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Immunization not ammunition: School safety means fewer guns.

New research shows that armed guards inspire more schoolyard bloodshed.

James Alan Fox
Opinion contributor
Published 12:00 p.m. ET Feb.26, 2021 | Updated 12:41 p.m. ET Feb.26, 2021

Whether it is for five days a week or just some hybrid arrangement, school districts across America are looking to welcome students and teachers back to the classroom. However, despite the limitations of remote learning and its impact on working parents, not everyone is keen on the idea, at least not yet.

Backed by their unions, many teachers oppose in-person instruction unless and until they, if not their students, are vaccinated against COVID-19. They are not alone in their reservations, according to a recent survey of more than 2,500 respondents nationwide. Despite the substantial educational and practical advantages of having children back at school, a slight majority believe that vaccination should be a prerequisite.

Not that long ago, notions of school safety had a very different meaning. It was not about getting shots in arms, but concern for being shot by someone armed. Those worries had parents purchasing pricey bullet-resistant backpacks to protect their kids from an active shooter as well as insisting that their child's school be fortified with armed guards, preferably sworn police officers.

Police in schools

Now that attention is focused more on school ventilation than surveillance, it is a good time to rethink the wisdom of armed guards and other physical security measures. After all, a fortress-like setting can do more to instill fear than alleviate it, by relaying the message that school is a dangerous place. Moreover, an overprotective environment is not conducive for learning.

This month, the Los Angeles School Board voted unanimously to eliminate one-third of its school police positions, replacing them with climate coaches. This form of defunding the police, which other major cities have taken in response to Black Lives Matter protests, will help to counteract the so-called "school-to-prison pipeline." Having cops in schools has resulted in more punitive and formalized responses to fighting and other common types of student misbehavior.

But there is another curious benefit of retreating from the school resource officer model. Armed police can actually increase the risk of bloodshed. A new study of 133 school shootings over the past four decades found that the presence of an armed guard significantly increased the number of fatalities,even after controlling for other confounding factors. "Many school shooters are actively suicidal," suggested the researchers, "so an armed officer may be an incentive."

Of course, the perils of having a sworn police officer well-trained to respond to an active shooter threat is multiplied when far less skilled school personnel are allowed to carry guns on campus. At least nine states permit firearms-trained teachers and other personnel to possess weapons in schools. And in some districts, the minimal level of training required is just that minimal, and certainly inadequate should a crisis situation arise.

Armed teachers are not the solution

Actually, the firearms-for-faculty idea is not very new. Back in the late 1990s, when mass shootings in schools were even more prevalent than in recent years, various proposals for arming teachers were being advanced in state legislatures. The argument was one of deterrence: that because of the 1994 Federal law establishing schools as gun-free zones, an armed intruder could be assured of no real opposition. Of course, for some alienated adolescent, the prospect of a shoot-out at high noon with the vice principal in the school cafeteria could be seen as an opportunity for revenge against the administration as well as celebrity among peers.

Just as we would not want school resources officers to teach math, it is imprudent to have teachers packing heat. For educators, marksmanship is about A's and B's, not guns and ammo. They should be equipped with chalk, not a Glock, especially when dealing with an unruly student in their classroom. I am hardly alone in resisting the idea of deputizing educators, as survey after survey have found the overwhelming majority of teachers wanting gun control, not gun possession.

Here's hoping that we can soon repopulate our vacant classrooms with students and teachers engaged in the process of learning. Can this be done safely? Sure, once teachers, administrators and other school employees are properly prepared with immunization, not ammunition.

James Alan Fox is the Lipman Professor of Criminology, Law and Public Policy at Northeastern University and co-author of "Extreme Killing: Understanding Serial and Mass Murder." Follow him on Twitter @jamesalanfox

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