HSTA opposes arming teachers while superintendent, HPD decry threats to Hawaii schools

Arming teachers and bringing guns onto school campuses does nothing to protect students and teachers from gun violence, said HSTA President Corey Rosenlee, who was interviewed live Friday during a round table discussion on Hawaii Public Radio’s The Conversation program about gun threats in Hawaii’s schools.

Reacting to President Donald Trump’s proposal to allow school staff members such as teachers to carry guns, Rosenlee said that’s a bad idea.

At the Florida high school where 17 students and teachers were killed by a former student using a semi-automatic rifle last week, “There was a sheriff at that school, he had a gun. He was trained. And that sheriff didn’t want to go against an AR-15,” Rosenlee said.  “Do we expect the math teacher or the lunch lady to do it? It’s ridiculous to make our schools armed camps. What’s the next step, are we going to put up machine gun nests and barbed wire as well?”

“Schools are places for people to learn. If you want to arm teachers, arm us with books, arm us with air conditioners, arm us with computers. Those are the things we need to be armed with,” Rosenlee continued. “Arming our schools is not going to make our schools a safe place. As a parent, I don’t want a teacher with a gun in that school because things happen when you have guns. Mistakes are made. Guns go off. I want my daughter to go to school where she’s in a safe place, where she has a chance to learn.”

At a joint news conference with the Honolulu Police Department Friday morning, Schools Superintendent Christina Kishimoto appeared to oppose the president’s idea of arming teachers. 

Asked by a reporter what she thought of the president’s proposal, Kishimoto said, “I’ll share my personal position as a parent, because as parents we respond very strongly to these kinds of threats. And as a parent I respond very strongly to having my education system be anything other than an education system. That would bridge with my professional position as well. But at the same time I’m not going to allow the president’s comments to be a distraction from other matters that I’m hoping he’s going to be addressing.”

“I agree with the comment from the police department is we don’t want to turn our school systems into anything other than an education system. And our students certainly do not want to see that. And our students certainly want to focus on learning on those campuses. This is why I rely on the police department, and when necessary, I rely on the FBI.” Kishimoto added. “I rely on the experts on the safety side, because our expertise is going to remain on education.” 

Maya Gee, a senior at Kealakehe High on Hawaii Island and student representative to Hawaii’s Board of Education, who also appeared on the Hawaii Public Radio program, said arming teachers is a bad idea.

Speaking as an individual, she said, “As a student, and I know several of my peers agree with me, teachers should come to school to specifically teach. Teachers are here to educate us. And I personally would not feel very safe knowing that my teachers were armed. Personally, I believe that there would be a lot of confusion, if there was a school shooting, of having all these adults fully armed, would also create a sense of panic, and a lot of confusion.”

Gregg Takayama, the state representative from Pearl City, also questioned the wisdom of having teachers carry guns at public schools. 

Takayama said he heard a law enforcement officer on TV who said, “’Imagine if you’re responding to gunshots being fired in a school and see people running out, some adults holding weapons. Who are you going to shoot?’”

“It could lead to a large number of uncontrolled circumstances, most of them that we don’t want to see,” Takayama told Hawaii Public Radio. 

Early this year, Takayama introduced a proposal at this year’s legislative session that would ban the sale or possession of bump stock weapons in Hawaii. Bump stocks essentially turn legal firearms into machine guns. Following the Florida shooting last week, the president is now calling for such a ban nationwide. 

At the news conference with HPD, Kishimoto said, “Our students have really been shaken by what happened in Florida,” noting that the state has made counselors available to students and families in the wake of the mass shooting.

John McCarthy, the Honolulu Police Department’s deputy chief in charge of field operations, said since Jan. 1, HPD has dealt with more than a dozen threats against schools. In recent days, HPD has made several arrests, of minors who are suspects, some of whom are public school students, he said.

“Enough is enough when it comes to this. A lot of these threats, as we all know, it’s a way to get out of school, it’s a way to gain attention,” McCarthy told reporters.

“We take every threat to students, teachers and parents seriously. We evaluate every single threat that comes in. We have stepped up our protocols within the last week,” McCarthy said, making sure that the initial officers are gathering the information to assess the credibility of the threat and turn it over to investigators.

Threats against schools, students, teachers and staff are felonies, McCarthy added, amounting to terroristic threatening punishable up to a five-year sentence. For kids under 18, those convicted would begin a criminal record in their juvenile years, he said. 

McCarthy said, “Hawaii is still a very, very, very safe place. For a lot of reasons. We’re not finding weapons in schools, I think there’s been a downturn in recent years,” but he said police and school officials spend a lot of time and resources investigating bogus incidents.

“And that needs to stop,” McCarthy added.

During the radio round table on school gun violence, Rosenlee, president of the 13,700-member public school teachers’ union, called for more counseling in Hawaii public schools.

“Many of our counselors have to deal with 300 or 400 students in their caseloads,” Rosenlee said.

In countries around the world, and in states with the strictest gun laws, the research is extremely clear, Rosenlee said: the stronger the gun control, the fewer gun deaths.

“Shouldn’t we be discussing how we don’t have guns on campuses to begin with?” Rosenlee asked.

“As Americans, we agree. If you look at most polls, 97 percent of Americans say there should be stronger background checks, and can’t we make sure that there’s a waiting period. When our country for ten years, banned assault weapons, it worked and for ten years, gun deaths went down. And in 2004, when it expired, gun deaths went back up again. We can create a society that allows guns but also makes sure that we protect our citizens,” Rosenlee said.

Earlier this week, NEA President Lily Eskelsen García released the following statement: “Bringing more guns into our schools does nothing to protect our students and educators from gun violence. Our students need more books, art and music programs, nurses and school counselors; they do not need more guns in their classrooms. Parents and educators overwhelmingly reject the idea of arming school staff. Educators need to be focused on teaching our students. We need solutions that will keep guns out of the hands of those who want to use them to massacre innocent children and educators. Arming teachers does nothing to prevent that.”

“We owe it to the students and school personnel, who’ve lost their lives at schools and on campuses across the country, to work together so that we can thoughtfully and carefully develop common sense solutions that really will save lives,” Eskelsen García added.

The National Education Association represents 3 million educators who work in America’s public schools and on college campuses, including HSTA members.