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.