Pattye Benson

Community Matters

TESD Conestoga Teacher Debra Ciamacca Uses Her Powerful Voice to Speak out Against the Arming of Teachers!


Ciamacca, who served as a Marine from 1980-1984 and was in the reserves in 1985, is a high school Social Studies teacher in Berwyn, Pennsylvania.

Many years ago, I had the privilege of serving as a Marine Corps officer. I felt that serving my country was a calling and a duty. As an officer, I was charged with not only leading, but protecting the young Marines who served with me. I was not a combat Marine — I was an Adjutant/Legal Officer serving at the Camp Pendleton Correctional Facility. But I was trained to fire a weapon. Back then it was the .45 pistol and the M-16 rifle. I was an expert marksman on the M-16 and a sharpshooter on the .45. Not too bad for a nearsighted young Lieutenant who had never fired a weapon before.

Today I am a high school Social Studies teacher. I teach government and politics to some of the brightest young students in America. I love my job — and I love my students. I am responsible for protecting them too. But how far should that protection go?

I tell students at the beginning of each year, that if there is an intruder in the building we will exit my classroom to a second-floor roof through a window near my desk. Students usually laugh, because they think I am kidding. I am not. I have carefully considered the layout of my classroom and its proximity to doors and windows in the building. Going out the window makes sense. That is how I plan to protect my students.

But what else should I do? I will lock my door and barricade it with a file cabinet or a desk. I will pick up a heavy, stainless steel paperweight to use as a weapon to defend myself. I will call 911 and the main office. What I won’t do is pick up a pistol or a rifle or another lethal weapon. Why?

Guns have no place in the classroom. First of all, teachers are in constant close proximity to students. I teach about 150 students per day. The chance for an accidental discharge is guaranteed. Second, I am not trained to make instantaneous life-or-death decisions in a school environment with 2,400 innocent children as possible collateral damage. Even trained police officers have trouble reacting to threats and properly executing the use of deadly force. A good person with a gun can still make bad decisions, especially in highly stressful situations. Lastly, a gun acts as an impediment in my relationships with students. Teachers are guides and mentors and discussion leaders and lecturers. We talk; we cajole; we jump up and down; we clown around. We prance; we laugh; we instruct; we care. We put our whole selves out there to students so that they can see that we are real people. A gun is a barrier that separates me from my students. It says stand back instead of stand up. Weapons are not conducive to the teacher/student relationship.

But let’s talk turkey. The reason the President and the National Rifle Association and others are suggesting that teachers carry weapons in the classroom is that it sounds like a quick and cheap solution to a difficult and expensive problem. I find it incredible that people who don’t trust teachers to meet state and federal education standards now trust teachers to hold the sacred lives of children in their hands. I find it incredible that those who can’t find an extra ten cents in taxes to pay for counselors and psychiatrists and new “gun-proof” buildings can now find money for weapons and bonuses for gun-toting teachers.

I don’t pretend to have all the answers, and I don’t trust folks who think they do. But I do know that we need to reframe this debate. Let’s not talk about school shootings in terms of gun control and mental health. Let’s talk about school safety. Let’s talk about whether we as a society have the will to keep our precious students safe in the place that most demands safety. It’s about getting all the stakeholders in a room: parents, teachers, police, politicians and students, rather than asking teachers to carry the entire load.

Parents must pay a bit more so that the schools can hire security guards and improve building safety features. Police must train a bit harder and faster. Politicians must compromise and risk their seats. And the NRA must stop its absolutist gun-freedom-at-all-cost position.

I pledge to do everything in my power to protect my students. I will run. I will fight. And I will hide if I have to. I will help students to survive an armed intruder if I have to. But I will not arm myself with a gun in my own classroom just because those in power refuse to wield the more powerful weapon of common sense. That is where I draw the line.

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  1. Great interview that explains why arming teachers is a dangerous idea.

    Teachers are not wired to kill people, even young shooters on a murdurous rampage. The profession attracts smart, kind hearted and gentle people who truly want to make a positive contribution to society. It’s not in their make up to suddenly turn into a gun toting arms expert trained to make life or death decisions.

