Arming America’s Teachers: Understanding the Gun-Free School Zones Act By Joseph R. Uliano, M.A., Ed.S. In the wake of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School massacre in Parkland, Florida (February 14, 2018), President Donald Trump doubled down on his campaign promise to eradicate the 1990 Gun-Free School Zones Act (GFSZA), in order to arm teachers for the purpose of self-defense and making our schools safer. In an opposing opinion, Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers spoke on behalf of her members, stating, “Teachers don’t want to be armed. We want to teach. We don’t want to be, and would never have the expertise needed to be, sharp shooters; no amount of training can prepare an armed teacher to go up against an AR-15.” However, Trump defended his position by reiterating that he believes “Gun-free zones are appealing to criminals,” and concluded his remarks with, “They see that as such a beautiful target. They live for gun-free zones.”
As expected, Trump’s remarks drew more attention on the ever-growing political and societal debate of gun control, but is there time for this debate? Do union leaders such as Weingarten speak for all teachers? Unfortunately, we won’t know the answers to these questions anytime soon, and while the debate grows, another monster is lurking outside our schools waiting for the opportunity to attack our most vulnerable. However, when reflecting on the Parkland shooting, we learn that fourteen students and three staff members were killed in just four short minutes, and sometime during that timeframe the shooter was courageously confronted by Aaron Feis, the UNARMED football coach, who died shielding the shooter’s prey. What if Feis was armed? How many lives could have been saved? We will never know that answer, but what we do know is very rarely does an unarmed person overtake an armed person in a combative situation.
Moving forward, can we solely rely on our police to secure our schools? In 2014, the State of Missouri instituted the “School Protection Officer” program, which allows trained school teachers to carry concealed weapons while during the performance of their teaching duties. Those selected into the program must undergo a psychological examination and receive the same firearms training as law enforcement officers. Like Missouri, Texas instituted a “School Marshal” program in 2013 as a response to the tragic school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. Designated school marshals in Texas must also undergo a psychological examination and receive the same firearms training that law enforcement officers receive while at the police academy.
With states like Missouri and Texas taking a proactive approach rather than a reactive approach, a call for more action was heard around the nation. However, states with more strict gun laws, such as New Jersey, were reluctant to introduce the notion of arming their teachers. In 2016 a compromise was made by then-Gov. Chris Christie, who approved Sen. Anthony Bucco’s bill calling for the establishment of a Class III Special Law Enforcement Officer program, which is designed to hire recently retired police officers to work as armed uniformed police officers in their schools.
In May of 2018, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott authored a 44-page report titled “School and Firearm Action Plan,” calling for an immediate increase of law enforcement in his schools, but also placing a strong emphasis on increasing the school marshal program, with the anticipation of arming more teachers, which he plans to fund through the Governor’s Criminal Justice Division.
In terms of funding the arming of teachers across the United States, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos suggested in August of 2018 that she is considering the allocation of funding to states wishing to arm their teachers; clearly bypassing the GFSZA. It is important to understand that our state laws pertaining to the possession of firearms are much older than the 1990 GFSZA, and many laws in fact permit firearms in their schools, despite those who proclaim to follow the GFSZA. For example, California, known for its strict gun control, has an exception to the unlawful possession of firearms in their schools, which reads firearms are illegal in schools, “Unless it is with the written permission of a school district superintendent, his or her designee, or equivalent school authority” (California Penal Code 626.9).
In closing, it appears that GFSZA is being misinterpreted and that there are gaps between federal and state laws. The GFSZA was pre-Columbine and the thought of having armed personnel in our schools was not considered. Perhaps there is no need to eradicate the GFSZA. Perhaps it is simply not being utilized properly. The GFSZA was initiated as part of the Crime Control Act, which increased penalties associated with crimes within our schools’ zones, such as our drug-free school zones. One policy implication is to keep the increased penalties for crimes occurring in our school zones, but the GFSZA should not dictate how our lawmakers or school administrators work to make our schools safer. Joe Uliano has served as a police officer for over fifteen years, and is assigned as field training officer and departmental instructor. He is currently a Doctoral Candidate in Education at Seton Hall University, where he also earned an Educational Specialist Degree (Ed.S.) in Educational Leadership, Policy, and Management. Prior to earning this advanced degree, he also earned a Master’s Degree in Human Resources, Training, and Development and a Bachelor’s Degree in Criminal Justice.