Arming School Staff - Pros and Cons

By: John Honovich, Published on Dec 21, 2012

This may be one of the most controversial security propositions ever. Many experts argue that arming school staff is vital in responding and mitigating active shooters yet many others feel that is insane, idiotic and crazy. And now, the NRA has endorsed this approach. We believe a strong case can be made for both sides and that the strengths and weaknesses should be carefully analyzed.

Let’s first look at the benefits and rational for arming school staff.

Speed of Incidents vs. Delay in Police Response

The key problem is that the average shooter finishes killing before the average law enforcement can respond, as a study found:

"The average duration of Active Shooter incidents in Institutions of Higher Education within the United States is 12.5 minutes. In contrast, the average response time of campus and local law enforcement to these incidents is 18 minutes."

To minimize or stop casualties, this needs to be reversed. Three fundamental options exist:

  • Detect earlier to get responders moving sooner: This is hard – how soon can you tell until they shoot - and even if you had a magic shooter analytic you would probably not get more than an additional minute of time.
  • Delay longer to give responders more time to arrive: There are some options here to strengthen access controls with restricted entrances, classroom locks, etc. but without fundamentally redesigning schools to be built like prisons, such measures may only delay a shooter for a few minutes (e.g., the Newton gunmen shot through the front gate).
  • Get responders on site quicker:  Significant delays are incurred communicating to a third party and having them coordinate and dispatch a responder who might be miles away. If you had someone on site, instead of responding in 18 minutes, they got easily respond in 8 or 5 minutes – significantly increasing the probability of intercepting before more have been killed.

Closing the Time Gap

On-site response benefits make arming school staff such an attractive proposition. From the perspective of solving this specific security problem, no other option so significantly impacts the ‘detect / delay / response’ equation.

Cost of Implementation

In delivering on-site response, two main options are available, only one of which is likely affordable for most schools:

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  • Dedicate a new person/employee with appropriate training and weapons who is solely responsible for dealing with such threats.  However, the annual full cost might reach ~$100,000 – a sum that is infeasible to find and hard to rationalize given how statistically rare each incident is.
  • The other alternative is to ‘promote’ existing school staff to add this responsibility. The marginal cost of this is a fraction of adding a new dedicated staff as well as a fraction of sophisticated electronic security systems which cannot respond or intercept a shooter.

This combination – the most likely option to mitigate shootings plus its extreme cost effectiveness – makes this a very rationale option to consider.

Risks of Approach

On the other hand, there are obviously significant risks to the approach:

  • Misuse of weapons: The weapon holders may use this for other incidents that may cause debate or concern. For instance, should the weapon holders be allowed to use them to break up a student fight or to threaten a misbehaving student?
  • Misappropriation of weapons: The weapons may be lost or stolen, leading to causalities or them being used against school staff.
  • Danger to students: Even if the weapon is only ever used against shooters, this could potentially put students at further risk, if the responder misfires or a student gets in the way.
  • Danger to responder: Even if the responder is willing and able to confront the shooter, how literally ‘outgunned’ will they be? Can they survive or stop a shooter who is likely better armored and possessing more powerful weaponry?

The understandable gut reaction is the danger of having the stereotypical caring female school teacher forced to shoot it out against a gunmen. Is it really feasible or advisable to have every Kindergarten teacher ‘packing heat’?

Potential Solution

The most promising solution is to have a very small number of vetted school personnel with extensive prior experience (military, law enforcement, etc.) to be armed. For instance, many larger schools have on site school resource officers that are dedicated to security but only carry non-lethal weapons today (taser, etc.). These would be ideal candidates to upgrade.  Ultimately, even in the most aggressive plan would not need nor want to have lots of school staff armed – just enough that someone could respond within the first few minutes.

Objections to Gun Proliferation

Many find this proposition particularly absurd given the role of guns causing these attacks in the first place. They believe that the only real solution is to reduce the number of goods, not increase it by arming more people.

Perhaps the best long term solution is tighter overall gun control, however, that does not help security professionals in the field today who need the best practical solutions to increase protection immediately.

Conclusion

Dismissing the proposition as simply being crazy misses the core operational problems inherent. It is absolutely critical to have an armed responder intercept the shooter as soon as possible. To that end, arming school staff meets this goal. On the other hand, huge risks exist in doing so with the potential for far more ongoing problems.

However, given the high likelihood of future attacks, many schools will, and likely should, give serious consideration to an organized, tightly controlled plan to arm a limited number of school staff as it is the most direct and high probability approach to save lives during these attacks.

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