Albemarle High principal Jay Thomas uses YouTube to dispel rumors of disruptions.
UVA forensic clinical psychologist Dewey Cornell specializes in youth violence and school safety.
"Schools should be places of safety and sanctuary and learning. When that sanctuary is violated, the impact is felt in every American classroom and every American community."– President George W. Bush, April 16, 2007, following the deadliest single-gunman school shootings in U.S. history at Virginia Tech.
Four and a half years after Bush addressed the nation, in the immediate wake of the December 14 massacre of first graders and educators at Sandy Hook Elementary School, and less than six months after a mass shooting killed 12 and injured 59 in an Aurora, Colorado, movie theater, an emotional President Barack Obama said it was time to take "meaningful action" on gun control.
The question is, what constitutes meaningful action? Is it even possible in a country where an estimated 300 million guns are already on the streets?
In Virginia, which has felt first-hand the sorrow of the mass murder of students, the Second Amendment is held dear. The General Assembly abolished the one-handgun-a-month law earlier this year, and some political leaders believe more guns are the answer to combating the slaughter of unarmed innocents.
“If someone had been armed, there would have been a possibility to stop the person from coming into the school,” Governor Bob McDonnell said December 18 on Washington’s WTOP radio’s “Ask the Governor,” Politico reports.
Among his suggestions: the possibility of arming school officials and the call for a multidisciplinary task force to make recommendations on school safety by January 31.
Delegate Bob Marshall is willing to go a step further than that. The Republican from Prince William County, well known for his staunch opposition of abortion, is already drafting a bill that would require some teachers and school administrators to carry concealed weapons in schools.
"I've got grandkids in public schools in Virginia," Marshall said on WINA. "I want someone there to defend them before damage is done."
The reaction to Governor McDonnell's call to discuss guns in the classroom has been swift. State Senate Democrats have started a petition in opposition.
"It's a joke. It's not serious. Arming teachers and principals is not the answer," says State Senator Creigh Deeds, a Democrat from Bath County, where schools traditionally close the first day of hunting season.
Deeds is certainly not anti-gun. A Second Amendment supporter who's been endorsed by the NRA, he sponsored an amendment to the state constitution to protect Virginians' right to hunt and fish.
He recalls that during his own childhood in rural Virginia, it wasn't uncommon for a kid to bring a gun to school or have one in a truck. Times have changed, and he believes the standard zero-tolerance policy for guns at schools–including for teachers– is now appropriate.
"I just don't see where packing heat is conducive to a nurturing environment," he says.
While he doesn't want to see teachers or administrators carrying weapons, Deeds does support a school resource officer at every elementary school. "It ought to be funded by the state," he says.
McDonnell's suggestion of arming school officials isn't being embraced by school officials, either, with three Virginia associations of educators– elementary principals, secondary school principals, and school superintendents– issuing a joint statement.
"We are concerned, however, with the Governor’s interest in permitting staff to carry firearms as a possible deterrent to violence in schools," says the statement. "We believe the problem is more complex..."
How safe are local schools?
While politicians are discussing change at the legislative level, educators and students are in schools trying to stay focused on the tasks of teaching and learning. That can get especially difficult.
A few days before winter break, rumors circulated that something bad was going to happen at Albemarle High on December 21, the day the Mayan calendar ran out. The threat, while vague, was enough to prompt principal Jay Thomas to make a YouTube video to reassure students and staff that the rumors were investigated and found to be baseless.
Would school administrators and teachers at AHS feel safer with an automatic weapon on hand? The Hook's call to principal Thomas was referred to county schools spokesperson Phil Giaramita, who says that while every proposal by the Governor is considered, "In this case, we're not in favor of arming teachers and staff."
Giaramita expresses concerns over the expense and complication of training educators to be armed guards, especially since he's seen no evidence to suggest it would be effective.
Along with arming teachers, locked schools, buzzers to get in and bulletproof glass are also part of the national school safety discussion, and Giaramita says local school officials are discussing such ideas.
"There's a delicate balance between turning schools into fortresses and keeping them open as the center of the community," he says. "You have to think about cost and whether they make a difference. The first thing is safety," he notes. "Nothing comes before that."
