Debate flares over arming teachers to prevent school shootings

Feature for WHYY, November 14 2018

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Nearly three hours into a special meeting about a policy that would ask some staff at the Tamaqua Area School District to carry guns, parent Liz Pinkey read aloud a letter from educators at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

They had written to the Pennsylvania State Senate last year, when lawmakers were debating a bill to allow personnel with concealed carry permits to be armed on school property.

“We would like to make something clear,” the teachers wrote, “we would not have wanted that option, nor would it have made us or our students safer. In fact, it might have made things even worse.” They signed it, “the surviving educators of the Sandy Hook school massacre.”

When Pinkey finished reading, Tamaqua School Board President Larry Wittig replied, referring to the Sandy Hook educators who did not survive, “I would add to that, if we could speak to the six adults who are no longer here, they may have a different opinion.”

A shocked groan went up from the crowd of over 150 parents and residents who had gathered in a middle school cafeteria last week to hear perspectives for and against arming staff. It’s become a controversial issue in this small Schuylkill County town in Northeastern Pennsylvania’s coal region, where guns are commonplace but opinions are divided on their role in schools.

“Guns are a part of the culture here. We have off the first day of buck hunting season — from school, from work, from everything,” said Pinkey, a parent to three children in the school district, in an interview. “We’re not against guns. My husband is very pro-gun, very N.R.A., and even he said these are just not the right hands to be putting weapons into.”

In September, Tamaqua’s school board unanimously approved a policy change that would recruit staff to anonymously carry firearms in the district’s four schools after completing a three-and-a-half day training. If the policy is enacted, the district would be the first in the state to have armed teachers in classrooms.

But until this meeting, there had been little formal public discussion about it, and the room was tense. Tamaqua High graduate Julian Gerace had driven all the way back to his hometown from his job in Philadelphia just to be at this meeting, “because this works me up so much,” he said.

Sophomores Paige Pratt and Madelyn Jones, who were also preparing to speak against the policy, said they’d been getting teased by classmates at school all week, called “snowflakes” and “stupid liberals.” When the meeting began, it was standing room only.

Board member Nicholas Boyle, who has been a force behind the policy, said it had been discussed at previous board meetings, but Wittig, who resigned his post as chairman of the Pa. Board of Education earlier this year due to allegations of sexual misconduct dating back to the 1980s, acknowledged that they hadn’t informed teachers before voting.

When the news initially surfaced, many Tamaqua educators and parents were caught off guard.

“I’m a teacher here and I learned about it in the newspaper,” said Kim Woodward, who doesn’t support the policy, as a teacher or a parent.

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Photography by Matt Smith

radioJen Kinneyreporting