The debate over how to stop the ceaseless and senseless taking of lives by mass shooters is louder than it has been in years — and nowhere louder than in and around American schools.
Spurred last month by young survivors of a high school shooting that killed 17 of their classmates, teachers and coaches in Parkland, Fla., a movement this month spilled out of school doors across the country and in southwest Ohio, where students called for action.
“Teenagers from high schools all across the nation have risen up to demand change,” said Suhavi Salmon, a junior at Springboro High School, who joined thousands more students across southwest Ohio in March 14 walkouts to remember the Marjory Stonemen Douglas High School dead.
On Saturday, marchers of all ages called on legislators to do more to prevent gun violence and mass shootings at a massive youth-led demonstration in Washington, D.C., and at more than 800 other rallies across the world and in cities including Cincinnati, Columbus and Dayton.
Ohioans of all ages — from students, to parents, to cops, to legislators — say the gunfire must stop.
Many agree that more resource officers, counselors in schools and earlier detection of mental illness and better treatment are wise steps. But the nation remains divided — even among the young — on other proposals to prevent killings: universal background checks, increased restrictions on assault-style rifles or arming teachers with guns – a controversial practice already implemented on a limited basis in some area schools.
About 400 Centerville High School students participated in the March 14 walkout, but another 20 students demonstrated with signs in support of the National Rifle Association.
Logan Cole was hit twice inside West Liberty-Salem High School by shotgun blasts allegedly fired by fellow student Ely Serna on Jan. 20, 2017. While many are calling for more restrictions on guns, the local survivor of a school shooting declined to join a walkout there he thought politicized a heated Second Amendment issue.
“I feel like violence in our schools and our societies is a much deeper issue,” Cole said. “And I feel like it’s a little bit simplistic to look at this and point out gun control as the problem.”
But unending school shootings — from Columbine, to Sandy Hook, to Marjory Stonemen Douglas — have left the nation’s students in a perpetual state of fear and stifle learning, say kids and educators.
Even unfounded threats such as one March 7 at Dayton’s Belmont High School put students on edge and disrupt schooling.
“I literally started crying and ran out the door,” said Jasmyne Scott, a Belmont freshman, when the report of a student with a gun spread through the building and shaken students spilled out of the doors.
“Everyone just started running,” she said.
This month at a Schools, Guns, and Safety Town Hall organized by WHIO and the Dayton Daily News, state Sen. Peggy Lehner, R-Kettering, said legislators have been rendered near mute on the issues, singling out fellow statehouse Republicans.
“One place I don’t feel there’s a real robust conversation going on is frankly in the legislature,” she said. “There are one-on-one discussions but nowhere near the active, vibrant conversation I think needs to take place.”
Part of the difficulty in finding consensus is a fear that any action will lead to encroachment of Second Amendment rights, Lehner said.
“I believe it’s very possible to take some steps that will not in any way interfere with an individual’s right to own arms,” she said.
“There’s nobody in this room or in this community or in this state who wants to ever see another gun shooting take place — another school shooting — and yet the solutions seem to be so elusive,” Lehner said.
Last week, Democrats in the Ohio Senate introduced legislation that would allow police to seize firearms from people who seem to be at risk of harming themselves or others. Also supported by Republican Gov. John Kasich, the “Red Flag Law” could be used to remove guns from people with mental illness who failed to take prescribed medications.
The proposal drew immediate opposition by Second Amendment advocates.
“Taking someone’s property without due process is wrong. It’s completely un-American,” said Jim Irvine, board president of the Buckeye Firearms Association. “Gun control is a failed idea. Continuing to push it is refusing to accept reality.”
The burden placed on teachers and administrators to keep students safe is enormous, say some educators. Active shooter drills and armed resource officers in schools only heighten the angst of young people, some already struggling in chaotic environments, some say.
Other districts locally and in Ohio have allowed trained staff access to weapons in schools.
Mad River Local Schools implemented an armed response team two years ago, said Jerry Ellender, the district’s treasurer. Sidney City Schools has a nearly identical program adopted in 2013. The guns aren’t carried by staff members, but remain in safes that can be unlocked by volunteers with firearms training.
“We don’t want a gun floating around that’s accessible to a student or taken away from a teacher and used by a student,” Ellender said.
Some districts have gone so far as to allow staff members to carry concealed weapons. Edgewood City Schools in Butler County adopted a concealed carry policy in 2013, and last year Georgetown Exempted Village Schools east of Cincinnati turned to directly arming teachers.
“It’s ultimately about putting people in place to protect the house,” said Georgetown Superintendent Chris Burrow. “We hope and pray it would never be us, but at the end of the day, we have to be ready in seconds and not minutes.”
David Romick, president of the Dayton Education Association, told Dayton Board of Education members last week that guns are the last tool educators need to battle school shooters.
“Arming teachers and bringing more potential violence to the schoolhouse is not the answer,” Romick said. “Instead, arm all educators with counselors, mental health services and other wraparound services to serve the children and families who need them most.”
Charlie Ross, a junior at Oakwood High School who participated in the safety town hall, voiced similar concerns.
“I think I can say overwhelmingly we find the idea of arming our own teachers to be a very daunting and scary idea. It will ruin our learning environment,” Ross said. “I personally believe — and especially from talking to my fellow students — that a good way to prevent these unfortunate shootings from happening is again to focus on counselors and identifying such troubled students before we even get to an active shooter situation.”
More school resource officers and better mental health care — two steps believed most politically achievable — suffer from a lack of funding, advocates of both say.
“We have to find the money, eliminate the excuses and get this done,” said Montgomery County Sheriff Phil Plummer, calling for more law enforcement officers to work directly with schools.
Joni Watson, a teacher at Horace Mann School in Dayton and vice president of the Dayton Education Association, said more resources can help turn troubled lives around and prevent future tragedies.
“We need money for mental health services, that’s the bottom line,” Watson said. “Every single time there’s a school shooting, you hear that the child was isolated, the child felt bullied, the child felt like he or she didn’t belong — every single time.”
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Staff writers Laura Bischoff, Will Garbe and Jeremy P. Kelley contributed to this report.