clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Armed educators a reality in some schools, debated in others

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

by Nirvi Shah

Shooting instructor Johnny Price looked at the teachers lined up in front of him, a selection of handguns resting on the table before them. He slid his fingertips over the clean, round bullet holes beyond the outlines of a human torso on paper targets a few yards away.

“That,” Mr. Price said, pointing to a hole that missed the target completely, “is a child.”

Mr. Price, the owner of Big Iron Concealed Handgun Training in Waco, Texas, spent two days this month training teachers and staff members from the Clifton school district in all they need to know to earn licenses to carry weapons out of sight. There is no indication that the 1,000-student district is leaning toward allowing employees to bring guns to school.

But curiosity about carrying concealed weapons has been running high here and all over the country ever since the school shootings in Newtown, Conn., on Dec. 14. The massacre has given rise to the perhaps once-unthinkable idea of arming teachers as a possible policy fix for improving school safety.

While many national organizations have rejected the idea, it is now being seriously weighed by some school boards and state lawmakers across the nation. The action wouldn’t be without precedent: In Utah, school employees have been able to carry concealed weapons onto campus for about a decade—without telling a soul—and at least four Texas school districts are known to have granted select employees permission to take concealed weapons to school.

For many educators here and elsewhere, it is no longer a question of whether to take guns to school. Instead, the questions are: How do I carry this thing without anyone noticing? Can I kill someone if the time comes? And, maybe most frightening of all, what happens if I miss?

Since the shootings in Newtown, Conn., arming teachers has emerged as a possible method for curbing school violence. Education Week‘s Nirvi Shah spent the afternoon at a shooting range with teachers and staff from Clifton, Texas, some of whom, despite their inexperience and the gravity of the responsibility, are determined to pursue their concealed handgun permits.

Long before the Clifton school employees talked about carrying concealed weapons to class or the 26 students and staff members of Sandy Hook Elementary School were killed, the Southland district in Texas adopted a policy allowing a handpicked group of employees to carry firearms.

The 163-student district in the Texas panhandle added the measure about a year and a half ago, seizing on a state law that allows employees to carry concealed weapons on campus if boards adopt policies allowing it — a relatively unencumbered process, especially when compared with other states’.

In recent weeks, the Texas Association of School Boards has fielded hundreds of phone calls from districts inquiring about such a shift, said Joy Baskin, the director of legal services for the Austin-based organization. The group recently prepared a guidance document for school districts that helps walk administrators through the process of adding such a provision, including related safety steps that should be taken, liability concerns to consider, and how to involve local law enforcement in the decision.

Hiding the holster

Southland Superintendent Toby Miller said his district considered all of that. School officials kept coming to the same conclusion: “We are the first responders.”

Adopting that attitude has dramatically changed the morning routine for one of Southland’s employees who brings a weapon to school—at least on the days her clothing will hide it.

“It’s actually a lot of looking in the mirror in the morning, asking your other half ‘Can you see this?’ That’s kind of how my morning goes,” said the staff member, who spoke with Education Week on the condition of anonymity — a necessity for the policy to work, the district says. “You can hide a lot with a long skirt that’s kind of flowy.”

She has been wearing her weapon in a boot holster—slender legs allow the gun to fit inside easily. But a recent episode of “NCIS: Los Angeles” gave her an inspiration. One of the show’s female investigators, dressed in a fitted shirt and tight skirt, was asked by her partner where she was storing her weapon. “She had it inside her shirt,” said the Southland employee, who has since ordered her own bra holster.

For another Southland arms bearer, most skirts are off limits now, as are elastic waistbands. Just as for other gun-bearing staff members, her weapon cannot be carried in her purse or locked in her desk but must stay on her person all day. Over time, its presence has become less awkward, but it’s not forgotten.

“Whether physically or mentally, you know it’s there. You have to be conscious of it all the time,” she said. The district’s training has drilled into her that it is rare or unlikely that she will ever use it. No situation thus far has caused her to contemplate drawing the gun.

“You can resolve most things … just by talking with the person,” she said.

Southland sits about 15 miles from the nearest law-enforcement agencies, and the response time for any emergency can be 25 minutes, Superintendent Miller said. Tranquilizer guns and Mace, other options the district considered, wouldn’t be as disabling or precise as handguns and would require being very close to an attacker, he added. Money for a school resource officer isn’t in the budget. And the guns are part of a larger school safety strategy for the district that includes a collection of security cameras.

The armed employees, a small subset of the district’s 32-member staff, went through mental-health screenings and trained for their concealed-weapons licenses together. The training will be ongoing, he said, as long as Southland employees carry weapons. And the guns fire so-called frangible ammunition, which breaks into small pieces on contact, preventing ricochet.

“We’re not trying to pretend we’ve got a SWAT team here,” said Mr. Miller. “We’ve done a lot of things that put us in a better position to be able to react directly.”

Attitude shift

Plenty of teachers and national education groups have rejected the idea of arming school employees, although at least some school safety experts say it shouldn’t be off the table completely, particularly when limited to a very small number of staff members in highly remote schools without ready access to law enforcement.

But what does worry Michael S. Dorn, who runs the Atlanta-based Safe Havens International, a nonprofit school safety organization, is the new sacrificial and cavalier attitude he has found many school employees adopting since the Newtown shootings, which is, “Now, I’m supposed to die” to defend students, he said.

The disposition is one that may be driving their desire to carry weapons, he said. And it is behind the mishandling of school safety procedures he is seeing when assessing security procedures at schools around the country, said Mr. Dorn, a former school police chief. Too many teachers and administrators have switched to attack mode, in his view.

“We’re seeing so many [school employees] saying they would attack” someone, he said, “whether it’s two parents coming into the office arguing over a custody issue or people pulling a handgun but not actually shooting anybody.”

