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23 April 2024

Pakistan arms teachers in wake of Peshawar school massacre

A teacher holds a weapon during a two-day training session by the police in Peshawar. (AP)


When Pakistani Taliban militants stormed a Peshawar school and massacred 150 children and teachers, nobody could fight back. Shabnam Tabinda and some of her fellow teachers want to change that - and are practicing how to shoot terrorists.

Government authorities in Pakistan's northwest frontier have given permission for teachers to carry concealed firearms in response to the December 16 attack in Peshawar that became one of the deadliest terrorist strikes in Pakistani history. Many educators reject the idea of arming teachers as reckless and counterproductive, reflecting the kind of arguments in US school systems overshadowed by their own occasional mass shootings.

But for teachers like 37-year-old Tabinda, going to work unarmed no longer feels like an option. She and 10 other female teachers at the Frontier College for Women are taking pride in their newfound marksmanship with handguns, and plan to carry them to help protect their students aged 16 to 21. Asked whether she felt confident of killing a terrorist at her school, Tabinda was emphatic in reply: "Yes. Whoever kills innocents, God willing I will shoot them."

Mushtuq Ghani, the higher education minister in the Khyber Paktunkhwa provincial government based in Peshawar, says its Cabinet supports the arming of teachers as a logical measure given the reality that the region's 65,000 police are stretched too thin to provide a first line of defense to nearly 50,000 schools. Terrorists need to know that schools aren't defenseless, and armed teachers could potentially hold off gunmen and buy time for police reinforcements to arrive, he said. Teachers would need to provide their own legally licensed firearms, which many already possess to defend their homes. "We're at war," he said.

The Pakistani Taliban have killed tens of thousands over the past decade as it seeks to overthrow the government and impose its own harsh brand of Islam.

Following the Peshawar attack, the government increased military operations in the tribal borderland with Afghanistan where the militants are based, reinstated the death penalty for people convicted of terrorism, and turned such prosecutions over to military courts in a bid to stop intimidation of witnesses and court officials.

Schools nationwide were closed for several weeks following the Taliban attack on the Army Public School, when seven men disguised as Pakistani soldiers scaled a perimeter wall and opened fire on fleeing children, many of them the sons and daughters of military personnel. When students returned this month, many of their schools had beefed-up security including heightened security walls, closed-circuit surveillance systems and privately contracted guards. Some teachers licensed and trained to carry firearms already have begun bringing them into their classrooms.

"I carry my weapon, but I always keep it hidden like this," said Meenadar Khan, a teacher at government high school in Peshawar, lifting his shirt to reveal the holstered weapon beneath, a Pakistani-made semi-automatic with a seven-bullet clip.

He said teachers at his school met to discuss the government's plan and agreed it would be good to have armed teachers in event of emergency to "defend our school and kids."

But other provinces have not followed Peshawar's plan to permit teachers to carry a concealed gun, and most education organizations say that's the right call.

Muzammal Khan, provincial president of the All Teachers Association in Peshawar, said students already were scared by the increased security measures, and seeing their teachers armed would increase anxiety unnecessarily. He said government authorities should take responsibility for defending schools from terrorism.

"Pens belong in our hands, not guns," Khan said.

Malik Khalid, president of the association for primary schools representing several thousand teachers, said its members have voted against permitting their schools' teachers to carry guns.

The provincial government is pressing ahead with firearms training workshops for teachers, including a class this week for teachers at a Peshawar missionary institution for boys and girls, Edward's College.

Fresh from her own two-day course learning to load, unload and fire Glock 9mm handguns, Tabinda said her family had already suffered enough from Taliban terrorism, including her husband's wounding in a suicide bomb strike a few years ago. He still is carrying shrapnel in his stomach from that attack.

When she fired her first shot at a paper target, Tabinda said her police instructor was impressed that she hit the bull's-eye, depicting the chest of a human target. Tabinda said she was visualizing the Taliban killers behind December's school slaughter as she fired. "I hit them right in their hearts," she said.