Can teachers be trained to handle guns in crisis? Not likely, police vets say

Strengthening relationships, security measures seen as more effective

Larry Johnson, a former municipal police officer, oversees safety and security for Grand Rapids Public Schools

In Larry Johnson’s nearly 17 years as a police officer, 11 of them as a SWAT team supervisor, he knew the terror of gunfire. He and other officers surrounded a West Side Grand Rapids house where a man barricaded inside fired at them, and he once exchanged shots with a street-corner gunman. Johnson was not hit; his assailant was but survived.

The former Grand Rapids Police sergeant, now head of safety and security for Grand Rapids Public Schools, knows the lightning-quick thinking and split-second actions required to handle an active-shooter situation. He knows the hundreds of hours involved to train and maintain those skills. He doesn’t believe it’s realistic – or wise – to expect that kind of training and proficiency from teachers carrying handguns.

”I don’t think our teachers, who spent four years in college studying to be a teacher, are ready to arrive at a school not only with their books, but arrive with a handgun,” Johnson said. “That’s putting a lot on teachers, and putting a lot of false hope in our students.”

Related: Local educators on school shootings: ‘Arming teachers is not the answer’

Johnson does not support the arming of teachers, an idea floated by President Trump and pushed by the National Rifle Association, as a response to mass shootings such as the recent massacre in Parkland, Florida. What’s needed instead, he says, are better-trained security officers, more mental-health counselors, more secure buildings – and, crucially, stronger relationships.

“We need to focus more on heart-ware than the hardware,” said Johnson, chairman of the National Association of School Safety and Law Enforcement Officials. “We need to build better relationships with students and families in the community, and to keep this school safety conversation at the top of the education agenda.”

Kelly Bowers, a 23-year police veteran, at right, teaches Criminal Justice at Kent Career Tech Center; he also partners with Grand Rapids teacher Kelly Sleighter, shown here, to give away books each spring to kindergartners

Arming Teachers Now ‘Premature’

As a former municipal police officer now working in schools, Johnson has a wide-angle perspective on how well it would work to put guns in the hands of teachers to protect their students. So does Kelly Bowers, a Grand Rapids and Wyoming police officer for 23 years, who now teaches in the Criminal Justice program of the Kent Career Tech Center.

Although they have slightly different views on the idea of arming teachers, they agree it’s much too soon to make such a major move now.

“For us to jump into it casually and say ‘I think it’s a good idea for teachers to carry firearms,’ I think it’s premature and irresponsible,” said Bowers, in his sixth year at the Tech Center. Although it conceivably could be a viable option down the road, given enough study, planning and conversations with teachers themselves, he added, “There’s too many variables that aren’t answered at this time.”

More important than arming teachers or beefing up security, Bowers says, is the “heart problem” that would cause a student or former student to wreak such carnage.

“There’s something going on in the hearts of young people that causes them to want to come back to the school and do harm,” Bowers said. “If we don’t focus on that root cause, we’re just going to continue to put Band-Aids on that festering wound.”

Bowers says he and his fellow instructors strive to let their 140 students know they have worth and help them grow into healthy adults. His motto: “Students don’t care what you know until they know that you care.”

Like Johnson, he has doubts teachers can acquire the necessary training to handle guns in a crisis, or the mentality that police must master: to run toward gunfire, not away, and sacrifice your life for another if need be.

“It’s a special mindset a person has to come to grips with to be able to carry a firearm to do something like that,” Bowers said.

Rigorous Training, Physical and Mental

At GRPS, Johnson oversees about three dozen security officers — eight of them certified police — who undergo 120 hours of training and six weeks’ internship before working in schools. Lockdown drills and building security upgrades are his responsibility, too.

He also gives presentations around the country and Canada as chairman of the 1,500-member School Safety and Law Enforcement Officials’ organization. None of the members’ districts allow teachers to use guns – with good reason, he says. Teachers simply don’t have the time required to become sufficiently trained in shooting and crisis response, and for the ongoing training to maintain those skills.

When he was an officer, he would go to the range at least twice a month to practice a variety of shooting situations, he said. He still goes as often as he can, at $150 per session.

“You don’t get to precision shooting just by carrying a weapon,” said Johnson, who also worked for the Benton Harbor and Lansing police departments. “That’s ongoing time on the range to perfect that muscle memory. I don’t think we can train teachers to that level and maintain that level of proficiency all the time.”

Confronting a school shooter poses all kinds of risks, he said: a bullet ricocheting off a cinder-block wall, for instance, or missing the target and hitting a student.

In a case such as the accused Florida gunman, who had been expelled from school, for a teacher to draw a gun on a student they may have had in class goes against the teacher’s natural instinct to help him, and “really creates some added trauma and decision-making,” Johnson said.

“The training that has gone into law enforcement and the training that has gone into teaching are two different mindsets. You have to train a person up to the point where they are able to take the life of a person.”

He added, “It’s very difficult for most police to do it, let alone a teacher.”

Charles Honey
Charles Honey is a freelance writer and former columnist for The Grand Rapids Press/ MLive.com. As a reporter for The Press from 1985 to 2009, his beats included Grand Rapids Public Schools, local colleges and education issues. Honey served as editor of The Press’ award-winning Religion section for 15 years. His freelance articles have appeared in Christianity Today magazine, Religion News Service and the Aquinas College alumni magazine. Read Charles' full bio.

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