He points out that all Albemarle schools have restricted access to a front door where visitors are required to sign in.
Visitors who are not law abiding may not be deterred by that, especially on multi-building campuses where students freely pass between unlocked doors.
Albemarle has cops– school resource officers– at its four high schools. "We've had in our budget a request for an additional resource officer," says Giaramita.
However, the county has 27 different school buildings, all different ages and configurations, all of which must be individually evaluated, notes Giaramita.
Locally, a federally funded organization called Safe Schools/Healthy Schools, which deals with issues such as bullying, will convene a forum later in January, bringing together police, Region Ten, and UVA to discuss issues related to school safety, says Giaramita. "There's a lot of value to get input from people who are experts," he says.
As for Charlottesville schools, calls to Superintendent Rosa Atkins were not returned at press time.
However, city school principals have sent emails to parents assuring them of the schools' safety, such as one from Walker School principal Vernon Boch, which touts the safety and lockdown drills, the school resource officer, and staff training to question any person they don't know without a visitor's pass.
His message also notes that visitors are required to enter the front door and obtain a visitors pass. However, one skeptical parent points out that there are multiple unsecured entrances to the school.
Armed and educating
"Dumb, dumb, dumb," blasts former Albemarle teacher Mark Crockett on McDonnell's suggestion that educators carry guns. "It makes about as much sense as supply side economics."
Crockett cites a 20/20 special from 2009 called "If only I had a gun." In the simulated event, which was repeated six times, a college student was trained to shoot, and was sitting in a lecture hall with his or her concealed weapon when an armed gunman burst in.
"The first kid carrying a concealed gun struggled to get it out of his holster," recounts Crockett. "Then it got stuck in his shirt. By the end, several kids were 'killed,' including the one with the gun."
Adrenaline is a big factor in slowing response time, noted the show's host, Diane Sawyer, who did a simulation in which even knowing a gunman was going to appear, she couldn't fire soon enough.
As a teacher, asks Crockett, "Where would I carry the gun? In the desk? That's not really secure. On my person? And how much training would I have to have?"
To Crockett, finding a way to reduce the number of guns and tighten access to them is a better plan.
Conservative businessman Bill Pollard says he's not certain armed teachers is the best idea, but he points out that it could have made a difference in deterring someone like Newtown shooter Adam Lanza.
It's an argument also made in an article in the December issue of The Atlantic, "The Case for More Guns (And More Gun Control)," which considers how more concealed weapon carriers with permits could reduce violence– and have in states like Florida and Colorado.
"There's no question that when a kid like that comes to a school, he knows no one there is armed," says Pollard. "That's why no one ever breaks into police stations, because they know they're armed."
Pollard doesn't favor Delegate Marshall's mandatory gun-carrying school-personnel bill. "I'm not in favor of mandatory anything," he says.
"I do think it should be legal for teachers to carry concealed weapons," he continues. "If the threat of guns is there, it could be a huge deterrent even if no one carries a gun."
Security not enough
At UVA's Curry School of Education, experts frequently weigh in on various elements of education and add courses based on the evolution of learning, but spokesperson Audrey Breen says the school has no plans to add gun training to its curriculum.
That doesn't mean professors there don't have opinions on the subject. Dewey Cornell, a national expert on school violence, along with eight other school safety researchers across the country, issued a statement December 19 on more effective prevention of violence.
"Inclinations to intensify security in schools should be reconsidered," say the scholars. "We cannot and should not turn our schools into fortresses."
In mass shootings, whether at schools or not, two factors are the key to prevention, say the experts: The presence of severe mental illness and/or an intense interpersonal conflict that the person could not resolve or tolerate.
Support for mental health needs is critical, say the school safety scholars. They also cite exposure to violence from video games, TV, and movies, and access to guns–especially assault type weapons– as areas that should be addressed to stem mass shootings.
"My concern is that we remember that schools are safe," says Cornell in an email. "One terrible case does not change the overall trend, which is that school violence has declined dramatically since the 1990s and schools remain very safe places for our children.
"The larger problem is the number of shootings in our society," he continues. "The risk of gun violence is far higher outside of schools than in schools."