  2. I’m glad we have teachers like Ms.Ciammaca in our schools. However, all the talk about creating panels, hiring psychiatrists and counselors and hardening our schools is premature. All we need to do is ban assault rifles. Assault rifles are the weapon of choice in all of the mass shootings in recent times and do the most damage in a short time. Getting rid of assault rifles gets rid of the problem.

  3. If it only was that easy….

    I believe we share the same concern–our students need to be protected.

    However, if you recall, in 2007, the Virginia Tech shooter, like the Parklake shooter,
    was diagnosed with mental issues and nothing was done. Futhermore, the VT shooter,
    Killed 32 people using two hand guns—not an assault riffle.

    There is no quick and easy answer for this serious topic.
    It seems to need a combination of solutions…
    Having a police presence at our schools / patrol our schools
    Mental health professionals communicate with schools
    Educate the public for warning signs
    and when see something, say something
    Finally, have people in decision making positions who are not afraid of taking action.

    Just think, if some of these items were implemented in the past 3-5 years at TESD,
    illicit relationships could have been discovered and resolved quicker, preventing
    Emotional scares to our students.

  4. It is that easy.

    I believe that we want the same thing too.

    It was reported today that 3 deputy sheriffs and a resource guard stood outside the school knowing there was a shooter in the school with an automatic assault rifle. Why do you think they didn’t go in? All law enforcement. They were afraid and you can’t blame them. They would have been killed instantly. If the shooter had a hand gun, it would have been different.

    As I’ve said before, his mental issues were well known. By the school, the FBI, neighbors, and he was under the care of professionals last fall. It made no difference. The family that took him in had no concerns knowing he as depressed and owned guns.

    More counselors and psychiatrists won’t help this problem. And panels talking about it, more than likely doing nothing is meaningless.

    Ban assault rifles. It worked the first time and it will work again, because people don’t take action, because people are afraid to act, because our kids lives depend on it.

  5. “Educate the public for warning signs
    and when see something, say something?”

    Many many people, professionals and ordinary citizens who saw the danger and potential for destruction in this young man reported him to authorities over and over again. People talked, people reported, people took action…….look what happened……

    BAN ASSAULT RIFLES……Vote out politicians who serve the NRA……its that simple.

    1. Define “assault rifle”, and explain the functional difference between an “assault rifle” and a modern hunting rifle?

      Unfortunately this is not solved with a simple ban alone…

        1. you are so clever. but that is not an answer.

          Hopefully there are enough reasonable people engaged and motivated that we come up with real actions that produce real results.

          An overly simplistic and singular action based upon a catch phrase, and a gun’s appearance, will not do it.

        2. It will do it. It makes people feel good to talk about an issue and throw money at it even when nothing is accomplished ——False sense of accomplishment.

          The number of psychiatrists and counselors is not the issue. Psychiatrists can’t make mentally ill people take their medication. The issue is this is the cost of freedom in our country. People can’t be arrested for being mentally ill, saying scary things on social media or owning guns when they shouldn’t own guns. Unfortunately, it boils down to people can’t be arrested until they do something bad.

          So our best, only and simple option is to ban assault rifles.

  6. Focus on safety not attacking one another. Be a problem solver not a hater.

    Teachers are not trained to respond to respond to medical emergencies not alone dangerous intruders.

    I have worked prisons and behavioral hospitals for many years.
    There are some excellent strategies to train, create safe rooms, increase response time, and work with the men and women in blue. They are our best bet to save lives!

    While waiting on the legislation and emotional outcrys, please focus on safety in our schools. Instead of criticizing others be apart of the solution. Think safe Monday, Tuesday and the rest of the week.

    Find proven methods:
    1. Vests/shields
    2. Police officer Dogs
    3. Steel doors
    4. Escape routes
    5. Swat
    6. Prevent the entrance at all doors, windows
    7. Metal detectors
    8. Video from all sides of the buildings with alarms
    9. Behavioral changes
    10. Facebook and other internet searches
    11. Report -see something, say something
    I truly think working together is better idea.
    I also believe trained dogs are the best way to go along with the police officers.
    I have seen swat come to Belmont and save the day.
    I have lived through horrible attacks at the State Hospital and takeovers on psychiatric units.
    Remain calm. Focus. Work with the team.

    I know all can remain vigilant in schools with trained teachers and real plans. The students can also help in some cases, join our first responders on helping others.

