Nationally, the average response time of police is 10 minutes.
In an active shooter situation — like the one seen at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, just a few weeks ago — each second it takes for first responders to arrive on scene can mean life or death for victims.
A controversial plan to limit the loss of life in such an instance was given fuel recently when President Donald Trump endorsed it, igniting a national debate on its validity. The proposal suggests teachers and school administrators — who are willing to do so — arm themselves to provide yet another option of last resort if confronted with a shooter.
The proposal has drawn criticism from teachers and gun control advocates alike; however, a Purdue professor and homeland security expert has conducted research that supports the plan’s premise.
Professor Eric Dietz, previously the executive director for the Indiana Department of Homeland Security, conducted research in 2014 that found having either an armed guard or armed staff on school grounds can reduce the number of casualties in a mass shooting situation by up to 70 percent by, at the very least, slowing an attacker.
“Time is your ally,” he said.
In an ideal scenario, Dietz said, a campus would have multiple school resource officers, who are usually trained police officers, on or near the school grounds. MSDS in Parkland had such a safety measure in place, but that officer failed to enter the building after being made aware of the shooting for reasons that are still unclear.
Both the Lafayette and West Lafayette Police Departments have trained school resource officers on staff.
After tragedies like the one at MSDS or Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, advocates on both side of the gun debate come out in force.
“There’s a mass of people that come out and say no guns,” Dietz said. “Then you have the people that favor guns coming out and saying, ‘Well it’s not the guns. … It’s the one person who was disturbed that did the killing.’”
Many of the arguments, both for and against the proposal to arm teachers, are grounded in emotion. Dietz’s research, on the other hand, approaches the topic from an engineering perspective.
“What we were trying to do is offer some insight to the trade-offs and value judgements to treat the school safety problem,” he said.
If trained resource officers are not available because of budgetary constraints or other considerations, armed teachers or administrators can have a similar effect, according to Dietz’s research. Having as few as 5 to 10 percent of a school’s staff armed with a firearm could reduce casualties by 5 to 20 percent, his research showed.
Professor Janet Alsup, head of the College of Education’s department of curriculum and instruction has reservations about the proposal.
“I think it’s very problematic,” she said in an email. “Teachers are educated to be experts in pedagogy, learning sciences, and their content areas, not in armed combat. If we begin to require (or even strongly suggest) that teachers in k-12 classrooms should be willing and able to engage in armed confrontations with school shooters, this puts an undue burden on individual teachers — and on the profession at large.”
Before coming to Purdue, Alsup spent time as a middle and high school teacher. Even if she was given the opportunity as a teacher, she said she would not have considered carrying a firearm.
“I think it would have undermined my role and impact considerably,” she said. “It would have changed both how I thought about my job as teacher and how I understood others’ expectations of me.”
Dietz said that he would never suggest someone who has any apprehension about carrying a weapon to do so. In fact, he said those are the last people he would like to see carrying a firearm.
The Indiana State Teachers Association released a statement that called on legislators to provide more resources to aid students struggling with trauma rather than bring weapons into a learning environment.
“Arming educators sends a signal that we are giving up and accepting this crisis as the new reality,” the statement read. “Instead of arming educators with guns, lawmakers should start by arming our schools with more psychologists and counselors so kids dealing with trauma get care before they become broken. Educators need to be focused on teaching our students. Together — parents, educators, lawmakers, community leaders — need to come up with real solutions that really will save lives.”
No matter which side of the debate one falls on, the goal is the same: save lives.
“Every life is precious,” Dietz said.
But Dietz urged legislators to use evidence-based reasoning when deciding how best to address the pressing issue.
“After these big events, we want to do things that have been shown to have a deliberate impact on reducing casualties, not something we hope, suspect or have faith will reduce casualties.”