Tennessee Parents Question Whether Arming Teachers Is the Answer

A makeshift memorial for the victims of the Covenant School shooting, outside the Covenant Presbyterian Church in Nashville, Tenn., on March 29, 2023. (Desiree Rios/The New York Times)
A makeshift memorial for the victims of the Covenant School shooting, outside the Covenant Presbyterian Church in Nashville, Tenn., on March 29, 2023. (Desiree Rios/The New York Times)

FRANKLIN, Tenn. — Devon Dixon believes guns serve a purpose. That is why she is licensed to carry and conceal firearms. She is also a mother living in the Nashville suburbs with three school-age children. She worries about their safety, especially after three 9-year-olds were among the six killed in a school shooting in the city last year. “It’s pretty heavy on my heart,” she said.

But those concerns weren’t enough to convince Dixon that Tennessee lawmakers were right to pass a bill Tuesday that would allow teachers and other school employees to carry concealed handguns on campus in an effort to protect students.

She confessed that she didn’t know what the solution to securing schools was. She suspected that lawmakers didn’t either.

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“Everyone is grasping at straws because no one has the answer,” Dixon, 38, said.

The fear and fury unleashed by the shooting at the Covenant School, a private academy in Nashville, has fueled a concerted push from parents at the school as well as many others across the state to urge lawmakers to act.

Legislators responded with the concealed carry measure, which has been one of the most significant bills to emerge after the shooting, following roughly 20 other states that enacted some version of legislation that allows teachers to be armed.

Even in a state as conservative as Tennessee, the reaction to the bill has included unease and disappointment. The skepticism has come not just from those who want tighter restrictions on firearms but also from some who generally believe strongly in gun rights. Their reluctance was rooted in doubts about the wisdom of placing such a daunting responsibility on teachers and other school workers.

Four Republicans broke party ranks in the state House and voted against the measure, which still passed by an overwhelming margin.

“I’m concerned the bill, even though its intent is to make schools safer, might in fact complicate the logistics of neutralizing an active shooter,” said State Rep. Charlie Baum, one of the Republicans who voted against the bill.

In the 13 months since the shooting, the aftermath has, in many ways, echoed the familiar contours of debates over gun safety that have arisen after deadly mass shootings, including after the attack at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, in 2022.

In Tennessee, the parents of students who survived met with lawmakers, relaying the pain and horror caused by the attack in deeply personal terms. Protesters also flooded the state Capitol, and two Democratic lawmakers made national news when they were expelled for bringing that demonstration to the House floor.

The Republican supermajority rebuffed those demands, even resisting Tennessee’s Republican governor, Bill Lee, who backed a measure that would allow guns to be taken away from individuals deemed a threat to themselves or others.

Still, the call to arm teachers has shown where the lines of those deeply entrenched divisions have blurred.

“I have conflicted feelings,” said Toby Friesen, 40, who has two children attending public schools in Thompson’s Station, a Nashville exurb of roughly 7,500 people. “My brain goes to a bunch of different scenarios as far as, where will they be stored? How will they be kept safe?”

The bill would require teachers and other school staff members who choose to carry a concealed handgun to go through 40 hours of training and a background check. They would also have to provide fingerprints to state and federal authorities, and submit a psychological certification from a licensed health provider.

Under the bill, those teachers or school employees would need the approval of their principal, district director and leaders of relevant local law enforcement agencies. But the measure also imposes confidentiality rules around the disclosure of who is carrying a concealed handgun, meaning that parents would not be notified if their child’s teacher were armed.

Supporters say the bill, which is expected to soon become law, would allow for increased safety on campus and that the lack of notification would preserve an element of surprise.

“School campuses should be secure environments, requiring multiple and overlapping layers of protection against violence,” Katie Pointer Baney, an official for the U.S. Concealed Carry Association, said in a statement. “Authorizing qualified teachers and staff to carry on school grounds should be part of a comprehensive security plan.”

