Home > Uncategorized > Weapons in School: A Personal History… and Ronald Reagan’s Change of Heart

Weapons in School: A Personal History… and Ronald Reagan’s Change of Heart

January 25, 2018

In the early 1970s I taught at Shaw Junior High School in Philadelphia. In May, 1972, the last year I taught at that school, a student was stabbed to death in a scuffle that occurred in the lavatory across from my classroom. At that time, Philadelphia staffed its schools with non-teaching assistants and had police officers assigned to guard the building. Knives and guns were forbidden in schools, but, as the incident in the bathroom indicated, enforcing the prohibition was difficult.

Two years later I became Assistant Principal at a nearby suburban high school of 650 students. In that capacity I confiscated knives from students,  removed baseball bats from lockers of students who were not on the baseball team but had threatened to harm classmates over squabbles that occurred in the neighborhoods outside of school, and asked those attending basketball games to allow me to inspect their overcoats in search of guns that were rumored to be on their person. I count myself as fortunate to have avoided injury on one occasion when I disarmed a student who had a knife in a fight with another student and to have never encountered a situation where a student was armed.

In the late 1970s I became Principal in a rural Maine school district where I was asked to impose greater discipline on the students who attended. I was told (and during my first year witnessed) students often scuffled in the hallways and often brought “buck knives” to school, knives they used most frequently to vandalize property but which could have been used to injure each other in scuffles. In writing the student handbook for the school, I banned the possession of knives and guns, a move that was widely supported by the teachers but questioned by many students and parents— particularly during hunting season when many students went hunting before school and left their rifles in the vehicles they drove to school. The ban seemed commonsensical given the experiences of my predecessor, but it did result in the need for me to replace six tires over the course of the year and to have many heated exchanges with parents and students who questioned the need for the ban, which they viewed as coming from my experience “in the city”.

For the years that followed, when I became a school superintendent in that same rural Maine district, in the Seacoast section of New Hampshire, and a Western Maryland district, I cannot recall any issues involving the prohibition of knives and guns in schools. The bans were in place, enforced on rare occasions by administrators, and never an issue at the Board level. In each these assignments I worked on the State Superintendents Association’s legislative committee and I cannot recall any debates on the issue of weapons in school at the legislative level.

All of that changed in 1999 when Columbine occurred. By that time I was leading a large suburban district in Upstate New York, a district that had homes like those pictured in the Denver suburb where two students brought high-powered weapons into a high school and killed several of their classmates. The Columbine incident occurred at the time I was convening “coffees” to discuss the school budgets that would be voted upon in mid-May, and the discussions that followed my 15 overview of the budget had nothing to do with school finance and everything to do with security in schools. The issue of school safety was exacerbated when a rumor circulated that a group of students was going to come to an unnamed school in our region with assault weapons on May 5th, Cinco de Mayo, with the intent of killing classmates. While no one could find the source of this rumor, it persisted to the extent that my colleagues and I experienced a decline in attendance in their high schools on that day.

Since Columbine, the debates about guns in schools, the need for “good guys with guns” in schools, the need for surveillance equipment, and the need for better locks has resulted in a counter-movement in the gun-owning community. Since Columbine States have moved away from laws preventing weapons in schools by passing concealed carry laws, open carry laws, and, in the case of New Hampshire, laws that prevent local school boards from passing any restrictions whatsoever on guns in schools. All of these laws that allow the proliferation of guns are based on a “slippery slope” theory that if state legislatures— or local school boards— pass laws or policies that limit the acquisition of guns, limit the kinds of guns that can be sold, or limit places where guns can be carried, soon those same legislative bodies will be passing laws that confiscate guns altogether.

It would be wonderful if legislators ignored the NRA, who promotes these laws that encourage the widespread use of guns and promotes the “slippery slope” thinking. It would even be better if gun owners had some assurance through the law and some faith in such an assurance that “the government” has no intention of confiscating any weapons they possess unless there is substantial evidence that they intend to use them to harm people. But recent experience in Oregon indicates gun rights advocates will spread misinformation on any legislation designed to protect family members, school children, and members of the public from gun owners who a court has determined are likely to use the weapons to harm others.

And so we find ourself in a world where 297 school students were killed in 137 school shootings between 1980 and 2013 and 200 school shootings and 94 deaths since the Sandy Hook incident at the end of that year and the end of 2016 and school boards concerned about the well being and safety of their children have no means of excluding those with weapons.

In retrospect, I’m glad I began my career as a school-based administrator in the 1970s when it was still possible to screen spectators for concealed weapons and still possible to send students home with the rifles they perched on the gun racks on their pick-up trucks. There were only two mass shootings at public schools during an era when common sense prevailed in terms of gun ownership, an era when Ronald Reagan saw “no reason why on the street today a citizen should be carrying loaded weapons” and that guns were a “ridiculous way to solve problems that have to be solved among people of good will.” The party of Ronald Reagan has changed its thinking since then… in part because the context has changed. Ronald Reagan had just signed the Mulford Act which forbid the public carrying of loaded firearms, a law he believed “would work no hardship on the honest citizen”. California’s Mulford Act was introduced in 1967 in response to members of the Black Panther Party who were conducting armed patrols of Oakland neighborhoods. If such an incident took place today, where would the GOP stand? Where would the NRA stand?

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