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Thursday, December 20, 2012 / 12:23 PM

Your Teacher Isn't Dirty Harry: Police Chief Tim Fitch's Misunderstood Gun Idea Won't Make Schools Safer

Your Teacher Isn't Dirty Harry: Police Chief Tim Fitch's Misunderstood Gun Idea Won't Make Schools Safer

The idea of arming educators to combat crime in schools makes every bit as much sense as arming bank tellers, mall-store clerks, church ushers, and the kid selling your Happy Meal to make our everyday lives safer.

Which is to say, none at all.

So it was a little surprising to see it reported widely that St. Louis County Chief of Police Tim Fitch was calling for this strategy in response to the tragedy of Sandy Hook Elementary School. As one who has admired Fitch for his bold ideas—but certainly not this one—I called him.

It turns out that arming teachers isn’t really what the chief has in mind, although in fairness to the media, he was more misunderstood than misquoted. If you tell us 10 things and only one of them is newsworthy, we won’t put the non-newsworthy nine in the headline. And we might leave out phrases like “as a last resort.”

Fitch says that his strong preference and “first priority” is for all schools to have uniformed law enforcement officers present at all times. His second choice would be trained, professional security officers at the schools.

That all makes good sense, and I’d prefer Fitch had stopped there, albeit headline-free. Instead he offered his newsmaking bad idea: to recruit one or two gun-savvy volunteers who work at the school (teachers, principals, counselors, whatever), to have them trained extensively by county police on responding to a crisis before and after police arrive, and to provide a firearm that would be locked in the school for use only in a crisis.

Fitch repeated the phrase “only as a last resort” at least six times in our brief telephone conversation. He mentioned “voluntary” at least four times to reinforce that schools cannot be compelled to do anything.

That was pretty much what he said in local radio interviews, except for the part about the guns being locked up, which I didn’t find on the tapes. That’s a significant point, because there’s a big difference between teachers packing heat and teachers having a hidden, locked gun to be accessed in an emergency. But I don’t like either.

Fitch admits his idea isn’t perfect—that “last resort” thing is all over it—but he says that the lesson of Newtown is that something has to be done “to meet force with force” in the five to 10 minutes that it takes for law enforcement to respond to an emergency call. Fitch defiantly says, “Tell me a better idea if you don’t like this one,” because doing nothing is not an option.

Well, the better idea is to have a solid and well-rehearsed plan of emergency preparedness, crafted in consultation with police, using every security tool available to lock down a school in the rare event of an intruder on the premises (or any catastrophic event). Steps also should be taken to assure that every possible second is shaved off emergency response times.

That’s not sexy, but it’s real, and I doubt that all schools are doing it.

Fitch’s idea is not so real because of a ridiculous premise: that the backup security person could get to the scene faster than police responding to a 911 call.  Consider what has to happen: After an intruder is seen, the busy teacher or principal would have to receive notification without a general public-address announcement alerting the criminal and panicking the kids (that would take time); then, wherever they might be in the school, they'd have to rush to wherever the emergency firearm is locked up (that would take time); unlock and retrieve it (that would take time); and find the crime scene and make a quasi-professional judgment as to the proper position for apprehending the bad guy (that would take time).

It’s not as if these educators, focused on their daily tasks, would have been waiting around like firemen at the station house, or even security guards whose primary focus is security, not teaching. If the purpose is to bridge the first five minutes of a crisis, it won’t work.

Now, as some think Fitch is saying—and as some ridiculous legislators are definitely saying—the idea is to turn our teachers into heat-packing Dirty Harrys, ready at all times to unload hellfire on a suspicious actor. Then we really have a problem here. If you think that will work, you’ve seen too many action movies.

The idea of arming teachers is probably more dangerous to kids than all of the other school dangers combined. The prospect of stolen guns, misidentified bad guys, innocent bystanders (likely children) being killed or maimed by stray gunfire, and, yes, dead teachers, sort of outweighs that one wonderful moment that Johnny’s teacher interrupts the heavily armed bad guy’s soliloquy and kills him with one remarkably accurate bullet to the 3 square inches on his body that were unprotected.

Speaking of suspending reality, if the idea is to make schools Adam Lanza-proof, forget about it. If a deranged and suicidal madman armed with powerful military weapons and protected by body armor is storming your school, dial 911 and pray. Thankfully, there’s less than a one-in-a-million likelihood of that happening, but the possibility cannot be eliminated unless you’re thinking every school can be fortified like the White House.

The very existence of Fitch’s flawed idea would work against his good one, which is to have law-enforcement or other trained security professionals present at all the schools. The last thing to do is give schools a low-cost option to opt out of the real solution.

If the safety of our schools isn’t worth paying for, what is?

The value of an officer’s presence is hardly limited to responding to the extremely unlikely occurrence of a shooting incident. It’s about preventing or combatting school violence of all kinds—illegal gun-possession being high on the list—as well as deterring child predators. And keeping the peace in general.

That might not make for great headlines. But it also doesn’t make for scary policy.

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