Hot lead for teacher
By Michael H. O’Donnell
It was a Tuesday about noon when the news filtered down to my classroom at Blackfoot High School. I had set foot back in a high school for the first time in more than 20 years the previous August.
One of the administrators shared that there had been a school shooting in Colorado and there were multiple casualties. The deadly gunshots of April 20, 1999, would echo through the halls of public schools in America forever.
News crews around the nation flocked to get the details. Two disenfranchised students at Columbine High School had entered the school with a 9mm rifle, pistol and sawed-off 12-gauge shotguns hidden under their trench coats and opened fire. They did so after homemade bombs they had planted in the building had failed to explode.
In a short-lived shooting spree they killed 12 students and a teacher and wounded 21 other students. Then the two killers committed suicide.
It became the worst mass murder ever committed on a high school campus in this country.
The event impacted every high school teacher in America and I was among them.
From that day forward, I had thoughts that had been completely absent from my mind previously. They came almost every time I stepped through the doors of Blackfoot High. My focus on students who seemed a little isolated or unable to mix socially with others was heightened. The tendency for teens to huddle in groups and share secrets no longer seemed completely innocent.
And as I sat behind my desk some mornings an unsettling thought would run past my preparations for the day’s lessons.
“What would you do?”
There is no doubt the same thought was racing through the minds of teachers everywhere in this country. It was the grist of lengthy discussions among administrators and school board members. Law enforcement officials joined the conversation. And America entered another hard debate about violence and guns.
Ultimately, many steps were taken in schools all over the land. Surveillance camera systems at Blackfoot High were improved. The city policeman who served as the resource officer was given additional training. Teachers were provided specific instructions on how to react in an emergency lockdown. Drills became common place. Additional police officers visited the school from time to time.
Eventually, time began to soothe the fear.
But as 1999 turned into the new century and a new school year unfolded, uneasiness remained inside of me. That nagging question hung on.
“What would you do?”
And I would be a liar if I told you thoughts of having a firearm hidden in my Eddie Bauer book bag weren’t part of the mix. Drills had taught us to lock the classroom door and turn off the lights. My lab had an entry that offered limited visibility into my computer lab and I knew where to huddle students away from any line of sight. The door was open but set to lock at all times when closed.
The accepted notion is that locked and darkened rooms deter intruders. And I believe that is true in the case of people strange to a school. Determined and deranged students are another story.
That door to my lab was a stout one and the small window on the side had wire mesh. It would take awhile to break through and reach in to open the door. It would offer plenty of time to arm myself and defend everyone in my classroom. I have to confess the scenario played through my mind.
Then it dawned on me, open doors help open minds.
My computer lab door was open most of the day. Even during prep times, students who needed help with an assignment involving word processing or Internet research could find it. That’s why the lab existed. That’s why professional teachers exist – to help students learn.
Yes, we all were determined do our part to make children feel safer and protect them from harm, but there is something hideous about the notion of teachers packing heat. It is akin to giving in to fear. And in my opinion it muddles the line between respect and armed authority.
So in the wake of yet another mass school killing — this one involving first graders and a deranged stranger — the issue of armed teachers has surfaced again. Alaska and South Dakota lawmakers are already pushing bills to give teachers guns. Idaho won’t be far behind.
As a teacher who spent 12 years in a classroom following Columbine, my instincts tell me it’s a move doomed to failure. Compared to accidental shootings, about 1,500 per year, mass killings in schools are extremely rare.
There has to be a lesson there.
Michael H. O’Donnell is the assistant managing editor of the Idaho State Journal.