Our final class forum was more deliberative. Participants were given a student-created discussion guide, modeled after the National Issues Forum topic guides. This guide featured three “options” and asked the participants to consider the pros and cons, and tensions among each. Again, the forum invitation emphasized that all were welcome. It also reflected the universal concern with safety that had been expressed at the prior forum:
Please join the community, and the local school board tonight, . . . to discuss the proposed conceal- and-carry referendum and discuss options that are associated with the issue. Don’t miss your chance to protect not only our school, but our community. All are welcome to attend. We look forward to your input and any ideas you have about the issue!
As at the prior session, participants were welcomed as they arrived, and the facilitators explained how the options for that night’s discussion were drawn from the previous sessions. This confirmed that the participant input was both valued and being put to good use. Participants were also given a timed agenda which promoted focus during the discussion that followed.
The options presented for discussion in the guide were:
- Arm and train school personnel to act as a first line of defense.
This option focused on selecting and training a few employees to use and carry weapons in schools, with required, ongoing training and evaluation. Drawbacks identified included the cost of training, the potential for accidents, and the potential for higher insurance premiums.
- Allow teachers and community members to carry and help protect the school. Here the guide noted that community members might be in a better position to respond to incidents quickly. The guide noted as drawbacks the potential for alienating some parents, the difficulty of controlling an already chaotic situation, and the potential for higher insurance premiums.
- None of the above, look for alternatives. A primary drawback noted here was that the adoption of a policy would be delayed, leaving questions of security unanswered and no clear guidance for emergency situations. Embedded in this option, however, was the fact that there was an existing, although unwritten, policy that allowed police to carry in schools.
Participants explored a number of concerns during the small group discussions, including cost, coherency with the educational mission of the schools, and the unknown consequences of various approaches. As one participant summed it up: “we don’t want to be an experiment.” Another participant re-focused his small group with the question: “if we are going to raise money, what is the best way to spend it?”
Although the participants were separated into two different groups for discussion, the patterns of dialogue in each group were similar. During the discussion of the first option, the participants identified components that still needed be defined or answered, and raised new questions like whether parents could seek waivers. Participants in both of the two small discussion groups also universally rejected the second option after identifying a wide range of safety concerns. Each group also found that it had a common comfort level with the third option and its embedded “status quo” of having police provide security. Each also discussed how to raise taxes to pay for extra police hours.
Towards the end of the session the two groups were brought together to share their thoughts. They were energized by how similar their conclusions were. As one of the facilitators later observed, this “validated the view that the group could create options that had support of the entire community.” As the groups debriefed, they quickly embraced the few small tweaks or options that the other had not thought of (such as including additional funds for counseling or early intervention with troubled teens). Each “tweak” addressed questions that both groups had been struggling with.
A suggestion by one participant, to approve the emerging consensus as an “interim policy” subject to a future referendum (in the event that a significant segment of the community requested a referendum on a policy change), sealed the deal. The group unanimously endorsed this approach of adopting an interim written policy that incorporated the status quo of allowing only law enforcement officers to carry in schools. As they did so, participants who had entered the discussion with widely divergent views explained their support of the “interim policy” in similar ways. These included references to a number of factors that had arisen during the prior discussions, including “allowing time to gain experience”, the ability to “monitor problems and gather data”, the confidence the community had in its police, the need to identify and secure a funding source before increasing costs, and the cost-benefits of relying on police rather than others. Participants appeared to be both surprised and relieved with what they had achieved. As the meeting ended, the energy level remained both high and positive, and participants engaged in friendly conversation as they adjourned.