    No teacher should throw their body on kids, hide in place behind a wooden door.

    1. All suggestions listed by everyone here were already in place. It didn’t matter.
      1. An armed school resource office was on the campus and hiding outside the school.
      2. 3 Sheriff’s deputies were seen on tape doing the same thing
      3. Neighbors called the police numerous times
      4. The school expelled him.
      5. Counselors and Dr.’s evaluated him
      6. The FBI knew about him
      7. The police knew about him
      8. He posted on line his intentions
      9. People saw and reported……..a lot
      10. Action was taken
      11. None of it mattered
      12. Ban assault rifles
      13. It’s that easy

  7. Ban weapons.
    But remember the killer who wants to kill by any method does not follow the law.
    Remember the delusional predator or sociopathic mind will find the weapon, the drug, the bomb to kill.

  8. We’re doing what everyone involved does. Talking. We need politicians to take right action. Enough meaningless talk about doing what’s already been done but doesn’t work. Stop talking. Take right action. Ban assault rifles now.

  9. Wonderfully said Thank you! Let’s make schools safer. Assault rifles are not the only weapon that could harm our children. Angry vengeful shooters may not be able to get their hands on an assault rifle but they could still get in and cause harm. Safety is key. Then let’s ban assault rifles and tighten background checks. We need to cover all our bases to protect these innocent lives.

    1. Right. Shooters intent on harm will get in schools no matter what. We’re all saying the same thing.

      Do what you can to make the schools safe but it boils down to banning assault rifles.

      Throwing more money at it and creating more panels to talk about it will do nothing and will only make people feel better until the next time this happens and then they’ll call for more money to throw at it and more panels to talk about it. Let’s stop talking around and ignoring the real problem.

  10. I am a TE parent too. I agree assault rifles should be banned . In addition, why not make schools safer? Assault rifles are not the only weapon an angry disturbed shooter may choose.

  11. Agree that its not a good idea to arm teachers , as the risk of students getting a hold of a teachers gun is too great. But I am sure there are plenty of teachers who would write a letter stating that they are willing to carry a gun.It’s just that the media hasn’t chosen to print those articles.

    But why are there no thoughts given to having access to high powered defensive non’lethal sprays? They would certainly work better than a paperweight.Why is this never brought up as a option?

    Do the classrooms in TE have doors which lock from the inside? If no, why not. If yes, is it standard practice to lock doors the doors once class starts? Seems that would be a good practice.

    Do our police patrol the schools at dismissal time? If not, wouldn’t it make sense for then to spend 30 minutes parked outside the schools at the start and end of the day? They are certainly there in force during football games.

    I’m not sure how anyone expects significant changes in a few days or weeks, so any steps that could be taken should be explored and if able to be implemented , should be. I hope the kids in Florida do start a movement that results in real change, but those changes – expanded background checks, stricter gun buying rules, proper follow up on tips – will take years to take effect. We don’t have to wait years to make small, common sense changes at the local levels.

  12. Banning a particular type of firearm is no more the solution to these horrific mass shootings than banning spoons will address our nation’s diabetes crisis (which incidentally kills at a rate 10 times firearm homicide). We need to understand why these crimes are becoming more frequent and more intense, and it seems no coincidence to me that Parkland was a litany of very human failings beginning to end.

    The humanity in us of course wants something to be done and it is in our nature to grasp at simple fixes to complex problems. And this one is probably as complex as they get – something societal has sickened our youth. To be crystal clear, society is us, all of us. Parents, politicians, teachers, schools, Republicans and Democrats. I fear that in retreating to our corners with ideological slogans and glitzy graphics we hiding from our own culpability : a constantly connected world for our children resulting in isolation; expectations of equality leading to the assumption of victimhood; our liberal (true sense) and pampered suburban existence creating false reality, superficial friendships of convenience and distorted values … I could go on.