The debate over the bill has also highlighted the division in Tennessee between its major metropolitan areas and rural areas. Its backers said that it addresses the reality in those rural areas, where law enforcement agencies are smaller and might have to travel longer distances to respond to a call at a school.

Critics argued that the job of safeguarding students belonged to school resource officers, and pointed to a recent $230 million school safety package that included funding for a safety officer to be posted to every public school in the state.

Yet in some districts, particularly rural ones, filling those jobs has been difficult.

In Marion County, just west of Chattanooga, Mark A. Griffith, the director of public schools there, said that the positions were filled at all 10 of his district’s schools. Still, when officers go on parental or medical leave or there’s a sudden absence, it creates a bind.

But arming teachers, in his view, was not an adequate substitute.

“We’re educators,” Griffith said. “We’re not law enforcement officials.”

He questioned if the 40 hours of training was sufficient, especially in comparison to the level of instruction that police officers receive. “It wouldn’t be enough,” he said. Beyond that, teaching is already demanding enough, he said. He was wary of his teachers’ having to shoulder another burden that carried such high stakes. “That’s just — I don’t know, it’s a lot,” he said.

Some school districts, including Nashville’s, have indicated that they would not grant employees the permission to carry a concealed firearm.

But Michelle Kafer, 42, believes that school staff members could be trained to serve as a first line of defense before the police arrive.

“I feel like it’s a wise decision,” said Kafer, who lives in Santa Fe, a tiny unincorporated area southwest of Nashville. “The structure of our Constitution has always had citizens allowed to be on the front lines in a legal, responsible way.”

Such a law might also discourage an attacker, she added. “It’s a natural deterrent,” she said. “People begin to realize our schools aren’t unprotected zones. Criminals usually don’t want to meet resistance.”

The topic had been the subject of debate at a student legislative event last month at the Capitol, where Kafer’s son, Caedmon, argued in favor of arming teachers. “These school shooters target the places where there are no-gun zones because no one will be armed to defend these schools,” Caedmon, a seventh grader, said Wednesday, repeating his position.

Skylar LeCroy, a father of six, acknowledged that teachers bear a lot of responsibility already, but he believed that those who volunteered to carry a weapon should be compensated. “It’s only fair if you are going to take that extra step,” he said.

“We are trusting them with their minds,” said LeCroy, 35, who lives in Thompson’s Station. “Why wouldn’t we trust them physically?”

But critics contend that having weapons in a school setting is more likely to cause danger than prevent it.

Baum said he was concerned about the possibility of police officers responding to an attack mistaking an armed teacher for the perpetrator. He also noted that there might be situations where teachers have to fire on one of their own students. “I don’t want a teacher to have to be in the position,” he said.

Despite his opposition to the bill, he said he had no doubt that there was a common desire among lawmakers to protect schools. “It’s just a question of how,” he said.

Parents of children who survived the shooting at the Covenant School were disappointed not just in the bill itself, but also in the Legislature’s overall response to the attack. Since the shooting, they have visited the Capitol and met with lawmakers, sharing the anguish their children and their community have endured.

“It felt like it didn’t matter,” said Mary Joyce, a self-described moderate and mother of a 10-year-old student, “that they didn’t care that we were there.”

Melissa Alexander, another Covenant parent, who said she is a conservative and a gun owner herself, supported enhanced background checks and giving judges the ability to take away weapons from a person who might be a danger to themselves or others.

The concealed-carry bill, she said, was not a suitable alternative.

“It’s just not going to work,” she said, arguing that a teacher armed with a handgun would be no match for the high-powered rifles often used in mass shootings.

Joyce imagined a situation in which a teacher might have to use a handgun as an armed gunman pointed a weapon at students. “You have seconds to react, and you have to manage a whole classroom full of children,” she said.

“I think it’s so irresponsible to listen to that scenario and think, ‘That’s our game plan,’ ” Joyce said. “I think it’s absolutely ludicrous and irresponsible for legislators to think that’s OK, that’s as good as they can do.”

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