Why Some Educators In New Mexico Are Calling For Teachers To Be Armed

Mar 12, 2018
Originally published on March 12, 2018 5:55 pm
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The small town of Aztec, in northwestern New Mexico, is recovering from one of the worst tragedies anyone there can remember. In December, a 21-year-old gunman entered the high school posing as a student. He shot two students before killing himself. It didn't get a lot of national media attention. But as NPR's Kirk Siegler reports, the shooting is driving some tough conversations in the community about guns in schools. And a warning - this story contains some troubling descriptions of violence.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: Fritz Polk remembers the moment he made up his mind about whether teachers should be armed.

FRITZ POLK: You're hearing boom, boom, boom, boom, boom, boom, boom. And they're coming down your hall. And you've got 20 kids that are like, I do not want to die today.

SIEGLER: It's first period on December 7. A gunman walked toward Polk's high school history class firing a handgun along the way. Polk barricaded his students.

POLK: Gunshots are booming, and they're coming. And you've got 20 kids that are scared spitless (ph). And all you have is a book and a yardstick. So that needs to be put on the table for discussion.

SIEGLER: Polk also works as a chaplain for the local sheriff. And like a lot of people, his views on guns don't fit into some neat political box. He supports banning some assault-style rifles and bump stocks. And he thinks teachers who are willing should get trained and be able to carry a gun in class as a last line of defense.

POLK: In a utopia world - a perfect world, yeah, we don't need to be armed. And I would rather be a teacher and never have to pick up anything other than a book and a white board marker. But at that moment, I could not just be a teacher. I have to be a defender.

SIEGLER: A push to arm teachers might be expected in a more rural, largely conservative town like Aztec, N.M. A lot of people here own a lot of guns. Junior Isaiah Mendieta says he, his family, his friends are just comfortable around them.

ISAIAH MENDIETA: Yeah, we go shooting. We go out hunting with them. We have tons of guns. We have anything from a bolt-action gun to AR-15s to lots of handguns. We're a very pro-gun family.

SIEGLER: But at Aztec High School, you also get the sense that this push isn't some sort of reaction to national politics. It's more a feeling of exacerbation. Many are willing to try anything in order to prevent another shooting.

MENDIETA: I'm not saying to have every single one of them go through a course. But if they want to, like Mr. Polk, do something and just arm them. They have it.

SIEGLER: Mendieta was holed up in Fritz Polk's classroom during that terror-filled morning. He hid with his classmate and childhood friend 17-year-old Sarah Gifford. Both are shaken, but each are drawing different conclusions from the tragedy.

SARAH GIFFORD: We didn't have protection before our shooting. There was no one to be like, oh, hey, you're not supposed to be coming on, you know? Schools with a lot of funding have that. But small schools, like our school, don't have that. And I feel like that should be mandatory.

SIEGLER: There is now a full-time police officer at the high school. And the superintendent told me he wants to hire more armed guards. But arming teachers, he said that's a non-starter. It's currently illegal in New Mexico anyway. But just the idea of arming teachers makes Sarah Gifford nervous.

GIFFORD: If you put a gun on school, who's going to have access to it? How are people going to get it when they get into a situation? How are they going to grab it in enough time to save other people? It's just more complex than people want to make it.

SIEGLER: This Wednesday during the planned national student walkout, some Aztec students will hold a walk-in. They plan a moment of silence and discussions about school security. Juniors Sarah Gifford and Isaiah Mendieta are respected student leaders. He's in ROTC. She's on the student council.

GIFFORD: I feel like instead of arguing about it, I feel like we need to come together. We need to just put our thoughts aside and stop making it so political and start thinking about the kids.

SIEGLER: Both these kids have different views. But they want to talk about them and be civil, they say. Why can't the country do that?

GIFFORD: I feel like people need to learn to respect other people's opinions. I respect that he thinks that's right. And he respects me for thinking that it's not OK.

MENDIETA: Like Sarah said, they really just want to pick sides. There's really no meeting in the middle with a lot of people.

SIEGLER: Mendieta says everyone wants to feel as if they're right. And he says that stubbornness is causing chaos. Kirk Siegler, NPR News, Aztec, N.M.

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