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Guns and schools are not usually associated with each other, but when they are, it’s often under tragic circumstances. The shootings at Columbine High School in April 1999, Virginia Tech University in April 2007 and Northern Illinois University in February have one thing in common: armed students gunning down their unarmed classmates.
Now some are arguing that students or teachers should be allowed to have guns at school. While it once would have been unthinkable for firearms to be allowed in and around schools, that’s no longer the case. The state of Utah now allows students, faculty and visitors to carry firearms on college campuses if they have permits to carry concealed weapons. Earlier this year, the Harrold Independent School District near Austin, Texas, began allowing employees to carry concealed firearms to school as long as the employees have permits. Texas doesn’t allow firearms on school grounds except under certain conditions, but the district’s trustees claimed that the school’s rural location near U.S. 287 makes it vulnerable to possible incidents. The school district appears to be the only one in the country with the policy.
The argument for guns in schools is self-defense: Armed students or teachers have the opportunity, not only to defend themselves, but to stop an assailant before other people are killed or injured.
That argument is highly controversial. E. Floyd Phelps, the retired director of fire safety at Southern Methodist University and current chairman of the Fire and Life Safety Council for ASIS International, says the Harrold school district is suggesting that, because teachers deal with students regularly, they are as qualified as police officers to carry a firearm. But police officers are tested about the types of situations where a firearm may or may not be needed, whereas the average person carrying a gun, including a teacher, isn’t, he says.
“No teacher would think that a police officer could come in and teach their class,” Phelps says. “It’s the same thing with security, guns, schools and hostile situations.”
Concealed weapons on campus raise other difficult issues. Suppose a student with a concealed weapon goes to see a teacher about a poor grade. If the student is afraid that a poor grade could jeopardize a scholarship or eligibility for a sports team — or is worried about a parent’s angry reaction — the discussion could become a confrontation. For a teacher, it’s a daunting and potentially dangerous situation. “A teacher is in a heated discussion with a student and sees a gun — what now?” says Sean Ahrens, project manager of security, consulting and technology for Schirmer Engineering Corp.
Clearly, the issue is polarizing, and it raises difficult questions about security in schools.
Supporters of measures to permit guns in schools point to shootings at a high school in Pearl, Miss., in 1997 to buttress their case. A student at Pearl High School killed his mother, then began shooting students. Once the gunshots began, a vice principal at the high school went out to his truck, got his handgun and confronted the shooter. The vice principal never fired a shot, but he stopped the rampage, forcing the student to the ground and keeping him there until authorities arrived. Two students died in the attack.
Local officials generally determine whether firearms can be carried in elementary and high schools. For colleges and universities, the decision about whether students or others can carry firearms on campus is generally made at the state level. Utah is the sole state where colleges and universities must allow students, faculty and visitors to carry concealed weapons on their campuses if they have permits. College students in Colorado can carry concealed weapons if they have permits at all but one school, the University of Colorado’s Boulder campus.
Bills are pending as of this writing in Ohio and Michigan that would allow students or teachers at public and private colleges to carry guns in schools or bring guns on campus. Fifteen states rejected similar bills this year, according to the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, a bipartisan organization.
Despite the defeats, bills to allow college students to carry weapons on campus under certain circumstances have supporters. Students for Concealed Carry, a national organization of more than 30,000 students and college faculty members formed after the Virginia Tech shootings, views carrying a handgun as a “huge responsibility,” but one that should be allowed on campus for people who have permits, says Mike Guzman, president of the organization.
Some supporters of concealed carry suggest that gun owners with concealed carry permits have a responsibility to keep their guns with them no matter where they are, even in elementary and high schools. Not doing so is the equivalent of having a fire extinguisher and storing it in the basement, rendering it useless in a situation where it’s needed, says Dick Baker, founder of the Wisconsin Concealed Carry Association.
Law enforcement authorities and others say that introducing guns into schools carries many dangers.
The risks vary by the type of school. For example, suppose an armed parent who doesn’t have custody of her or his children enters an elementary school and demands to see the children. If teachers or administrators are armed, there could be a confrontation in which children might be injured.
In a college setting, the risks are different. Students are told to lock their dormitory room doors whether they’re in them or not, but the reality is that doors are often left unlocked. That could lead to a dangerous situation if students are allowed to have firearms in their rooms, says Dale Burke, University of Wisconsin assistant police chief.
“Students, by and large, think they’re invincible and that crime can’t or won’t happen to them,” he says. “Having your CD or iPod stolen is one thing. Having a gun stolen is a whole other ball game.”
Another concern is that a student who has a firearm will let emotion override common sense in a heated situation.
“It’s like a lot of other things in life in that if you get into an altercation or fight, we rely on the judgment of those involved not to escalate it more than they need to,” says Ronald D. Stephens, executive director of the National School Safety Center.
Stalking is one example where emotions could lead to a poor decision being made, University of Wisconsin’s Burke says. A student who is on either end of that situation may have a permit and a legally acquired firearm with them. That firearm is now an option “to someone who isn’t thinking clearly or reacting properly,” Burke says.
Proponents of concealed carry on campus dispute that assertion. An individual with a firearm who has received adequate training knows when to use and when not to use a gun, says Baker of the Wisconsin Concealed Carry Association.
