Education and medical experts offered ideas on school safety and gun violence Thursday, a day before students across the U.S. and El Paso took part in National School Walkout Day.
The office of state Sen. José Rodríguez held its second installment of a forum in which school district leaders and safety personnel discussed ways to protect students.
The event, held at El Paso Community College’s administrative services center, was a collaboration between Rodríguez, the District 29 Youth Advisory Council and the student governments at EPCC and the University of Texas At El Paso.
“We hope that as a result of this community discussion, we can begin to formulate some ideas of how we’re going to address this issue, should it ever arise in El Paso,” Rodríguez said.
EPCC student government President Andrea Porras and Burges High School senior Emilio Posada moderated a series of questions for the panel. At the end of the forum, audience members were invited to ask additional questions.
The school safety officials and community leaders who were on Thursday’s panel were:
- Victor Araiza, El Paso Independent School District chief of police
- Manuel Chavira, EPISD Safe & Secure Schools manager
- Marivel Macias, assistant superintendent for Administrative Services, Socorro ISD
- Ross Moore, president, El Paso Federation of Teachers
- Dr. Alan Tyroch, chief of surgery and trauma medical director, University Medical Center of El Paso
- Sandra Gonzalez, Trauma Department director, UMC
- Chrystal Davis, chief clinical officer, Emergence Health Network
Here are five takeaways from Thursday’s event.
Arming teachers isn’t a popular idea
The panel agreed that arming teachers is not a good idea. Panelists said arming teachers can make students feel less safe, not more, and that there are too many variables for things to go wrong even before an emergency would happen.
“There are so many things that can go wrong prior to, during and even after an incident and on a day-to-day basis,” Moore said. “The weapon is stolen. Accidental discharge. Tragedies. When incidents like this are going down, it’s not a calm, steady situation.”
Araiza said he thinks the people who advocate for arming teachers are sometimes well-meaning gun owners with plenty of experience handling firearms.
“We already ask a lot of our educators. And now we’re going to ask them to elevate into another level where we’re going to ask them to make life or death decisions?” Araiza said.
Social media is thorny for law enforcement
Araiza said social media and apps often can make it more difficult for law enforcement to track down threats. He added that threats and bullying can surface on social media without much accountability.
“When these threats are received, teens have a tendency to tell another teen rather than telling law enforcement or an adult,” Araiza said. “Then that threat circulates. Sometimes it becomes more than it is, or it’s missed and falls through the cracks.”
Shootings don’t happen in a vacuum
Tyroch said a mass-casualty incident affects everyone, not just the victims, and that at one point every community will go through some sort of disaster.
“The theme that comes across every time is that everybody suffers from PTSD,” Tyroch said. “Everybody is going to need to seek counseling, and that’s just in the hospital setting. I can guarantee that in every one of those schools, those people suffer.”
Chavira said that when the district plans its emergency responses, it also plans a continuity of operations response to help the community rebuild after something like a shooting occurs.
“Sandy Hook was not able to recover,” Chavira said. “But all these kids need to stay on track. We need to get them into another school, decide whether we’re going to tear down that (previous) school.”
On Dec. 14, 2012, a mentally ill man killed 20 first-graders and six school employees at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., before killing himself. He had earlier killed his mother.
Additional trauma training for students and teachers is needed
Some panelists asked what teachers and students can do to minimize casualties during a shooting situation.
Tyroch said that the doctor who performed autopsies on Sandy Hook victims found that possibly a third of the slain children could have survived if there had been a way to stem bleeding. He suggested that a type of training, called Stop the Bleed, be offered to students, teachers and other school personnel.
“It’s sad as a society that we’re teaching that, but it really would save lives,” Tyroch said.
Tyroch added items like tourniquets could be placed in all schools and could help save lives.
Students aren’t just concerned about proactive measures
Diana Ramirez, a student at EPCC’s Mission del Paso Campus, asked the panelists about physical barriers and other protection available during a mass shooting, including bulletproof windows, higher campus walls and closets.
“I feel that we should do everything we can as far as mental illness, but we need to be prepared and have places to hide,” Ramirez said.
Araiza said barriers like bulletproof windows might help prevent shootings from outside, but that oftentimes mass shootings are carried out by students.
“If we start to look at building those types of safe rooms, I think that’s an excellent solution,” Araiza said.
Moore suggested that students and teachers be highly aware of their surroundings and take a visual survey of the classroom to look for places to hide, blind spots and fields of vision.
He also urged communication.
“Sit down, at least twice a year, talk in an adult manner, with and not to the kids, about ‘here’s what we’re going to do in these circumstances,’ ” Moore said. “Answer questions honestly. Respect their questions.”