Diary

Pennsylvania school district votes to arm teachers, but the statistics say that the 'cure' is worse than the disease

** ATTENTION AARON JACKSON ** EDS: NOTE GRAPHIC CONTENT IN IMAGE ** Students holds signs and sex toys as they protest a campus carry law in Austin, Texas, Wednesday Aug. 24, 2016. Hundreds of University of Texas students waved sex toys at a campus rally during the first day of classes, protesting a new state law that allows concealed handguns in college classrooms, buildings and dorms. (AP Photo/John Mone)

In-school shootings are one of the nasty topics with which we have to deal, and it’s only natural that school boards would try to be prepared for them. Many people have proposed that we ought to train and arm some teachers, to have weapons available to fight back against the Nikolas Cruzes of the world.

From The Philadelphia Inquirer:

This Pennsylvania school district is set to be first where teachers carry guns

by Justine McDaniel | Posted: October 29, 2018 | 10:45 AM

TAMAQUA, Pa. — The school board president said he imagines a sign posted outside each building, something like: “Staff members at this school are armed. If you wish to do harm, enter at your own risk.”

Others in the Schuylkill County town imagine very different scenes when they think of the Tamaqua Area School District’s new policy to arm employees: A student stealing a teacher’s gun. An employee accidentally firing a loaded weapon. A chaotic hallway, a stampede of students, a teacher not sure exactly who to aim at.

The main drag in this once-thriving coal town alternates between empty storefronts and local businesses. A memorial stands to long-gone anthracite railroad workers. Hills rise around the borough; a train lumbers through carrying a few loads of the still-mined coal.

After Columbine, the school district got metal detectors, which are no longer used. Now, students carry transparent backpacks.

In the wake of the Parkland, Fla. school shooting, the Tamaqua board decided that wasn’t enough. Last month, it unanimously passed a policy allowing teachers and other employees in their four schools to carry firearms, becoming the first in the state to do so.

There’s more at the original.

Before we moved from Pennsylvania to Kentucky, I had been through Tamaqua many times, both on business and just passing through; I knew exactly one person who lived there, in a business relationship. It’s an old anthracite coal mining town, with a lot of poverty these days, now that the anthracite industry has died. Nestled in what passes for mountains in Schuylkill (pronounced skook-ul) County, it’s a community of too many duplexes and triplexes, crammed together on narrow streets, at the intersection of US 209 and Pennsylvania Route 309; the intersection is known as the ‘five points,’ because 309 north of the intersection separates into two one-way roads, with buildings in between. The downtown area is architecturally interesting, but too many of the residences are suffering from deferred maintenance due to the poverty of the residents.

An obvious question arises: if the school district has metal detectors, why are they no longer in use? If they were purchased in response to the Columbine school shooting, which occurred on April 20, 1999 — Adolf Hitler’s 110th birthday, coincidentally enough — those metal detectors could be as much as 19 years old, and perhaps no longer functional, but the Inquirer story doesn’t give us that information.

The school board looked at hiring armed security guards, but concluded that they would be too expensive. Pennsylvania state law neither authorizes nor prohibits school districts from having this kind of policy.

Will this policy work? According to Wikipedia:

In the 2002 Census of Governments, the United States Census Bureau enumerated the following numbers of school systems in the United States:

  • 13,506 school district governments
  • 178 state-dependent school systems
  • 1,330 local-dependent school systems
  • 1,196 education service agencies and (agencies providing support services to public school systems)

The Washington Post tried to put the numbers together, and concluded that 141 students, teachers and other people have been killed, and another 287 injured in shootings in 217 schools. Trouble is, with 15,014 public school districts maintaining 98,817 public schools in the United States, with 50.7 million students, plus another 5.6 million students in approximately 34,600 private schools, the problem is statistically negligible: since Columbine, 0.162% of schools have experienced shootings, most of which have been the going after of one or two particular individuals rather than the mass shootings which have generated so much publicity, in which 0.000250% of students, teachers and others were killed. The Post estimate inflated the numbers by claiming that “more than 215,000 children at 217 schools” were “exposed to gun violence during school hours,” meaning that they were present at such things, stating that “(b)eyond the dead and wounded, children who witness the violence or cower behind locked doors to hide from it can be profoundly traumatized,” thus counting those not killed or injured among the victims, but even with such victim inflation, 215,000 over the nineteen years since Columbine, spread over roughly 1,070,000,000 students during those years leaves us with a ‘victim rate’ of 0.00201% of students subject to the witnessing of such violence.

Will the Tamaqua School District’s policy prevent a school shooting? With the odds of a shooting in one of the four schools in the district being only 0.0085% per year, or 99.9915% against any one school experiencing a shooting per year, we can only know if the policy doesn’t work, not whether it has prevented a shooting.

The Inquirer article noted that:

Under the policy, the district’s armed school staffers would be required to carry their handguns in holsters on their bodies. They would regularly complete firearms training courses, including instructions on when the use of deadly force is justified, along with lethal weapons training by the state police.

It’s easy enough to say, after every incident like the Parkland school shooting ‘if only someone had been armed there, to stop the killing,’ neglecting, of course, the fact that there was an armed school resource deputy there, and he cowered in a corner outside rather than engage the shooter, but things might not work out so well, overall.

In 2011-12, assaults by students on teachers rose 34.5%, to 209,800.  How many of those teachers would have felt the need to defend themselves with deadly force, if assaulted, and how many of them, had they been armed, would have been overpowered by their assailants and had their weapons taken from them?  If a student is enraged enough to attack a teacher, what might we expect if he then seized the teacher’s firearm?  The sheer number of such assaults, versus the number of school shootings leads me to believe that it is more dangerous, not less, to arm teachers.

With 209,800 annual student assaults on teachers, if only 2% of teachers were armed, and in only 2% of those assaults the teacher was overpowered and his weapon seized, that’s 84 such incidents a year.  Even if we reduce the odds to only 1% being armed, and of that only 1% having his weapon seized, that’s 21 times a year. With the Post having reported 217 school shootings since 1999, that’s 11.42 per year, and, last time I looked, that’s a lower number than 21.

By the numbers, the Tamaqua School Board’s policy is worse than the problem it purports to address.
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Cross-posted on The First Street Journal.