An open letter to Secretary DeVos about arming teachers

This letter was also published by The Washington Post

Dear Secretary DeVos,

Last month my 7th grade students and I huddled on the floor of my classroom during yet another lockdown.  As the minutes ticked slowly past, I made eye contact with each student, one by one. I could see on their faces the absolute trust that I would guide them through whatever challenges we faced.

In the wake of the horrific gun deaths of 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL last Valentine’s Day, the White House convened a school safety commission with you at the helm.  The Federal Commission on School Safety’s task was a really important one:  to find ways to keep us safer in our schools.

While your commission deliberated, the public did too.  Here’s what we came up with:

  • Teachers said they don’t want to carry guns.
  • Parents said they don’t want teachers to carry guns.
  • Teens said they don’t want teachers to carry guns.

Notice a trend?  

We did have some alternative suggestions, which we offered at every possible opportunity.  We asked for stricter firearms laws, including raising the age limit for gun purchases.  We wanted access to the assault weapons so frequently used in our nation’s mass shootings to be restricted.  We wanted increased resources for the chronically underfunded mental health supports that our students need to be socially and emotionally healthy.  

This week your commission released its final report.  

Among other things, your recommendation is that school systems consider training and arming personnel, including teachers, as ‘an effective tool in stopping acts of school violence.’  You considered raising the age limit for gun purchases but determined it ‘unlikely to be an effective method for preventing or reducing school shootings.’ The report did not discuss additional federal funding for mental health.

When our students are having trouble mastering a concept, we find an alternative way to teach it.  Since clear public polling didn’t seem to impact your commission’s decision-making process, let me explain my thoughts on the issue another way.

Like so many others, I have dedicated my life to public education and believe deeply in its potential for changing futures.  Our schools must be safe and nurturing spaces for those paths to develop, and occasionally they are not. I often play through the mental scenario of an armed intruder bursting through the classroom door, and I have no doubt that, if it came to that, my colleagues and I would lay down our lives for these students that we care so much about.

But I would quit teaching before I’d carry a gun in school–or even work in a place where my colleagues were armed.

What makes the magic in our public schools possible is the positive culture that professional educators work so hard to establish.  The relationships we build with our students help them see our classrooms as a safe harbor, a place where they will be respected and given the support they need to succeed.  That’s why, during a lockdown, I can look at each individual in my care and see the trust written on every single face–despite the fact that I’m unarmed.

We can’t keep that all-important culture intact while militarizing our classrooms.  It’s as simple as that.

I understand that your lack of experience in education makes it much more difficult for you to understand the nuances of national gun violence and school culture.  That’s why it’s so critical for you to listen to educators and to parents who, unlike you, have chosen to entrust their children to public schools. Hear us when we say that adding more guns to our buildings is not going to solve school shootings–it will only make things worse.  Statistically speaking, our schools are still very safe places to be.  The notion of a pistol-packing badass teacher taking out a villain in a blaze of gunfire sounds like the action movie fantasy of an out-of-touch, NRA-purchased politician.  

Let’s leave the firearms to law enforcement professionals.  


Justin Parmenter

7th grade public school teacher

Charlotte, NC

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