President Donald Trump’s proposal that a select number of trained teachers be armed with concealed guns is drawing largely negative reaction from East Valley school superintendents and a police chief who fears it would create more problems than it would solve.
Of the two districts serving Ahwatukee, Tempe Union Superintendent flat out opposed arming teachers while Kyrene Superintendent Jan Vesely said she's seen no data suggesting it would be an effective deterrent to school shootings.
AFN polled superintendents and police chiefs last week on whether they favored arming teachers in light of the Feb. 14 massacre at the South Florida high school that claimed the lives of 14 students and three staffers and wounded 12 others.
Trump proposed that arming a few highly trained teachers could reduce or even eliminate such carnage.
Superintendents in Chandler, Tempe and Gilbert flatly oppose the idea, while others had district spokespeople issue a statement.
Others gave more nuanced responses. Higley School District spokeswoman Michelle Reese only would say Superintendent Mike Thomason was out of town.
While most police chiefs declined to comment on the politically charged proposal, Gilbert Police Chief Mike Soelberg said, “It’s not the best choice. They should focus on education.”
He said even teachers who are expert marksmen lack the vital training that officers receive on when it’s necessary and legal to fire their weapons.
“I don’t think teachers are the best option,” said Soelberg, a former Mesa assistant police chief who once supervised Mesa’s team of school resource officers – the first line of defense in keeping schools safe.
“They want to protect their kids at all times. You see them sacrificing themselves in these shootings to protect a child,” he added.
The National Rifle Association espoused arming teachers after the Florida massacre and previous campus shootings.
Police and school officials boast how the largely unnoticed SROs build rapport with students on campus. They also take all threats seriously and investigate to determine whether they are real or hoaxes.
Police report a spike in such threats, especially on social media, in the wake of the South Florida tragedy. Gilbert alone has investigated eight threats, made one arrest and is confident of making another, Soelberg said.
But many schools have no SRO because the districts can’t afford them and municipalities often won’t pay for them.
While the vast majority of East Valley high schools have SROs, many junior highs and middle schools do not, and elementary schools rarely do.
Typical is Phoenix, where 83 SROs cover 94 schools in 22 districts. Some SROs cover multiple schools.
Phoenix Police Sgt. Vince Lewis, a police spokesman, said that while Chief Jeri Williams was out of town, “she favors exploration of using retired law enforcement as a possible means to augment school security.”
Arizona Education Association President Joe Thomas, whose organization represents many teachers throughout the state, said, “Arming teachers is a bad idea and distracts from the real needs our students and teachers have in the classroom.
“The actual threats in our schools are our students sitting in school buildings that are falling apart, and without enough school counselors and full-time certified teachers,” Thomas added.
Heidi Vega, spokeswoman for the Arizona School Boards Association said her group “will only take a position on bills that are formerly introduced in session.”
“We are currently working on a board resolution that school boards can pass indicating more assistance is provided to schools to invest in resources (training, staff, etc.) needed for safe and secure school environments.”
In the East Valley, arming teachers drew strong negative responses from Chandler Unified Superintendent Camille Casteel, Tempe Union High School Superintendent Kenneth Baca and Gilbert Public Schools Superintendent Shane McCord.
“Safety is a top priority,” Baca said. “However, I do not favor teaches carrying guns in school. Teachers are meant to teach and ensure our students learn. They cannot be expected to do the job intended for our brave law enforcement officers.”
Stating “I do not favor arming teachers on campus,” McCord said, adding:
“What I do favor is more capital money from the state so we can modify our schools to help make them more secure. I believe arming teachers has the potential to cause more harm than good.”
Casteel said, “I don’t support arming our teachers with guns. The time required to be adequately trained and maintain their skill level would be excessive in terms of time and money.
“To expect our teachers to take on this responsibility – in addition to everything else they are being required to do – would drive many out of the profession, in my opinion.”
Kyrene Superintendent Jan Vesely said, “The conversation around improving the response to violence on our school campuses has offered many possible actions, all well-intended with an interest in protecting our students and preventing tragedies.”
She stressed, “At this time, there is no discussion of allowing guns to be brought into our classrooms.”
And Vesely added, “I have yet to see any data that indicates arming classroom teachers offers a higher level of safety, and my personal preference is to work with law enforcement rather than become law enforcement.”
Mesa Public Schools spokeswoman Heidi Hurst said, “The topic of arming school staff certainly is controversial, with compelling rationale on both sides.
“While the concept seems to provide additional security, without appropriate training, it could also increase risk,” she added. “Mesa Public Schools is not considering it at this time.”
Some East Valley districts receive Federal Safety Program grants, administered by the state Department of Education.
Department data shows that this year, the grants underwrite SROs in two Kyrene middle schools, seven junior highs and six senior high schools in Mesa, two junior highs and one senior high in Chandler and all seven Tempe Union schools.
Casteel said ACP Erie and Oakland do not have SROs at this time but that “we plan to address that in 2018-19.”
“We did not receive funding from the state grant for four SRO positions that we had previously been granted so there is a strain on an already tight budget,” she added.
All five Gilbert comprehensive high schools have full-time SROs, as does its junior high located within Mesa city limits. But McCord said his district does not have SROs in any junior high within the town nor at its specialized junior high/high school.
Mesa police have 15 full-time SROs and bring in off-duty officers, working on overtime, to staff three more schools, said Det. Steve Berry, a police spokesman.
Gilbert has nine SROs, with seven of them assigned to high schools, Soelberg said, with others rotating to the junior high schools.
He said Gilbert is in a difficult position because it has more than 80 schools, counting charters.
In addition, Gilbert does not have a state grant to pay for the officers’ salaries.
“I am working on a plan to cover these gaps,” Soelberg said. “All the chiefs are talking to their superintendents. Safety is number one for them and us.”
Chandler Sgt. Dan Mejia, a former SRO, said it is belittling to hear politicians talk about SROs as guards – as if students are prisoners.
“It’s a much broader performance of duties by these SROs,” he said.
SROs monitor social media, teach classes on citizenship and the law, investigate threats and investigate crimes far beyond shootings, such as drug dealing and theft, he said.
“We are hoping to establish a rapport,” Mejia said. “If you see something, say something. It’s having these kids feel like they can report something and be contributing to school safety.”
He said SROs often mentor students. He knows of an SRO who noticed a student was ditching classes and took the unusual step of providing a ride to school.
“There’s no greater satisfaction than, years later, they thank you for being there for them,” Mejia said.
Former Mesa Police Chief John Meza, who is now director of security for the Tempe Union High School District, said his district has five Tempe police SROs and two Phoenix police SROs.
“They have to be the tough guy/tough girl police officer, but they also have to be very approachable, and laugh and joke,” he said.
Police and school administers are sending a message that threats are no joke, however, at a time when everyone is on high alert.
“Every school is extremely safe with the SRO on campus. The SRO is an invaluable resource, not just as an armed presence on campus, but to do everyday investigations,” Meza said.