Schools and guns

After 14 students and three staff members were killed Valentine’s Day in Parkland, Fla., armed volunteers offered their sentry services at Burlington school buildings.

The overture wasn’t accepted but that doesn’t mean preventing gun violence hasn’t been a top-of-mind discussion point in the district’s schools.

It has.

Indeed, officials have spent hours and hours processing what Superintendent Pat Coen calls a “mind-boggling” number of scenarios involving guns on school campuses. That process has been repeated at West Burlington, Danville, Mediapolis and all schools in the state. Iowa requires districts to work with local law enforcement and emergency personnel to develop safety plans to implement during active shooter incidents.

That schools must devote valuable time to ponder how to deal with a shooting is a sad sign of our times. But another incident earlier this month in Texas in which 10 people were killed shows it’s a necessity.


Tri-States Public Radio, WIUM, assembled a seven-person panel Wednesday to discuss safety concerns facing local schools. The panel outnumbered the number of people who came to watch the event. Jason Parrott, WIUM’s southeast Iowa correspondent, moderated the event, which included Burlington and West Burlington school superintendents Coen and David Schmitt; Des Moines County Sheriff Mike Johnstone; Burlington fire inspector Mike Crooks; Tina Young, Southeastern Community College’s Title IX coordinator; and school resource officers Corey Whitaker of the sheriff’s department and Jim Stirn of the Burlington Police Department. The event was engaging and enlightening.

Consider: Schmitt was adamant he was opposed to arming teachers as a precaution; Coen is open to the idea and actively is considering options. Each has valid reasons. West Burlington hires educators, Schmitt said, not marksmen, while Coen acknowledged the district already has a number of teachers with permits to carry weapons — they just can’t do it on school property. Because shooting incidents unfold quickly and help beyond a resource officer generally isn’t available for several minutes, Coen said he and others are haunted by a feeling of helplessness in such a situation and want to take appropriate steps

For the record, I’m with Schmitt. A month after the Florida shooting, a chemistry teacher at the  same school absent-mindedly left a loaded gun in a public restroom where a drunken homeless man picked it up and fired it. In my mind, more guns create more problems and despite Iowa’s Good Samaritan statutes, insurance companies might take a dim view of increasing their exposure to lawsuits stemming from nonprofessionals firing personal weapons.

Schools have added active shooter drills to their  fire drills and storm exercises. Sometimes the drills work at cross purposes. For instance, schools are rethinking how they do fire drills for fear a shooter will pull an alarm and wait for the halls to fill before opening fire. So far, no good answer has emerged. Realistic shooting drills also are problematic. Not only might they raise unnecessary fear and anxiety, Coen pointed out at least two worker’s compensation claims have been filed locally after such exercises.

Despite their high profile (The Hawk Eye published an editorial about school shootings clipped from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch the morning after the WIUM event even though it did not cover the forum), it’s worth putting the problem into some sort of perspective. Statistically, school shootings are rare. According to the Heritage Foundation, which opposes any kind of gun control, mass killings themselves account for only 0.2 percent of homicides each year and only 1 percent of homicide victims. That offers little comfort given the regularity of school-related gun incidents — 18 already this year in the United States. That frequency has prompted school officials to work diligently to limit entry points to their buildings, monitor visitors, upgrade security systems and hone confidential plans.

But Whitaker pointed out a lot of money can be spent at schools on programs, guards and cameras, but tit doesn’t fix the problem created by the state’s reluctance to address core mental health issues.

Those problems have acerbated since the state closed its mental health facilities three years ago in Mount Pleasant and Clarinda. Now, if a student — or anyone — is identified as needing such help, the lack of local facilities often means a deputy must transport that person as far away as Council Bluffs or Sioux City for a four-day assessment. Treatment beyond the assessment is all but nonexistent. Neither Gov. Kim Reynolds nor the Iowa Legislature has offered a solution, even though a universal cry for more mental health services arises after every school shooting.

Despite the somber tone of the forum, the group pointed out Des Moines County is fortunate its entities work closely with and support one another. This was highlighted by 77 local leaders who attended a four-day training session for large-scale disasters two years ago at the federal Emergency Management Training facility in Emmitsburg, Md.

Thanks are in order for WIUM for organizing and presenting the panel. Hopefully, a video of the event on its Facebook page and website will garner more attention. Perhaps a viewer will have an answer that so far has eluded everybody else.