    The Founding Fathers understood clearly the innate fallibility of our species, and the Constitution was carefully framed with checks and balances, most particularly the first Ten Ammendments protecting individual rights against government excess. This is one of those times where some see the Constitution inconveniently getting in the way of the simple fixes. However, in times like these we need to keep our eyes focused on what really could be an existential risk to the country we hand to our children and grandchildren. No other country has anything like our Second Amendment and no other country enjoys our freedoms and liberties – such as the open and intelligent debate we are having here. Even recent history is filled with genocides and pograms visited upon their own citizenry by governments drunk on power and fearfully protecting their own survival. The absolute reality is that, as things stand today, we will never have to watch that happen to our families in America. Ms Giamacca’s USMC combat colleagues will no doubt testify that the worst of what they’ve seen has been atrocities inflicted on the unarmed by the armed. Going full circle, an America where only the military and the police have “assault rifles” (sic) may not be an America we’d want for our children and their children very long – and curiously the same advocates of gun bans seem to also consider us being in an age of authoritarians, fascists and demagogues.

    Whilst we are considering the greater issues, we can do what we should have done a long time ago – harden our schools. Let’s take a lead from the Israelis who have forgotten more about this that we’ll ever know, and haven’t had a significant school incident in 40 years. Don’t give me that I don’t want my kids to go to school in a prison nonsense! Anyone who visits New York City office buildings and government offices knows what can readily be done to create a multi-layered but still “customer-centric” security process, and once inside these are perfectly pleasant work spaces. And I’m certain these building contain nothing as precious as our children. A radical thought maybe, but I expect there is much TESD can learn from the Philadelphia School District in this regard. As for arming teachers, although Ms Giamacca makes it sound like she’d be obligated, thankfully in today’s America that isn’t the case. Quite possibly moot if we get the physical security right, but carrying a firearm in America is a choice and I suspect that there are trained TESD teachers and residents who would be willing to make that choice to provide another community security layer in schools if needed, but are presently being judiciously silent.

    1. “Let’s take a lead from the Israelis who have forgotten more about this that we’ll ever know, and haven’t had a significant school incident in 40 years.”

      From Wikipedia, Overview of Gun Laws: Israel:
      Only a small group of people are eligible for firearms licenses: certain retired military personnel, police officers or prison guards; residents of frontier towns (in the West Bank and the Golan Heights) or those who often work in such towns; and licensed hunters and animal-control officers. Age requirements vary: 20 or 21 for those who completed military service or civil service equivalent, 27 otherwise, and 45 for non-citizens. Firearm license applicants must have been a resident of Israel for at least three consecutive years, pass a background check (criminal, health, and mental history), establish a genuine reason for possessing a firearm (such as self-defense, hunting, or sport), and pass a weapons-training course. Around 40% of applications for firearms permits are rejected.

  13. Thank-you for your comment. I have friends and close family members who share your view.

    And I agree that there are most likely some community members and teachers staying judiciously quiet about their willingness to carry weapons in school to provide another layer of security.

    However, gun-related violent behavior is so closely related to access to guns, if we increase the number of guns in schools — no matter how carefully we safeguard them — we can expect an increase in gun violence.

  14. “Banning a particular type of firearm is no more the solution to these horrific mass shootings than banning spoons will address our nation’s diabetes crisis.”
    How exactly do you say this and then say we are having an “intelligent debate?”
    “No other country enjoys our freedoms and liberties.”
    Don’t get out much?

  15. From NBC News

    Dick’s Sporting Goods will stop selling assault-style rifles, Walmart raising age for gun sales

    Thank-you to Dick’s and Walmart

    1. Thank you Dick’s and Walmart — and I just heard that Kroger (thought that they were a supermarket!) has announced that they will stop selling ALL guns and/or ammunition to anyone under 21. Change is underway!

  16. Hummm, what other constitutional rights should we raise the age to 21 on? How about #1 Freedom of Religion, Speech, and the Press. No more student editorials or the right to protest and voice their opinions like rallies and walk outs until they are 21 years old. Slippery slope……

  17. This is a false comparison because it is between two things differing by many orders of magnitude.

    As far as # 1 goes, students editorials are already monitored, students rights to protest are planned by the District and walk outs are optional.

    There is no comparison between the above and a deranged shooter with knowledge of floor plans, times, schedules walking into a school unannounced with an assault rifle intending to inflict harm on unsuspecting students and teachers. No comparison what so ever.

