End the Test and Die Era, part 4: of (not) arming teachers and the moral obligations of representation in a democracy
Many teachers, parents, and members of the Polk County public have reached out to me to share their thoughts on what's come to be called the "marshals" plan. These people overwhelmingly oppose the idea of arming teachers and introducing more weapons into schools.
I would say the disparity runs 85-15. And that's charitable for the 15. I am clearly aware of only one teacher who supports the idea, although I am sure there are more. (I am happy to hear from you.)
Let me state clearly: if I were a teacher faced with an AR-15-armed person on a rampage in my classroom, I would want a weapon in my hand. I understand that. However, that weapon wouldn't magically appear in my hand at that exact moment. It will have to be attached to me, among my kids and peers, at all times leading to that moment, which math dictates will almost certainly never come. That gun, attached to a human being among children in a confined space, poses its own threat at all times. That is the core conundrum of the Sentinel/Marshal program.
To her credit, the teacher I know who supports the marshal program understands and acknowledges the risk -- and opposing points-of-view. She's just done a different kind of math than most people I've heard from, including myself, have done.
The opposition I've heard to the marshals plan is not just comprehensive; it is intense. Many have told me they will pull their kids out of school or leave the profession over it. One never knows how serious to take those threats. But it illustrates the feeling of the opposition. And it's not particularly helpful at a time when we already have a teacher shortage.
A package designed to divide
In short, building the idea of arming teachers into a school safety legislative package is an extraordinarily divisive political act at a time when consensus ought to be a priority. Imposing it on districts, like Kelli Stargel and the Florida Senate are poised to do, will inject massive dissension into a public school system already struggling with acute stress in Florida.
I have already laid out my operational opposition to arming teachers. It is based, in part, on Sheriff Judd's wise position on the jails he operates. He doesn't allow his detention deputies or staff to carry weapons during routine duties. That also happens to be law enforcement leading practice. Law enforcement professionals know that guns, impulsivity, and stress don't mix well in a confined space.
In that piece, I noted another threat scenario:
You never know how humans will react in the most extreme of circumstances. It is absolutely possible that an armed teacher saves the day heroically. It’s also possible that an armed teacher snaps and massacres a classroom.
That exact teacher-massacre-classroom scenario came within a whisker of happening in Georgia yesterday. YESTERDAY. See this link.
Dalton police say Jesse Randal Davidson, 53, a social studies teacher and a play-by-play football announcer at the school, fired the shot. During his planning period around 11 a.m., police said Davidson locked himself in the classroom.
“When the principal put a key in the door to try to unlock the classroom, Mr. Davidson apparently fired a shot from a handgun to an exterior window of the classroom. It doesn't appear it was aimed at anybody,” Bruce Frazier, with the Dalton Police Department, said.
It's fine for our legislators and elected officials to say, yes, we understand that risk; but it's worth it. To my knowledge, they don't even acknowledge the risk. Indeed, in the Senate they are moving to force you to accept that risk. The choice would be: have a school resource officer in every school or a marshal program in every school. Thus, if Tallahassee doesn't fund SROs, it could force us to impose marshals.
Equating SROs and marshals is a terrible conceptualization of this entire issue. The original Sentinel program at Southeastern, by the way, makes clear the role of sentinels is very different than the role of campus police. (My first piece on this also explains the clear differences between Southeastern, a private institution for adults, and Polk County Schools, a compulsory public education system for children.)
Treat. Guns. Like. Cars. Mix the dignity of self-defense with personal responsibility
This is the point at which I remind you of my macro politics and big-picture view of guns. I want you to have no illusions about who I am and what I think.
I’m a No Party Affiliate. I describe myself as an anti-prohibition, pro-14th Amendment, moral conservative — with conservatism defined by honest human observation rather than religion. But most people call me liberal. I don’t care what most people call me. Call me whatever you want to. I also don't care about blame or my political future. I'm completely prepared to get blamed should Polk County lose the terrible school shooter lottery one day. And I believe all evidence suggests that setting up future blame, not effectiveness, is the true point of the legislative package in Tallahassee.