In drills and hypothetical scenarios, school staff members are “forgetting to protect children while they’re doing this. They are failing to clear the room in the process of going after intruders,” he said. “The most important thing is [for school employees] to protect themselves so they can protect people in their immediate area and protect the whole school. If they get killed, they can’t protect the school.”

School safety consultant Ken Trump, the president of the Cleveland-based National School Safety and Security Services, disagrees with arming teachers and staff. He said if anyone is carrying weapons on campus, it should be trained police officers. But he, too, is alarmed by some of his recent consulting experiences. Basic steps to ensure safety from intruders or natural disasters seem to have been forgotten.

“Everything is ‘active shooter, active shooter, active shooter, active shooter,’ ” Mr. Trump said. “I’m still able to walk into school through unlocked doors at schools that are not practicing lockdown drills during normal hours.”

Dose of reality

At the shooting range here, just south of the school district, Mr. Johnny Price couldn’t emphasize enough the consequences of carrying a weapon.

“We’re responsible for everything that comes out of our firearm,” he repeated to groups of Clifton district employees who took turns firing.

As acrid gunsmoke drifted over teachers’ heads, he stood firm on that point.

“That’s why most of y’all aren’t ready to carry in the classroom yet, without some additional training, a lot more trigger time, getting familiar with your firearm … without crisis assessment and crisis training, so you don’t take it to the next level when you don’t have to.”

That message hit home for Dianne Bernhardt, who supervises the district’s custodial staff. Other than the occasional armadillo she has deflected from her own property with a shotgun, Ms. Bernhardt said she has little experience with guns.

“It’s a wake-up call when you’re outside the perimeters of where you’re supposed to be shooting. Thinking that could be an innocent bystander or a child,” she said, her voice breaking, “you know, that you might hurt them in the process. … Practice is just very important with this type of thing.”

The afternoon at the shooting range — a makeshift outdoor setup where the bullets that penetrated the paper targets lodged in a bluff — was both a thrill and a trial for participants. Guns jammed, magazines were loaded backwards, and hands shook. But, eventually, brass casings flew as the mostly novice group of shooters ripped through the required 50 rounds of live ammunition from three-, seven-, and 15-yard distances from the paper targets.

“It was exhilarating,” said Stacey Cockrell, a 9th-grade special education teacher at Clifton High, at the end of her session. She said she has plans to buy a gun and favors arming teachers.

“I think you need to take each and every measure that you can to make sure you’re prepared as you can be and keep those kids as safe as you can possibly keep them safe,” said Ms. Cockrell, adding that she’d need a lot more training before taking a weapon to school.

Holding up one of the handguns teachers used to practice their aim, Luke Price, the instructor’s son and a trainer himself, summed it up this way: “This is just a rock, unless you know how to use it.”

Policies elsewhere

Some of the staff members believe it’s only a matter of time before Clifton joins the other Texas districts that allow employees to carry on campus. They include two that adopted their policies since the Newtown killings, Union Grove and Van.

In the 2,200-student Van school district in East Texas, Superintendent Don Dunn said that although each of the four campuses in his domain are within about a mile of the local police station, the swiftness with which 26 people were killed at the Connecticut school drove his district’s decision.

“From the moment we have an armed intruder to the time the police are notified and can actually arrive is a 3- to 5-minute window. During that time period, our kids and our teachers and our staff are completely defenseless,” Mr. Dunn said.

Each employee he enlisted will get a one-time stipend to buy a weapon and a monthly check to buy ammunition for practice.

When he recruited staff members, none said no, but he was choosy: “Some teachers don’t have any business carrying a gun. I’d never feel good giving them the authority to do it,” he said. “It just may be that they don’t have the mental makeup to be able to put their life on the line to protect the kids.”

Utah school administrators have no say in the matter: “A school administrator cannot ask,” said Carol Lear, the director of school law and legislation at the state education department.

The state tweaked its concealed-carry law in 2003, allowing permit holders to bring weapons to schools.

“A school administrator cannot get a list of employees in his building who have permits. Now that I am thinking about it, I guess an administrator could ask teachers to tell him who does not have a concealed permit,” she added.

Cori Sorenson, a 4th-grade teacher at Highland Elementary in Highland, Utah, recently applied for her permit after years of self-defense and firearm-training courses. Reviewing media accounts of the Sandy Hook shooting, she said she can’t help but wonder “if that principal had been carrying, if that teacher had been carrying, what would have been different?”

Mr. Dorn, the Georgia school safety consultant, said basing security decisions on media accounts, however, is a mistake. Until Connecticut State Police release a detailed report of what happened at Sandy Hook, it’s impossible to tell what could have been done differently. And schools can’t prepare for future incidents based solely on the events of Dec. 14, as they could not previously base all training on what happened at Columbine High School in Jefferson County, Colo., in 1999.

“Sandy Hook didn’t look anything like Columbine. Columbine didn’t look like Pearl, Miss.,” Mr. Dorn said, referring to a 1997 shooting spree in which a student killed two classmates and wounded seven.

But Ms. Sorenson, a 13-year teaching veteran, is among those bolstered by the fact that there haven’t been school shootings in Utah since the law changed. Should her license materialize, Ms. Sorenson would not disclose whether she would take a gun to school.

“One person’s choice is not the same choice for somebody else,” she said. “Along with that choice comes responsibility.”

This is a reprint of an article that originally appeared at Education Week.

The COVID-19 outbreak is changing our daily reality

Chalkbeat is a nonprofit newsroom dedicated to providing the information families and educators need, but this kind of work isn't possible without your help.

Connect with your community

Find upcoming Philadelphia events