadliest school shooting. In March 2023, a shooter killed three students and three teachers at the private Covenant School in Nashville. In total, there were 38 school shootings that resulted in injuries or death in 2023, and so far this year there have been 13, according to Education Week’s school shooting tracker.

Arming teachers has been a strategy lawmakers have proposed in response to high-profile school shootings since the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown Conn., in 2012, and some district leaders have made it a reality in their schools. But the strategy comes with a lot of risk, and there’s little research to help school leaders determine how effective it is, experts say.

“There’s almost precisely zero research on the effectiveness of arming teachers and how it works in practice,” said Heather Schwartz, a senior policy researcher at the RAND Corporation. “That, to me, is the crying need here—to learn more about how this would really work. What are the downsides? What are the upsides?”

What we know about policies for arming school staff

Lee, a Republican, told reporters on April 25 that he plans to sign the Tennessee bill in the coming weeks. It would allow teachers to carry guns in schools with the permission of their superintendent and principal.

School administrators would have to provide law enforcement with the names of people authorized to carry a gun at school, but that information would be concealed from the public, including from parents and other school staff. Teachers and other staff who are authorized to carry a gun must undergo 40 hours of “basic training in school policing,” according to the bill.

The bill mimics many other laws passed around the country that allow for armed teachers in schools, said Kenneth Trump, president of National School Safety and Security Services, a consulting firm that works with schools on security strategies.

“There is political opportunism here, legislatively, to take advantage of ripe conditions and emotions when school shootings occur,” Trump said.

The strategy is ultimately a “high-risk, high-liability proposition,” he said.

He doesn’t believe 40 hours is enough time to appropriately train teachers to respond in a school shooting. He likened it to giving a police officer 40 hours of training in classroom management and teaching techniques and expecting them to effectively educate students.

Lawmakers argue that preventing districts from publicly disclosing who has a gun reduces the risk that someone taking a gun from an armed staff member and use it to hurt others, but that policy could ultimately cause other problems, Trump said.

“It speaks to the root problem with the whole concept,” he said. “On one hand we don’t want to tell everybody who has the gun; on the other end of it, how do you know there’s also supervision, accountability, and good oversight of this? You don’t.”

Few schools are actually arming teachers

A superintendent in rural Ohio described to Education Week last year the thinking that went into his district’s decision to allow teachers to be armed. Ultimately, it came down to the district’s rural location about 10 miles from the nearest police outpost.

“When you’re talking about putting out an active shooter threat, it’s a matter of seconds, not a matter of minutes,” said John Scheu, superintendent of the Benjamin Logan school district about an hour northwest of Columbus. “And it’s a matter of life and death.”

He’s not the only educator who feels that way.

In a fall 2022 RAND Corp. survey, 20 percent of teachers said they thought their schools would be safer if educators carried guns in school, and 26 percent said it would make their schools neither safer nor less safe. Over half of respondents, 54 percent, said the strategy would make their schools less safe. Teachers in rural areas were more likely than suburban and rural teachers to say that armed teachers would make their schools safer.

Schwartz, the RAND researcher, told Education Week last year that older surveys had shown less support for the idea among educators.

But even if some teachers are warming to the idea, the vast majority of schools aren’t allowing their staff to be armed.

In Georgia, where teachers have been legally able to carry guns in schools since 2014, only three of 180 districts as of last fall had authorized teachers to be armed, according to reporting from 11 Alive, an Atlanta news station. In Texas, where the state’s school marshal program has been in effect since 2013, 84 out of 1,200 districts had armed school staff as of June 2022, according to the Texas Tribune.

The strategy is also unpopular among national education groups, including the National Association of School Resource Officers, the National Education Association, and the American Federation of Teachers, all of which have issued statements in opposition.

The biggest obstacle standing in the way of wider adoption is risk, Trump said.

If a school asked Trump for advice on adopting the strategy, his first response would be “don’t,” he said.

“The second thing is, talk to your school attorney and get it in writing that they support this, and get it in writing from your risk managers and your insurance carriers that they’re going to support you,” Trump said. “Usually, the conversation stops [there] because the lawyers or the insurance carriers will say no.”

Schwartz agreed that if schools are considering allowing teachers to be armed that they need to ask lots of questions of school safety experts, law enforcement, insurance carriers, and lawyers.

“It would be really important to slow down and very carefully consult with school security experts like sworn law enforcement officers about the nuts and bolts of the implementation,” Schwartz said.

“What kind of training is required of whom? What kind of insurance is required for whom? What would the safe storage policies be? … How would the police know which are the ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys?’” she said. “Those are the logical implementation questions to ensure the teacher arming policy doesn’t have really bad, unintended, negative effects.”

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