Arming Teachers in Columbia Public Schools? Panel Debates Safety Strategies

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COLUMBIA - Gun violence and control became a hot topic of discussion in not only President Obama's State of the Union address Tuesday evening but also at Columbia's Hickman High School.

Parents, teachers and students packed the seats in the school's commons area to engage in a student-organized panel forum on violence and safety in U.S. schools and society.  The panel consisted of an MU sociologist, an MU law professor, a Columbia Police Department sergeant and Columbia Public Schools superintendent Chris Belcher--all whom offered different viewpoints about whether teachers should be armed with guns in their classrooms and how best to protect students from violence. 

Belcher said even before the Sandy Hook Elementary school massacre that left 20 students and six teachers and school administrators dead in December, Columbia Public Schools has been working on fine-tuning a three-part violence prevention plan that involves training teachers how to assess the severity level of a potentially violent threat.  Other plan objectives include establishing better communication and relationships between students and adults and leaving school safety decision making in the power of public school boards--not the state legislature.

"The state legislature has no business telling school districts that they have to allow people with conceal and carry permits to have weapons in the school without disclosing and creating knowledge to the school. One of the greatest democracies we have is public school boards," Belcher said.

Nonetheless, there currently are four bills on this topic in the Mo. state legislature.  House Bill 70, which would allow a teacher or school administrator to carry a concealed firearm into a school, currently awaits a final read and vote in the Mo. House of Representatives.

Libertarian panelist Gary Nolan expressed support for the bill's objective.  He said arming teachers who have proper conceal and carry permits is the only way to "respond to a bad guy with a gun."  "There is nothing else to protect you," he said.  "It's a false sense of security to believe we lock the door and the bad man won't come in."

MU sociologist and panelist Wayne Brekhus argued that of the 4,000 children and teenagers killed by guns each year, 60 percent are homicides.  He said of that number, less than 10, in most years, happen in schools.  Columbia Police Sgt. and panelist Joe Bernhard affirmed this point, saying, "I'm pretty comfortable with my kids coming to school here and feel they're safe.  I'm more worried about my kids getting in an accident on the way to and from school."

MU law professor and panelist S. David Mitchell said, "We ignore the fact that schools are microchosms of society, and we need to consider outside and inside factors," such as bullying and mental health, which can be "triggering mechanisms of violence."

Such outside and inside factors, Belcher said, can and do involve not only student behavior.  "Our biggest threat every day is an emotional parent, a custody dispute, an estranged spouse or things of that nature. When they come to our schools, whether it be [through] a secretary or teacher or administrator, we have to assess is this person just upset, should we calm them down, have a conversation, or is this person potentially violent?  These are tough decisions for people who were trained to be educators."

Belcher said the Columbia Public Schools system soon will begin a process of putting lock-down and buzz-in systems on all school doors and increasing the number of school security cameras.