  18. I stand by my comparison. It’s narrow minded to read my comment and assume I was talking just about school news papers and protests and walkouts at “school”. Is it ok that a 19 year should be prohibited from showing up at a rally in Washington or writing an opposing view in on an editorial page? The magnitude of the first amendment is huge and may be the most important and the back bone of our constitution and this country. Free speech allows a company to make the choice not to sell a product, it allows us to discuss the issue freely without fear or repercussions. Repercussions from a tyrannical government or government agency. That’s where the 2nd amendment comes in, not the right to carry fire arms for protection from each other, but from a rouge government. If you study history and the constitution you will discover the Founding Fathers were pretty smart.

    Harden the targets. I agree semi automatic rifles are scary, the thought of them is terrifying to me, however, prohibiting or impeding the ability to purchase a gun by a law abiding citizen, no matter their age is terrifying. There are more law abiding 18 – 20 years old then mass shooters. It’s not the norm around here and around most metropolitan areas, but there is a whole big country out there where a lot of 18 year old young adults hunt and shoot clay pigeons for sport the way another person may golf for sport.

    Tighten background checks, and most importantly demand government agencies to talk to each other and not be afraid to follow up on “tips” or suspicious individuals. If you want to legislate something, legislate some protection for law enforcement, government agencies, schools and citizens to be protected for sounding the alarm on someone.

    As for your statement of a deranged shooter knowing the layout of a school, the schedule of the school and the desire to inflict harm, what’s to stop that individual from entering with a knife, machete, chemical, improvised bomb? A deranged individual at 18 years old will still be deranged at 21. Harden targets.

    1. I stand by my statement that your comparison is a false equivalence. Our completely opposing arguments are not equivalent because they are not consistent with each other.

      To answer your question ,it is ok that a 19 year old show up at a rally in Washington(but not with an assault rifle) and it is ok for a 19 year old to write an opposing view in on an editorial page(with no dangerous speech, see below) Don’t kid yourself, teachers “help” students write editorials every step of the way and more than one teacher proof reads them many times before going to print. Many 19 year olds at rally’s in Washington D.C. are stopped, searched and questioned because they showed up at a rally. Are their 1st and 2nd amendment rights violated?

      Also, I don’t think our forefathers had assault rifles in mind when writing the constitution.

      Regarding the Supreme Court’s 1919 decision, on the idea of falsely shouting fire in a crowded theater, in the Schenck vs. US, the court unanimously, ruled that the first amendment, though it protects freedom of expression, does not protect dangerous speech.

      Banning assault rifles and raising age limits on gun purchases helps to protect students and teachers from dangerous deranged shooters from entering the school unannounced with the intent to inflict death and destruction on unsuspecting people.

      So just like the first amendment does not protect dangerous speech, the second amendment should not protect the right for anyone, especially a 19 year old to buy a dangerous assault rifle.

      1. I think your argument needs to be reworded:

        “So just like the first amendment does not protect dangerous speech, the second amendment should not protect the right for anyone, especially a 19 year old to buy a dangerous assault rifle.”

        Should be

        “So just like the first amendment does not protect dangerous speech, the second amendment should not protect the right for anyone use an assault rifle dangerously.”

        Guess it kind of changes the meaning though…

        For completeness, you should also change the beginning to

        “So just like the first amendment does not protect dangerous speech, especially from a 19 year…”

  19. And you my friend are completely missing my point. Dicks and walmart said they are stopping selling ALL GUNS. Not just assault rifles to adults under 21. Here in lies the problem. Guns are not the problem. Bad, evil, wicked people are the problem. Why when a drunk driver hits and kills a person is the person blamed and not the car? Why when a mentally insane person shoots up a school or church is the gun blamed and not the person?

    And get out of the main line bubble. In other areas of the country, 98% of 18 year olds don’t go off to college like around here. Most get jobs, get married, start families before they reach the golden age of 21. Should they be deprived their constitutional right to own a fire arm and challenged to buy a fire arm if they are law abiding citizens that pass a background check? Whether it’s for sport or to defend their young family in a rural area? Police don’t show up in 3 minutes flat in most of the country like they do in a metropolitan or suburban area.

    And a 19 year old being stopped at a rally to be searched is not a infringement on their freedom of speech, it’s for public safety, like the TSA, it’s called hardening a target!!!!!!! They still get through and get to march, they don’t get thrown into prison.