I might also add that my own son is a 9th grader at a Polk County high school. I have skin in this game. That, among other reasons, is why I care only about providing the broadest, smartest, most humane protection from as many and varied risks as possible.
I believe we should treat guns like cars -- with licensing, testing, training, and sales records built into legal ownership. I'm much more focused on the "well-regulated militia" part of the second amendment than the "right to bear arms part," which isn't in much dispute. I have written an entire, award-winning book about the dignity and virtue of armed self-defense. It's part of my heritage. My hero from history is a violent sheriff from Putnam County, Florida.
I also don't have a gun in my house. That's because I know what the data says: my family and I pose greater threats to ourselves -- through accident, suicide, or domestic dispute -- than does anyone outside our house. A gun increases that threat exponentially. It is not worth the tradeoff for me in a country and state in which competent, armed law enforcement and my dogs are available to me. I don't have a gun in my house for the same reason I wear a seat belt and vaccinate my kids.
It makes a useful thought experiment to imagine Sheriff Judd's political position on cars if we were able to buy and operate them with no meaningful rules, licenses, or sales records. (Spare me the mail, please, I know the ATF does some tracking. I also know the NRA tries to strangle it.)
I am also an elected official in Polk County who won 60 percent (140,000) of your votes in 2016 to help oversee our schools. Despite that, the next elected official who asks me for input -- or what my constituents are telling me about this -- will be the first.
By contrast, I've reached out to Sheriff Judd's office to ask a number of question about the Sentinel/Marshal program at Southeastern. And I received helpful answers, which I appreciate. I have received no questions in turn.
I am always available and easy to reach. I have been making my positions pretty clear. No one ramming this package through in Tallahassee cares. And I have zero confidence that the package that emerges from this process will be anything but political coverage for its creators. The Baker Act does not need "teeth." It needs beds. It needs people to care for the Baker Acted. Tallahassee has seen to it that we don't have either. Like Tallahassee has seen to it that we don't have enough teachers or school support staff. Now they want to blame everybody else but themselves for the consequences.
The moral obligations of representation and public life
Sheriff Judd is a popular and dynamic communicator. I have learned much from him over the years about public leadership, even when I disagree with him. I often cite him as a model for how to communicate directly with the public. (I also wrote an essay a few years back critical of his response to Umpqua shooting. That essay made it into a book of essays I recently published, which I am not going to name or link to. I don't want anybody to think I'm trying to sell books on this. Just full disclosure.)
I do not doubt that many of Sheriff Judd's constituents are cheering him on.
At the same time, I know for an absolute fact that many people he represents want nothing to do with his program. Nothing. I don't think he's paying them enough attention, if he's paying attention to them at all. And this has nothing to do with political consequences. I suspect there will be none for the sheriff. He is that skilled at what he does. But there are consequences for community cohesion. Polk County looks a lot like America. And there is no consensus, at all, on guns or arming teachers. We need to start finding it.
I don't actually think the public divide on the marshal issue is 85-15, although within the public school community I think it's closer to 85-15 than to 50-50. But imposing a maximalist position on this -- in this climate -- is a recipe for deep resentment and more strife.
We are all shaped by our relationships and the people who talk to us. I try very, very hard to expand my circle of conversations. I listen closely and try to engage directly and respectfully with people who come from a different point-of-view than I do. I also try to tell them truthfully and respectfully why I think they are wrong. To me, that's the ultimate form of respect a political leader can show to his "opponents," who are also constituents.
In that light, here's what I could accept from the Legislature, if anyone cared to ask:
The House version of this bill includes the marshals plan; but makes it contingent on local board approval. That allows jurisdictions with greater consensus to adopt or reject it easily. That places responsibility and pressure at the community level, where I think it belongs.
I don't know how my board would vote. I, personally, would vote against arming teachers and staff for the reasons I've cited. The public could then hold me accountable in the next election and remove me from office if the will of the people is contrary to my decision. That's how representation should work in tackling the most difficult of issues in a democracy.
And in case you're wondering, I'll be laying out a point-by-point package of reforms I would like to see. I've already discussed a number of them in this series. You can see the previous essays below.