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Teachers and law enforcement discuss gun violence in schools

By Mytrisha Sarmiento

Staff Editor

Since 2013, there have been at least 405 incidents of gunfire on school grounds, resulting in 109 deaths and 219 injuries. In every school shooting attack there is an average of 2 victims. The problem seems to grow each and every year. “In less than 18 years, we have already seen more deaths related to school shootings than in the whole 20th century,” said Antonis Katsiyannis, who works for Clemson University specializing in education.

Schools are meant to be an outlet for kids to learn; however, school shootings have made students and staff feel uncomfortable at school. Everytown, an organization dedicated to stop this epidemic, published a statistical analysis stating, “3 million American children are exposed to shootings per year.” The staggering amount of children exposed to gun violence has brought to light a very serious question that needs to be addressed: “How are we going to stop gun violence at school?” 

Earlier this year, Summit Shasta High School experienced a shooting threat made on social media. Students felt alarmed by the post and informed Shasta faculty; they took action by contacting the Daly City Police Department. Fortunately, these threats were not acted upon. The next day students were excused if they felt unsafe at school. Police were on campus and Shasta staff closely monitoring school grounds.

Sean Begley, a team leader on the Daly City SWAT team and active shooter trainer, said, “We take any threats of violence very, very seriously. In the case of most active shooters there is an indicating factor. Whether the factor was known or not is up in the air, but this means that they either posted something on social media, wrote something in a journal, or made a threat to someone.” He added, “There is a crime called criminal threats 422 Penal Code. What we will do is determine whether the threat equals a crime that occurred or whether that person needs mental help. We immediately investigate the case.” 

In the case of an active shooter attack on school grounds, there is a “huge law enforcement response,” Begly said. “It’s not just the local police department, we can put out broadcasts to multiple radio stations to alert multiple police departments. Code 3 lights and sirens as fast as we can possibly go, and once we arrive on scene we assess if there is still an active threat.” Begly continued to explain their process: “If there is [an active threat] we will hurry to locate the threat to prevent them from hurting anyone else.” 

If there are people in need of medical treatment as the active shooter is still on school grounds, the police have to give medical aid to anybody injured. Mr. Begly said, “All our officers are trained to tactically respond to a situation, which includes providing  medical and trauma care. Working together with the paramedics, fire department, and county. There is a term ‘golden hour’, and what that means is, if someone [is] injured and [we] get them to a hospital under an hour they have a higher chance of survival.” 

Ava Petrash, the assistant executive director at Summit Shasta High School, said, “Twice a year we do the three drills: active shooter, lockdown drill, including fire and earthquake drills.” The California Department of Education issued school safety revisions in March 2018, which include a series of state safety requirements. The document also states: “I encourage the inclusion of policies and practices that go beyond EC requirements, including, but not limited to, threat assessment protocols, mental health policies, bullying prevention policies, active aggressor/shooter protocols, lockdown and shelter-in-place procedures, and regular drills and exercises for all staff.” Shasta also requires teachers to train each year and to study a PowerPoint on the protocols on shootings which differs depending on the particular situation. 

When talking to teachers about the mandatory drills and protocol to active shooter drills, most teachers believed that the drills really help prepare the whole school. Gene Lee, a biology teacher and junior mentor, explained the basic protocol: “Help ensure everyone stays quiet, make sure the lights are turned off and lock the door including the windows.” In addition to this, Michael Maita, physics teacher and junior mentor at Shasta shared that “the value in practicing is that you have a go-to routine and some muscle memory of doing it; but, in the real moment, there is going to be lots to fear.” This statement introduces the important idea that these drills are simulated situations and that in “real life” there might be other factors that could alter the situation drastically. 

Some expressed mixed feelings on whether the drills were really effective. Lauren Croom, a history teacher and freshman mentor at Shasta, said, “Personally I don’t think any amount of drilling can prepare us for real life crisis because we don’t know exactly how it’s going to present, but I think that Shasta tries to do its best to provide resources that make kids feel safe to one come to school and to voice what makes them want to cause harm to others.”

When talking to teachers about how they would handle a situation where there is an active shooter on campus, Michelle Mogannam, history teacher and junior mentor, said, “I told my students and mentees that we are going out the window to be fully and completely honest I’m getting my students/mentees out of the situation. I will get all the kids out of the window and I will be the last out.”

In addition to this, Ms. Croom said, “My role as a teacher is to protect as many children as possible. Even if it means not necessarily following the rules, I’ll fight someone; I’ll charge at someone – put my whole body in there.” 

