Principal Says We Need to Talk About Guns for Safe N.H. Schools

May 24, 2018

New Hampshire State House.
Credit Allegra Boverman for NHPR

Administrators and lawmakers continue to discuss safety in the classroom after another school shooting took place earlier this month. This time it was in Santa Fe, Texas. 

Educator John Shea will take over as principal of Somersworth High School in July. He's asked Governor Chris Sununu and his task force on school safety to make sure to include discussions of gun regulation during their meetings.

(Editor's note: this transcript has been edited lightly for clarity.)

What do you hear in the hallways from kids – maybe unfiltered – what are you hearing from them when they're not talking directly to you?

I want to be clear that I'm not in a high school today, but I've got two daughters in high school and I've spent the better part of the last 20 years in high schools in various capacities. Students are rattled. Aren't there some things that it makes sense that we might want to regulate? And I don't talk about it as Democrat, Republican, conservative, liberal. I talk about it from the perspective of somebody in a high school building who among other things has responsibility for the safety of the kids in those buildings. And I am most interested in talking and having dialogues with folks on the other side of the spectrum here, the spectrum being how we feel about guns in this country. I think the governor and I probably agree on every aspect of this problem, except for one. He doesn't see guns as part of the problem. That is really, really clear. Bump stocks, high capacity magazines that can fire off 30 or 40 rounds without reloading, and these semiautomatic assault style military police weapons. To me these things shouldn't be available. These should be regulated and they shouldn't be available for the public to purchase. There's no rationale behind it. It's where the civil liberty of carrying a gun crosses into an individual's liberty to be safe and feel comfortable, for example in a school.

But in your letter to the governor, you also pointed out there are other issues here. There's mental health. There's social media. There is violent images in society. But you do allude to you can't get around the guns. Now you say you agree with the governor up until including that point?

I think, yes. Three things I've been working on for the last 30 years that overlap significantly with this issue of violence and violence in schools: Number one, high schools need to be engaging places where students are studying relevant things, and there's meaning in it, and there's purpose in it, and they're preparing to actually do stuff and they get that they have value. That has to be an inherent part of what the high school curriculum is about. Number two, school culture – no bullying, no nonsense, high expectations, high rigor, but in an environment of powerful sense of community. And I'd even use the word love that comes close to what home and what family are all about. That's a critical aspect of school administrators. That's on me. And number three, identifying kids that are struggling. Schools have to do a phenomenal job of supporting students and connecting with students that are struggling. That might be because their father recently left the family. It could be anything. It could be dealing with drugs and alcohol.

But to your point in your letter, you're saying that the governor has not done enough. I mean, he's established a fund of over $20 million for school infrastructure [and] security upgrades. He's created this task force made up of school officials to discuss improvements to ensure school safety. It's not that he's ignored the issue. I mean, what can he or any elected official do that he's not doing?

So $20 million, I applaud that. But $20 million over approximately 450-500 public schools works out to about $40,000-$45,000, on average, one time dollars for school security. That's nice. I appreciate that. But that's pretty darn minimal. Number two on the task force, if the task force is charged without or make our schools safer, but basically talking about AK-47s, and high capacity magazines and gun free school zones is off the table. It's as if we're doused in gasoline wondering why there's so many fires, and we're going to set up a task force that's going to do everything except talk about the fact that we're doused in gasoline.

And one thing I think a lot of folks don't realize, I know there's different opinions on this one, but in most states the state has a debate about whether or not they make all public schools gun free school zones or whether or not they let communities decide for themselves. In New Hampshire, our debate was the other way around. Do we allow communities to decide for themselves or do we mandate that they can't? And the state of New Hampshire mandates that they can't. So when you go to a public school and you see a sign out in front that says no weapons allowed. And if you go ask the superintendent of schools in that district whether or not that actually trumps state law, and they'll tell you we're not sure. And I'd like to know how the governor feels about this. Does he believe that somebody who is legally allowed to carry a weapon in all the places you're legally allowed to carry a weapon in this state, which is pretty much everywhere including the statehouse, is he okay with them walking into a school or an 18 year old that's a senior in high school walk into a school with a weapon? There's a little bit of a fuzziness around that, and I've asked superintendents about it and they know that there's a little bit of fuzziness around that. That's nuts. The gun free zones doesn't mean you don't have a school resource officer. It means that Joe Smith off the street is not permitted to walk onto the campus with a gun, and the prosecution for that is pretty significant.

Well, in response to your letter, I know a spokesperson for the governor has cited the initiatives that we've talked about here -- the infrastructure fund and task force. You've asked for a meeting with the governor. What exactly would you like to say if you get that 45 minutes with him?

I would be eager to hear his position specifically on creating safe schools and the environment that we're living, and not addressing the issue of the proliferation of high power weapons and high powered ammunition. I want to hear his position on that. And I'd like him to hear my position on -- I can do all the other things. There's three or four things within schools that are entirely my responsibility. But if we live in this culture, with these kinds of regulations or lack of regulations, this is my concern. I'm just asking that guns be part of the discussion and I'm not saying repeal the Second Amendment. I'm saying let's talk about regulation. Let's talk about background checks and let's talk about whether or not things like semiautomatic military police style weapons with a bump stock and a 40 round high capacity magazine are things you should be able to buy in the state of New Hampshire.

What do you say to those critics who say, look, in Santa Fe he didn't use an automatic weapon?

Yeah, I'll point to all the ones where an automatic weapon was used. But I'm just giving an example of ways we can dial it back. I simply believe that the overall proliferation -- you can talk about regulations. Should his father have been expected to have those guns stored under lock and key in the state of Texas, for example? We have to find rational common ground on this. The kids come to school as they come to school and the world is the world that it is, and it's still my responsibility to keep the kids safe and educate them. I just wish the governor were doing more to help.

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Editor's Note: A call to the Governor's office for a comment in response was not immediately returned. In March, following the Parkland, Fla., shooting that killed 17, Sununu's School Safety Task Force met for the first time. As part of its larger review, Sununu asked members to look into increasing access for youth mental health services and investments in school security and safety measures. The governor has highlighted recent state funds allocated to security infrastructure, including more than $16 million, for things like exterior door locks and reinforced windows. Sununu has said that Congress and the federal level is the right place to tackle any gun reform.