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Spokane educators: Give us books and projectors, not guns

February 25, 2018 GMT

The leaders of two of Spokane’s largest teachers organizations said Friday that they personally do not believe handing out guns to teachers will stop future shooting rampages.

President Donald Trump suggested last week that 10 to 40 percent of school employees could be qualified to carry guns in schools and classrooms, saying that arming teachers might be a way to defend schools from future attacks. Trump’s remarks came in response to the 17 people killed on Feb. 14 in Parkland, Florida.

“You give them a little bit of a bonus, so practically for free, you have now made the school into a hardened target,” Trump said, according to the New York Times.

Arming teachers was first suggested by the National Rifle Association after the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. That event was perpetrated by 20-year-old Adam Lanza, who shot his mother before going to the school and killing 20 children and six adults with an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle. He later took his own life.

“Evil walks among us and God help us if we don’t harden our schools and protect our kids,” NRA Executive Vice President and CEO Wayne LaPierre said in a speech last week. “The whole idea from some of our opponents that armed security makes us less safe is completely ridiculous.”

But the notion of adding guns to school to solve future shootings doesn’t sit well with at least two Spokane educators.

Both Vicki Arnold, president of the 1,000-member Central Valley Education Association, and Katy Henry, president of the 3,400-member Spokane Education Association, stressed that the opinions they offered on the matter were theirs alone, and that neither had surveyed their membership about the issue.

Arnold, who started as a teacher in Clarkston in 1978, said she supports having armed Spokane County sheriff’s deputies in Central Valley schools. The deputies had to be certified and continually undergo firearms training, she said.

“I do not think the educators, who are working with children on a daily basis, should be the ones who are armed,” Arnold said. “I think, as educators, we went into the profession to teach and nurture children. It never entered my mind 35 years ago, when I went into education, that I would be put in a position to even consider that.”

Henry counts school resource officers among her association’s membership. But she spends more time finding resources for her teachers.

“My concern is that teachers don’t always have what they need right now for teaching: books, projectors, the typical school tools,” she said. “That’s what we should be focused on.”

Unlike other school districts, Spokane Public Schools officials hire their own resource officers, and it is the district’s policy to keep them unarmed.

Last year, even before the Sept. 13 shooting at nearby Freeman High School that killed 15-year-old Sam Strahan and injured three girls, those resource officers indicated that they wanted to carry guns.

But the SEA decided not to put in a demand to the district, which would have opened the officers’ contract and started the process of bargaining the issue. The existing contract expires Aug. 31, 2019.

“It’s the district’s responsibility to ensure the safety of the staff and the students,” Henry said. “Safety can be a complex issue.”

Superintendent Shelley Redinger said last year, and repeated last week, that the district wants school resource officers to build relationships with students, saying such relationships can help defuse festering problems before they get out of hand.

Redinger and district spokesman Kevin Morrison both said the fact that Spokane schools are in an urban district makes a difference. “We are within minutes of multiple police vehicles being at the site,” Morrison said. “The few times I’ve seen them respond, it has been amazingly fast.”

By having unarmed officers as school employees, Spokane officials also avoid situations, like in Central Valley schools, where deputies are sometimes called away from the schools to deal with emergency situations elsewhere.

“If you look at the evidence-based research, my understanding is that it is mixed whether arming officers actually deters or stops somebody with a weapon,” Morrison said.

He noted the situation at Parkland, Florida, where the armed resource officer, Scot Peterson, took a position outside the building for more than four minutes of the six-minute shooting.

Broward Couny Sheriff Scott Israel said at a Thursday news conference that he suspended Peterson after learning of his actions by watching video of the incident. Peterson subsequently resigned.

When asked what Peterson should have done, Israel told the Associated Press that Peterson should have “went in, addressed the killer, killed the killer.”

Israel said he was “devastated, sick to my stomach. There are no words. I mean, these families lost their children. … I’ve been to the funerals. … I’ve been to the vigils. It’s just, ah, there are no words.”

Henry, the Spokane union president, said she doesn’t know whether arming the resource officers will become a bargaining issue until stakeholders meet later this year.

In the meantime, educators watch the national debate over guns and grieve with the families of the victims.

“I’ll be interested to see where we continue to move with this,” Henry said.

Arnold, too, said she has more questions than answers.

“It’s really complicated,” she said. “But I am of the mindset that our public schools, of all the places that children go, they need to feel safe there. We need to all work together to figure out how we are going to do that.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.