Since Sandy Hook, multiple state legislatures are pushing to arm school staff. States approach this solution differently. An article by the New York Times, “Trump Wants to Arm teachers,” brings up the topic of how some schools already arm their teachers: “In Ohio guns are kept in safes; in Texas, they can be worn in holsters or kept in safes with immediate reach.” However, parents and teachers protested against guns at school, according to the New York Times. A recent bill was approved which permits Florida teachers to have a firearm on school grounds. Our President Donald Trump shared his support for this approach by working closely with the N.R.A (National Rifle Association) to stop gun violence. 

When Shasta teachers were asked whether they would be comfortable having a gun in the classroom, most held a strong opposition to this strategy. ”I don’t know; I have some conflicting emotions; I think there has to be a lot of training/preparation. I would feel more confident and secure knowing that there is a presence on campus who is a trained professional to handle a situation like that,” Mr. Maita said. 

Mr. Lee explained, “In the moment, I wouldn’t mind having something to protect us all with, but the thing that makes me more nervous is having a gun in the classroom. Gun accidents in houses as a result of a misfire alone are more common. Having a gun in the classroom locked or unlocked is unsafe, I don’t think you can have 100% control over these things.” This strategy mainly focuses on force against force to keep kids safe; however, in a complex situation such as school shootings there is never really one solution. 

Mr. Begley shared his opinion on arming teachers: “Possessing a loaded gun in public is a huge responsibility. As police officers we carry a gun and we have to go to specific training about arms instruction and standards/ policies. Spending hours every year and that commitment to training is to be able to carry a gun in public.” He added, “There are many people who dislike police officers and their use of force, so I don’t see how people with less training are accepted by the public – not only that, but there would have to be continual training. If teachers were to be armed they would have to be held at a very high standard of skill and ability. If someone is uncomfortable carrying a gun and are not comfortable accepting that responsibility then they probably shouldn’t be forced to.” 

When asked, “If force against force is an ineffective way of handling the epidemic, then what actions can be taken to help improve the situation?”, Mr Begley said: “I was once assigned to write a paper, and I made my topic gun control. When I walked away from all the research and digging, I learned that it’s really complicated and tough to know how laws will change things either for the better or for the worse. As a police officer my job is to enforce the laws that we have, politically it is a very complicated issue. When I originally wrote the paper in 2006, gun control was not a new topic back then. This argument has been going on for a long time; it’s definitely a polarized issue.”

Teachers responded in a similar manner with more emphasis on tending to mental health and providing more resources for kids who need help. Ms. Petrash said, ”I want something to change so this doesn’t become the way we live our lives as a school community. Personally, I think gun laws should change and limiting access to firearms would reduce the number of school shootings we have.” 

Ms. Croom said, “California has some of the strictest gun laws, but we still have school shootings. Restricting access to guns doesn’t necessarily mean less violence. I think it’s about making children feel a sense of belonging and about making them feel valued and important so they don’t have to take some other approach to killing a whole bunch of people to feel relevant in the world. Summit goes out of its way to foster a sense of belonging and that is one of our goals.” 

Ms. Croom later added, “I believe in the Second Amendment … You need to be responsible and keep it away from children, also instilling in kids that guns take lives. Irresponsible gun use … can just destroy entire families. As a country we need to decide what’s important to us. An AK-47 is not an appropriate gun to use even for hunting; it is designed to kill and would destroy an entire carcass of a deer to the point where you cannot eat it.”

In addition to this, Shasta has brought more attention to students’ mental health. Ms. Petrash recalled, “This year we have doubled/increased the amount of mental health counseling available.”

A study conducted in 2013 by VISTAS Online (American Counseling Association) states: “According to Lee (2013), there are two leading causes of school shootings: bullying (87%), as well as both non-compliance and side effects from psychiatric drugs (12%). Most school shooters claimed or left evidence behind indicating that they were victims of severe and long-term bullying.” 

“We should be researching specific causes (factors at play) before coming to rash decisions or conclusions. People do these things because they can. We don’t really know what’s going on in somebody’s head, we can find patterns. There is no easy way nor solution,” Ms. Mogannam said.

Teachers acknowledged their role in helping students’ emotional health. “If we go out of our way to help kids develop coping skills, help them to talk about their emotions. Fostering respect and commodity among students to help students feeling lonely, “ Ms. Croom said.

Mr. Lee spoke specifically about Shasta’s community. “There is a culture here, for the most part everyone’s included. Often times the celebration of people that are different help[s] to prevent people from feeling alone.”

Featured Image (at the top of this post): First aid backpacks are mandatory in every classroom, and are used in events of emergencies or drills for fires, earthquakes, and active shooters. PHOTO CREDIT: Mytrisha Sarmiento

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