By Alice Speri
A nation in shock, following a brutal school massacre, has found a controversial way to address the growing problem of school security: sending its teachers to class armed with pistols and rifles to ward off potential attackers. But the schools and teachers in question are not in Texas, Alabama, or a handful of other US states where teachers are already bringing guns to work — they are in Pakistan, where officials recently approved the measure and police are now teaching teachers how to shoot.
The initiative followed a Taliban attack on a Peshawar school that killed more than 150 people, mostly children, in December. Authorities in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province have already started training teachers following the attack in the region's capital, but the move has been met with both support and resistance from teachers and education officials.
«The December 16 tragedy showed us that we need to learn to be able to take care of ourselves and our students,» Naheed Hussain, an assistant professor at the Frontier College for Women, told the New York Times after a recent round of firearm training. «We will not replace our pens with guns. But the situation could arise where we are required to serve our country.»
Others were less enthusiastic about the idea, saying it contravenes not only a teacher's mandate to educate, but also local custom, by putting guns in the hands of women.
«How can we teach with a gun in one hand and a book in another?» Asked Malik Khalid Khan, president of the All Primary Schools Teachers Association.
«This is the stupidest and most illogical thing that has happened in Pashtun society in living memory,» said Abaseen Yusufzai, head of the Pashto department at Islamic College University.
«Women provide moral support, food and water to our warriors,» Yusufzai added. «But never in our history have they been required to take up arms. It suggests that the men have lost their nerve, and the courage to fight.»
Learning to shoot and carrying a firearm remains optional, officials said.
Pakistan is not the first country to arm its teachers in regions where schools regularly come under attack.
In Thailand, authorities did the same thing after Malay insurgents, who view the government's educational system as a symbol of Thai state oppression, threatened and killed teachers and burned and bombed government schools, Human Rights Watch documented.
But bringing guns to class also poses grave risks. Arming teachers or providing schools with armed security guards turns them into military zones rather than civilian ones, while reinforcing schools with military equipment can make them more appealing to militants hoping to occupy them or otherwise use them in their operations, the group warned.
«Arming teachers has been tried in some contexts where teachers are aggressively targeted and otherwise not adequately protected,» Zama Coursen-Neff, director of Human Rights Watch' children's rights division, told VICE News. «But the risk is that the presence of armed forces places the teachers at further risk of attack by creating a military target.»
«Weapons in schools have an effect on the children there and the school environment,» she added.
Officials in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa said they have no choice but to arm their teachers — as the province's 65,000-strong police force is not big enough to secure its nearly 50,000 schools.
«We're at war,» Mushtuq Ghani, the higher education minister in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provincial government, told the Associated Press.
The government also recently redirected $15 million that was supposed to provide schools with adequate sanitation and drinking water into beefing up their security instead.
«There are 4,700 schools in this province that do not have boundary walls,» Muhammad Atif, the minister for elementary education, told the Times. «So let's build walls first and think of toilets and drinking water later.»
Coursen-Neff said that regardless of any immediate security dangers, the decision to implement such a measure should not be taken lightly.
All risks — and possible alternatives — should be carefully considered after «consulting teachers and the parents of children there, as well as the children themselves,» she said. "At a minimum, this should not be seen as a simple or safe solution."