“There have been bans on universities and schools because as a society we feel that guns shouldn’t be allowed,” Guzman says. But supporters of concealed carry on campus don’t understand why society thinks a person with a concealed carry permit, who is deemed rational enough to be allowed to carry a gun in a supermarket or a stadium, will suddenly be “illogical and irrational” upon entering a school.
Another worry about guns being brought into schools is that the firearms will not be properly stored. Stephens cites an incident in California where a student entered a classroom with a gun in his gym bag and dropped the bag on the floor. The gun accidentally discharged, striking another student in the back. “Did he intend for this to happen? No,” Stephens says. “But did he have it safely stored? No.”
Phelps says that another risk is someone who is planning an attack at a school will bring heavier weaponry if that person knows that some of the occupants of a school – teachers, administrators, staff – could be carrying concealed weapons. “They’ll adjust their weaponry to handle that, expecting teachers to have weapons even if they don’t,” he says.
Uncertainty poses another risk, say opponents of measures to permit guns in schools. Suppose that the police will enter a hostile area filled with people. If some of them are legally carrying firearms, police may not be able to immediately spot who the “bad guy” is. That could lead to an innocent person being injured or killed.
Baker of the Wisconsin Concealed Carry Association dismisses those arguments. He says that the fact a potential shooter doesn’t know who has a firearm acts as a deterrent. Baker also says that individuals who legally carry concealed weapons are told during training that when police arrive at a situation, they should immediately put down their firearms, put their hands up in the air and state that they have a permit.
“Police don’t just instinctively want to shoot a person with a gun,” Guzman says.
The one thing that both sides agree on is that schools where anyone is allowed to carry a concealed weapon need to take every step possible to ensure that individuals have received rigorous training. That training should exceed a state’s requirements and include scenarios of different situations as well as a psychological evaluation, says Schirmer’s Ahrens. It should be clear when and how to draw, fire and clear a weapon, he says. There also should be close coordination between schools and law enforcement, ensuring that all parties are in agreement on all matters with regards to armed students or teachers, he says.
Even with extensive training, police are still the best responders and most able to handle a situation involving a firearm, Phelps says. Police train using paint gun bullets and practice situations so that, ideally, no one gets shot, he says.
If a teacher shoots a student, that teacher, the school and the district will have a problem on their hands, even if the teacher was allowed to carry a firearm, Phelps says. A judge may dismiss a criminal case, but a family would likely file a lawsuit that could last several years.
But Baker of the Wisconsin Concealed Carry Association says those who support concealed carry and who have proposed bills in Wisconsin have made it clear in those bills that a business or building owner wouldn’t be liable under any circumstance if an incident occurred with a permit holder on their property.
The flip side is that if something did happen to a permit holder in a building where concealed carry isn’t allowed and that permit holder can prove he or she wouldn’t have been shot if allowed to draw their firearm, that individual could bring a lawsuit, Baker says.
It’s important that schools begin thinking about policies to address the question of how guns on campus should be handled. Students at Southern Methodist University who were hunters and owned guns were required to give the firearms to the campus police during the school year, checking them out for hunting trips, Phelps says. The school periodically checked students’ rooms for guns and other weapons, confiscating those that were found. In some cases, students could get the items back at the end of the semester. The school knew that students who hunted could have had the firearms legally and didn’t want those firearms sitting in dorm rooms or other campus buildings.
Schools and campuses where firearms are allowed face a number of security issues. A faculty member whose gun gets into the hands of a gang member raises the possibility of that gun being in a school without anyone having the slightest idea where it is, a scenario that occasionally occurs with security guards, says Peter Blauvelt, president and CEO of the National Alliance for Safe Schools, a non-profit organization. The school then has to go into a lockdown.
Having armed security guards in schools may seem like a good way to deter potential shooters without permitting students or teachers to carry concealed weapons. But Blauvelt says that approach has its own risks. It’s not uncommon to have high turnover in those positions, he says. What’s more they also generally aren’t well trained, paid or motivated, and they tend to be lonely positions, requiring someone with a special personality and solid training, he says.
University of Wisconsin police assume in every situation that no one on campus is armed because concealed-carry isn’t allowed, Burke says. But if legislation was passed that allowed students, faculty and others to conceal firearms, the assumption would become just the opposite.
“I don’t think it makes people any safer except for the person who has the gun,” he says. “But it certainly makes everyone else feel less safe, and it increases the risk to everyone on campus.”
There are many steps a school can take in advance of a crisis, says Stephens of the National School Safety Center. Schools where concealed carry permit holders are allowed to bring firearms in schools or on campus should have a comprehensive crisis management plan that everyone is aware of. The schools should also know which individuals have the skills or training for dealing with biological and chemical agents and who can administer CPR, he says.
It also should be clear which individuals will coordinate with maintenance and security staffs in an emergency and who will work with first responders, Stephens says. Also, some colleges are looking at having a limited number of individuals authorized to carry concealed weapons so there is a specialty team available when a crisis occurs.
“Based on NIU and Virginia Tech, we’ll likely see a continued expansion of individuals authorized to carry weapons on campus, but it will be a select group and with stringent mental health reviews,” Stephens says.
Phelps recommends that schools develop programs to identify and help troubled students, not simply ignore the matter and hope it goes away or that someone else deals with it. “You need to look at people and try to help them,” he says.
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