Students across the United States are returning to classrooms for the start of a new school year. As classes resume, many school districts have sought to boost security. Some are arming teachers to provide a line of defense against school shooters.
It remains to be seen whether teachers toting firearms will save lives or do more harm than good.
Calls for protecting the nation's more than 50 million public school students and staff have grown louder since the massacre at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, in May. An 18-year-old gunman killed 19 children and two adults.
Months after the tragedy, the attack still haunts some students. "I want to go to school knowing that me and my fellow students are safe," said high school student Tony Williams from Manassas, Virginia.
Williams doesn't agree with arming educators but believes stronger measures are needed. "We should have more armed school security officers, more metal detectors and reinforced locked doors at all entrances," he told VOA.
Ninth grader Rebecca McKenzie from Georgia said she would feel safer with armed teachers in the classroom. "They need to be well trained in using firearms and have easy access to a gun if a person attacks the school."
School security response
In the wake of some of the nation's deadliest school shootings over the past decade, gun rights activists and Republican state lawmakers have pushed for training and arming school personnel to become a first line of defense in active shooter situations.
Following the Texas school shooting, President Joe Biden signed into law the first federal gun control measure in three decades. "There are too many other schools, too many other everyday places that have become killing fields, battlefields here in America,” Biden said in June.
While the legislation is modest, it does impose new regulations on gun ownership that will tighten background checks for would-be gun purchasers convicted of domestic violence or significant crimes as juveniles. Republicans ruled out stiffer measures such as a ban on assault-style rifles or high-capacity magazines, favored by Democrats and Biden.
Ohio Republican Governor Mike DeWine in June signed a law that allows teachers who receive 24 hours of training to carry a gun in schools. "School safety goes much beyond the headline; it goes much beyond the tragedies that we see in schools when there is a school shooter," DeWine said earlier this month at a school safety conference.
DeWine also announced that 1,183 schools across Ohio would receive nearly $47 million as part of a grant program. The money will cover expenses of physical security enhancements such as security cameras, public address systems and automatic door locks. The state will hire 16 mobile field trainers to work with school districts that allow teachers to carry guns. "What you do every day is focus on keeping your kids safe," DeWine said.
School safety debate
While most adult Americans do not want teachers to carry guns in school, in a public opinion survey from PDK International, a robust 45% said they would favor arming teachers as a safety strategy.
Another poll conducted last month found 75% of educators from pre-kindergarten to 12th grade said arming teachers was an unpopular strategy, according to an American Federation of Teachers survey.
A statewide public opinion survey in Virginia conducted by Patch News found 83% of respondents were opposed to arming teachers. Those who favored allowing educators to carry weapons cited lengthy police response times to an active shooter event – a critical factor in the Uvalde massacre. "Having defense already in the room would reduce the response time, saving lives, and reduce the attractiveness of schools as a target," said one survey respondent.
The poll, conducted last month, also found people on both sides of the debate agreed on school safety enhancements, including locking doors from the inside, improving mental health resources for students and adding more security guards.
In some communities, teachers unions and gun control advocates have pushed back against arming schoolteachers, administrators and staff.
"Bringing more guns into schools makes schools more dangerous and does nothing to shield our students and educators from gun violence," said Becky Pringle, president of the National Education Association, the nation's largest teachers union. "We need fewer guns in schools and teachers should be teaching, not acting as armed security guards."
Gun control advocates argue that more weapons in schools increases the chances a gun would fall into the wrong hands or that the weapon would discharge unintentionally.
"Far more needs to be done to keep our children safe in and out of the classroom," said Anna Morshedi, a volunteer with the Arkansas chapter of Moms Demand Action, a network of parents fighting for stronger gun laws. She believes increasing armed personnel in schools will do little to prevent gun violence. "We need lawmakers to address the root cause of the problem and stop guns from coming into our schools in the first place," she said in an online statement.
Lawmakers in Arkansas approved a measure that mandates one armed guard at every school. The state will also spend $50 million for a school safety grant to expand youth mental health training for all school personnel who interact with students.
Updating school security
Police across the U.S. updated procedures for responding to active shooter incidents after a mass public school shooting in Colorado more than two decades ago. Officers are trained to confront and neutralize the suspect immediately even if that puts police officers’ lives in danger. In Texas, law enforcement officers were criticized for taking more than an hour to kill the gunman at the Uvalde elementary school.
In response to the Uvalde shooting, one North Carolina school district is storing high-powered rifles, ammunition and other equipment in six schools. "In the event we have someone barricaded in a classroom, we'll have those tools to be able to breach that door if needed," said Madison County (N.C.) Sheriff Buddy Harwood. "I do not want to have to run back out to the car to grab an AR-15 rifle, because that's time lost," he told reporters earlier this month.
The school district is also launching safety initiatives, including assigning social workers and counselors to each school, adding a panic button system to every building and increasing the number of armed personnel.
More than 29 U.S. states allow people other than police or security guards to carry guns on school grounds, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. A federal study found only 3% of the nation's public schools had armed faculty in 2018.
In Florida, more than 1,300 school staff across the state serve as armed guardians in 45 out of 74 school districts, according to state education records. The heightened security followed the 2018 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, where 17 people were killed by a 19-year-old gunman.
Mass school shootings have hit many communities hard, with parents and policymakers demanding more be done. In Georgia, gun-rights groups have pushed for arming more educators.
"Schools are a soft target, but once people understand that there's someone there armed, no one's going to go in there and shoot," said Jerry Henry, executive director of Georgia Second Amendment in an interview with Atlanta-based Reporter Newspapers. "Had one of those teachers in Uvalde, Texas, been armed, then they could have stepped in."
Last month, the Cobb County Board of Education near Atlanta voted to allow certain school staff to carry guns. A law adopted in 2014 allows Georgia teachers and other employees to carry weapons in schools if local school boards authorize it.
"Our schools are being threatened by gun violence," said Charles Tatum, a parent of a high school student in Atlanta. He believes arming well-trained school staff can protect students. "It would deter someone with a gun from going into the schools and taking advantage of small kids and taking lives senselessly," Tatum told VOA.
"Going into the new school year I feel my son is fairly safe with the security upgrades like more armed guards and keeping all the doors locked."