    And you are absolutely right, the founding fathers didn’t know there would be firearms like assault rifles in 300 years, but they knew that citizens should be able to have the same power (whatever that means for the time in history) that a tyrinical government would have against its people. Look at Syria.

    Stopping the sale of guns, all guns, at dicks and walmart is not going to keep our schools, churches, temples safe. Harding targets, and making sure teachers, mental health professionals, law enforcement and government agencies are not afraid to be sued if they raise the red flag on a foreseeable threat.k

  20. Tina said,”Guns are not the problem. Bad, evil, wicked people are the problem. Why when a drunk driver hits and kills a person is the person blamed and not the car? Why when a mentally insane person shoots up a school or church is the gun blamed and not the person?

    I’m not sure anyone is blaming the gun rather than the mentally ill person. But if Tina wants to use the car/gun analogy we should realize that every driver has to pass a test, the license has to be periodically renewed, any DUI infraction requires remedial education, and repeat infractions cause loss of driving privileges and/or jail. Does Tina support some of these measures for gun owners?

    Tina also said, “And you are absolutely right, the founding fathers didn’t know there would be firearms like assault rifles in 300 years, but they knew that citizens should be able to have the same power (whatever that means for the time in history) that a tyrinical government would have against its people.

    I’ve always wanted to own (and drive) an M1 tank and shoot that big swiveling gun. I’m not sure if the age to drive this tank should be 18 or 21, but certainly this is what the founding fathers envisioned. And when some aggressive driver tail gates me I’ve always wanted to get my RPG out of the back seat and do some damage. Is this what Tina means by “the same power”? [smile]

  21. Tina says “Harding targets, and making sure teachers, mental health professionals, law enforcement and government agencies are not afraid to be sued if they raise the red flag on a foreseeable threat.”

    Teachers, mh prof, law enforcement and government agencies are not afraid of being sued. Fear of a lawsuit is not the issue. As I keep reporting, many spoke up and reported their fears about the FL shooter. A neighbor called 911 and tearfully begged the operator to arrest this young man because she said that she was sure he was going to do in the future what he in fact did.

    The issue is that in America you can’t be arrested or detained for being mentally ill, or because someone reported their opinion that you may do harm in the future, or because a healthcare professional says your depressed.

    Hardening schools helps but as even like those who agree with you know, a shooter will and can do harm no matter what. Banning assault rifles will help a lot.


  22. Keith,

    You are correct, I do believe a test is in order to buy and carry a gun as well as licenses being periodically renewed. Unfortunately the gun holders who are “illegal” and acquire their fire arms on the streets or stealing them will not be put through the same process but it’s a start for tightening up purchases for law abiding citizens. The only way to deal with the illegal gun use and crazies using guns (even legally purchased guns) is hardening targets and continued work between the public, law enforcement etc.

    As for the question you put to me about the founding fathers and the 2nd amendment…..I don’t claim to be an intellect and I definitely fumble my thoughts and words, but I am a thinker and I believe in our constitution and that history is the best teacher. This one is tricky. I too would love a M1 tank to crush cars on I76:-) What I was trying to say is best outlined with the Heller case and the supreme court. In this case, as I tried to outline above, the Second Amendment was written to protect the right to self defense, against robbers, crazy people or a government with the intention of destroying personal liberty. (Hence my Syria example). The court characterized the “right to own guns” as an individual and personal one. It recognized that our fore fathers just fault a war against a king and an army. They would have lost this war if they had not carried arms themselves that were not at least close to being equal of what the British Army had. The Heller case therefore articulated the right to use guns that are at the same level of sophistication as guns your potential adversary may have.

    As I’ve stated before, assault rifles scare me and I honestly don’t know where I stand on their ownership and use. But there is a big difference between and hand gun, rifle and an assault rifle to a tank and RPG. These classifications need to defined, discussed and changed with the times. Not completely outlawed as some would desire (and I’m not talking about assault rifles here, some want all guns to be outlawed, that’s why it is a slippery slope). It’s fun to think that in 100 years this amendment will be discussed in the realm of what strength phaser an average citizen can own:-)

    I just feel when issues get politicized and emotional that we have to lean on what is steadfast which is our constitution. That’s what makes this country extraordinary.

  23. But you don’t have to make it easy or easier.

    Every impediment reduces the chances something will be accomplished. Think voter suppression.

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