Pistols in Preschools: As Michigan Debates Looser Gun Laws, Educators are on Edge

A proposed law would allow guns into schools, daycare centers and preschools.

Just days after the mass shooting at a Texas church, the Michigan Senate voted to allow people to carry guns in schools, churches, daycare centers, preschools and hospitals. The bills had been up for consideration last month when a gunman opened fire on a crowd of concertgoers in Las Vegas. Senator Arlen Meekhoff, who sponsored the legislation, called the timing “awkward.” In a year that has already seen 307 mass shootings, turns out it’s nearly always an awkward time to pass ever looser gun laws.

The legislation has parents alarmed about the safety of their children, and educators concerned about what allowing guns into schools will do to the learning environment. The showdown over what some are calling “Pistols in Preschools” is just the latest battle between Michigan schools and gun-rights advocates.

Last year, Ann Arbor Public Schools took a challenge to its gun-free zone from a gun-toting parent to the Michigan Court of Appeals and won the right to prohibit guns in their schools. Earlier this year, with that legal precedent, Kalamazoo Public Schools followed by instating their own gun-free policy in all of the buildings in their district.

So much for local control

Ironically, while Republican ideology lauds local control, these bills would strip authority from local school districts in Michigan, and force them to concede to guns in their school buildings. Meanwhile, voters who go in search of information from their representatives, including tallies of how many constituents called or wrote their senator in opposition to the bills versus how many called or wrote in support of them, are likely to be disappointed.That's because Michigan is one of only two states that exempts the state legislature from disclosing records and communication.

If the comments on 20th District Senator, Margaret O'Brien's Facebook page are any indication, her constituency was overwhelmingly opposed. On the same day that she voted in support of the bills, O'Brien posted information on her Facebook page about an active shooter preparedness event. The comments section contained dozens of angry replies, along with a handful of supporters. Notably, Kalamazoo, which is part of O’Brien’s district, experienced a mass shooting last year which left six people dead and two more seriously injured.  

Educators on edge

While the bills must pass the GOP-controlled House and be signed into law by the governor before going into affect, Michigan educators are already feeling uneasy.

Carey Gardner is a middle-school behavior specialist in the Kalamazoo Public Schools, a district where officials have been outspoken about the need to keep guns out of schools. Gardner says she understands why people could feel like guns in schools might make people feel safer. “You have people who are faced with a shooter and they have nothing. I mean, they're at their mercy,” she says. But she says the idea of having guns in school buildings is scary and intimidating and sends the wrong message.

“I think I could speak for everybody without even talking to anyone, we would all be on edge at some point. Because we don't know everybody's history,” Gardner says. “What if a student comes behind me and was to pull something, whether it was from myself or from a coworker? Or we have a parent that comes up, or parents that come up that are aggressive and agitated and frustrated? How do we know if a person's going to be too quick to react because they're scared?”

Gardner imagines a school environment that turns into the Wild West with shootouts in the building. With the presence of guns or even the mere wondering about who has guns, Gardner sees the inevitability of someone getting hurt.

Her concern is backed up by data. Recently NPR reported on the work of Stanford law professor John Donohue. His research on three decades of data around right-to-carry laws has found that as concealed carry rates increase, the rates of violent crimes also increase. On average, 93 people are killed by guns in the U.S. each day, and the U.S. gun homicide rate is 25 times the average of other high income countries.

Gardner says that not knowing whether or not people in her school building were carrying guns would change the culture and the climate of the building. “It's supposed to be your safe haven, your safe place, where you learn your social skills and academically, and it changes the whole dynamic of the culture of the school.”

Wild West worries

Brandi is a special education resource room teacher in a Michigan elementary school (she asked to be identified only by her first name). Brandi says she and her coworkers already feel the tension of the possibility of an active shooter. Their first back-to-school staff meeting of the year involved a presentation about active shooter preparedness that included audio from a teacher's phone call during the Columbine shootings. “It was sobering and difficult to hear. But I wouldn't say it makes a difference on how we do our day-to-day activities,” she says.

That's because teachers in her building, like everywhere else in the state, are juggling so many things already that trying to be constantly vigilant about the possibility of an active shooter is next to impossible. Brandi works in an older school building that makes it hard to comply with building security. Sure, doors are locked and people need to be buzzed into the building, but, she says, office staff members are busy and can't guard the door, so once buzzed in, it's mostly like an honor system for visitors to come directly to the office.

“As a staff we are expected to stop people in the hallways if they are not wearing a visitor's pass and ask them to return to the office, but I know that I've felt uncomfortable doing that and have not stopped people, nor have other staff members. The teachers are supposed to cover the windows on classroom doors (so an active shooter could not see in), and keep doors locked at all times, but many do not,” Brandi says.

Teachers are already being asked to simultaneously be instructors and building security guards—jobs with completely different skill sets. Brandi says she's never been a proponent of giving more people guns to combat other people with guns, but especially not in a school full of children. “I know I personally would not be physically stable enough to handle a gun properly, and I don't really trust another random citizen to do the same. I would personally rather see buildings made more secure and providing teachers and classrooms with non-violent tools (e.g. for barricading doors) than adding more gunfire to a combative situation.”

Neither Brandi nor Gardner feel like they have a solution for gun violence in the country or in schools, but they both agree that having guns in schools is not the answer. “Having more people with guns to fight other people with guns sounds like a war zone, not a school,” says Brandi.

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