The national debate about whether arming teachers will make our schools safer has been dominated by almost every voice imaginable. One voice that has seemingly been left out is the one that should carry the most weight: teachers themselves. As the representative of hundreds of thousands of teachers — and a former teacher myself — I believe it is irresponsible to marginalize teachers in this dialogue.
Teachers and the unions that support them have always made advocating for the health and safety of educators, students and our communities a top priority.
Teaching in a Bronx elementary school for nearly 25 years, I fretted about not having enough desks and chairs for all my students. I worried about whether the asbestos-laden ceiling in my classroom was making them sick. And I lost sleep when my students wore stress and anxiety on their beautiful, innocent faces because of the troubles they faced. It was our union that fought to help students and protect them from these conditions.
Never did I worry, however, about a gunman storming into my school with an assault weapon designed for the battlefield and engineered to kill. The recent mass shooting in Parkland, Florida, following Newtown, Columbine and many others, should have all of us asking: How can we tolerate this?
While the health and safety of teachers, school professionals and students remains our top priority, arming teachers is not the answer. It will not make schools safer.
Our schools must remain sanctuaries for learning. They must remain places where educators can nurture young minds and build bonds with the entire community in an atmosphere of caring and calm. The vast majority of educators believe that turning schools into militarized zones will erode this all-important trust. Most also think it is misguided to put more guns in schools, especially in the hands of educators who don’t want them.
Whether you agree with them or not, we should all agree that their voice should be heard, which is where strong unions come in to play. In this time of corporate-led attacks on unions, it also appropriate now to recognize the vital role that teachers’ unions play in providing a recognized platform for educators to be involved in these vital discussions.
Teachers will be using that collective voice as their communities discuss what they can — and should — do next.
I’ve spoken to and heard from members across our state. Many are responsible gun owners. Some belong to the NRA. We all recognize that there is no single, correct response to ensuring the safety of students and staff, but that increasing school security must be on the table.
They want their districts to fully explore the issues, involving students, parents and educators while carefully considering community sentiment. One district may choose to place armed guards on its campuses. Another may opt for more bulletproof glass; steel doors with buzzer systems and additional security cameras. Local control and community involvement in decision-making is paramount.
Teachers will also be using their collective voice to urge increased state aid for districts wishing to expand mental health services, and to hire more school psychologists, social workers and school counselors.
The Parkland shooting has, as expected, led to a great deal of soul-searching and discussion, with many points of view emerging. Teachers and paraprofessionals working in schools must have a voice in this debate. As the leader of a union, I am committed to ensuring policymakers and elected leaders listen to those in the classroom and who one day may take a bullet to save a student’s life.
Andy Pallotta is president of the more than 600,000-member New York State United Teachers.