© 2024 Kansas City Public Radio
NPR in Kansas City
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

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


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.

(SOUNDBITE OF RATATAT'S "EVEREST") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As a correspondent on NPR's national desk, Kirk Siegler covers rural life, culture and politics from his base in Boise, Idaho.
KCUR serves the Kansas City region with breaking news and award-winning podcasts.
Your donation helps keep nonprofit journalism free and available for everyone.