Shane Larkin has been around guns his entire life.
While growing up in Pennsylvania, his family had more than 50 guns at home. He received a .22- and a 12-gauge by the time he was 10. He hunted with his late father, who was an NRA member.
Larkin a former U.S. Army staff sergeant, served 10 years active duty in the infantry. He was in firefights with combat units deployed to Bosnia, Kosovo and Iraq.
Now, he is the Muscogee County School District 2017 Teacher of the Year. He doesn’t carry a gun, and he doesn’t hunt much anymore, but he has several shotguns and rifles at home and occasionally shoots targets and skeet.
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“I understand the full impact of weapons,” he told the Ledger-Enquirer during his planning period between history classes Wednesday at Early College Academy of Columbus.
So on the day students returned to classes at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., two weeks after a mass shooting killed 17 people there, Larkin could provide a representative and informed opinion of President Donald Trump’s call to arm teachers as a way to prevent such a tragedy.
“My issue with arming teachers is it’s still reactionary,” said Larkin, 42. “… I understand you’re saying that if they come in the room, you can engage, but probably at that point people already have died, so it’s still not preventing or trying to prevent the problem; it’s reacting to the problem.”
Proponents of arming teachers say this would reduce the number of casualties in a mass shooting.
“One is too many,” Larkin said. “… Imagine if every teacher or say five teachers are given a weapon and they come out of their doors and start shooting in those hallways. That’s what concerns me. In a perfect setting, everyone is locked down in their classroom and no one’s in the hallway. But what if that shooter comes in right at transition and everyone’s in the hallway? … They start shooting, and those teachers are reacting. What are they going to do? Shoot all the students in the way of the shooter? I mean, he’s going to shoot his way to you.”
Even troops in special forces “still make mistakes, and some of them still die,” Larkin said. “… Imagine arming a classroom teacher that may qualify once or twice a year with a handgun, and you’re asking that person to go against someone who most often would have some type of assault-style or military-style rifle. It’s not a good matchup.”
Handguns are too inaccurate for this task, Larkin contends.
“They’re very difficult to use well, and their range is limited,” he said. “There’s a reason most of these shooters use assault rifles.”
Ideally, Larkin said, preventing school shootings should start with eliminating or at least limiting civilian access to assault rifles and high-capacity magazines.
“We need to put some type of ban or regulations on assault rifles,” he said. “If anything, make them extremely difficult to get, whether it’s paying a huge annual tax or going through intensive training, intensive background check, especially mental health screening. … And the person has to pay for it. Use that (money) for funding to do other parts of this.”
Mental health care also must improve to prevent school shootings, Larkin said. He would like to see a clinical psychologist on staff or on call for each school.
“If teachers identify certain students they need to talk to,” he said, “you may be able to identify students who may have signs of this.”
Short of that, Larkin said, instead of arming teachers, schools should have armed security officers and fortified perimeters.
“I would have multiple exterior walls, chain-link,” he said. “Unfortunately, it’s going to look like a prison. But if we really want to try to stop this, that’s the most effective way to do it.”
The first fence would be where security officers would check vehicles before entering the school property, Larkin said. The second fence would be where security officers would check people with a metal detector before entering the school building.
“That’s what the military does, layered defense,” he said. “All of this is a social contract argument. What are you willing to give up or sacrifice in the name of protection? … We wouldn’t like it at first, but we would get used to it.”
Asked how he suggests paying for these solutions, Larkin said, “We retrofitted airports with billions of dollars. So, if we truly care about our children, it shouldn’t be a problem.”
Regardless, the status quo isn’t acceptable, Larkin said.
“If we do not change any regulations on weapons, if we don’t address mental health like we should, we need something like this,” he said. “(Schools) are too open. … I’m the last person that wants a school to look like a prison. I understand the beauty of schools and what they’re about and what we’re trying to do, but I also can’t have 17 kids killed.”
Larkin’s military training makes him especially alert for unusual activity around the school. No wonder he is the school’s safety coordinator.
“It’s situational awareness,” he said. “… I watch people closely.”
Larkin walks around the school’s property each morning before classes.
“It’s something we never thought we’d have to do as educators,” he said. He shook his head and added, “I’m acting a lot like I did in Iraq.”
Early College principal Michael Forte also has extensive experience with guns. He served for 5½ years in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserves. He was a corrections officer for 1½ years and a police patrolman in Florida for six years. Now, he’s in his 20th year as an educator, including seven years as a principal.
“I understand the rationale behind wanting to arm teachers,” Forte told the Ledger-Enquirer in his office Wednesday. “It would be the quickest and easiest way to address the problem.”
But not the best way, Forte emphasized.
“When you carry a weapon, that is your first thought,” he said. “… Your mindset and the way you process, everything is different. Teachers don’t process in that aspect. Our first thought is closing the achievement gap and teaching kids. Carrying a weapon would be secondary. But if you’re going to carry a weapon, that cannot be your secondary thought. … I can very well get overpowered, then the situation will go from bad to absolutely catastrophic.”
Forte foresees “a lot of litigation arising from allowing teachers to carry guns.”
Storing guns for teachers in a locked area would “defeat the purpose of being a first responder,” Forte said.
So if school districts decide to arm teachers, Forte said, those teachers should be taken out of the classroom and become security officers.
“I just can’t see a teacher with a gun teaching and being effective,” he said. “… Police officers train with their weapons constantly. When are teachers going to have time to do that?”
Forte estimated he trained with his weapon 40 hours per month when he was a police officer.
“It’s a layered problem that would end up doing more harm than good,” he said.
Forte agrees with Larkin in supporting the idea of installing fences and metal detectors and increasing the number of school security officers.
“I just thing we’ve gotten to a point now that we’ve got to do something,” Forte said.
Asked whether his school is unsafe without those measures, Forte said, “I wouldn’t say that at all, but you don’t want to be that next school. … Everything has a tipping point, and I think we’ve reached that point.”
Just before the Ledger-Enquirer’s interview, Forte filled in as a substitute teacher for two classes Wednesday at Early College. In both classes, he discussed school safety with the students. He asked them whether they want their teachers to be armed. The consensus from the roughly 30 students was that Larkin is the only teacher they would trust with a gun, considering his military training. One student asked, Forte said, “What happens if a teacher gets angry and upset at us and they have a gun?”
Forte added, “Even in a casual conversation with a student where I am correcting the student’s behavior and I may have to step toward that student, the dynamics change completely if I have a weapon.”
The students also agree with fortifying the perimeter, installing metal detectors and increasing the number of security officers, Forte said.
“They want the outside to be kept on the outside,” he said. “They want any danger to be limited or decreased tremendously by increasing security measures that would basically either stop or limit or altogether eliminate any danger coming in here.”
Forte thinks about security as a father when he drops off his sixth-grade son at Rainey-McCullers School of the Arts.
“That’s why I understand the president’s suggesting to arm teachers,” he said. “... I just think it would have disastrous results.”