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Exclusive: How Parkland created a rush to arm teachers and school staff across the country

Hundreds of school districts have moved to arm school staff, some in secret, a VICE News investigation has found.

by Tess Owen
Jan 9 2019, 4:21pm

Eleven months after a mass shooting at a high school in Parkland, Florida, left 17 people dead, a state commission of grieving parents, law enforcement leaders, mental health experts, and state politicians arrived at a stark conclusion: Teachers should carry guns to protect students.

The commission, established to investigate gaps in Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School’s security infrastructure, isn’t alone. Since Parkland, scores of American school districts across the country — including many in poor and rural areas — have quietly adopted new policies to arm teachers or school staff.

At least 215 school districts across the U.S. have adopted such policies since last February, a VICE News review of state and local policies has found. Nationwide, at least 466 districts now allow school staff to be armed, encompassing hundreds of thousands of students of all ages.

In many states, the decision to arm teachers or staff often rests with local school district officials who are left on their own to decide who should carry guns. School districts are racing to arm staff even as there’s no definitive evidence that arming school staff saves lives, no clear guidelines on how to implement these programs, and in some cases despite opposition from local law enforcement and school insurance carriers.

VICE News’ count of school districts is derived from interviews with state education departments, school board associations, research organizations, and news reports, but it almost certainly understates the trend. That’s because school districts aren’t always required by law to tell parents, let alone state authorities, that they’ve armed teachers or staff.

19 states now have programs to allow school employees to carry guns
19 states now have programs to allow school employees to carry guns.

“There’s more that we don’t know than what we do know,” said Jennifer Thomsen, policy director at Education Commission of the States, an organization that tracks education policy and offers advice to state legislators.

State education departments say it’s difficult to say how many districts are currently arming their teachers or staff, and in what capacity, because it’s done without their knowledge or input.

“They don’t have to tell us what they’re doing.”

“They don’t have to tell us what they’re doing,” a spokesperson from Colorado’s Department of Education told VICE News. “We don’t keep track; we don’t have to. And they don’t have to tell us.”

In Minnesota, state officials believe that one, perhaps two, districts are arming teachers, but they don’t know for sure. “It is literally impossible to know how many there are, unless you went around asking every single school district,” said Josh Collins, director of communications at Minnesota’s Department of Education.

Since last February, five states adopted guns-in-schools programs for the first time, bringing the total number of states with programs to arm teachers to 19, compared to 14 a year ago.

  • Florida’s law, signed in March, has been adopted by 25 of the state’s 67 school districts. The law allows administrators who are not full-time teachers to carry guns. The Parkland commission recommended expanding that program to include teachers.
  • In Georgia, two school districts (Laurens County in April and Fannin County in May) for the first time decided to take advantage of a 2014 law allowing for teachers to be armed.
  • In Wyoming, two school districts (Uinta in March and Park 6 in April) moved to authorize staff to carry guns under the state’s expansive “local control” law.
  • Pennsylvania’s Tamaqua School District voted to arm teachers last September, sparking fierce opposition from the teachers union.
  • Virginia’s Lee County voted last July to become the first district in the state to arm teachers, setting up a legal showdown with the state’s attorney general.

Other states with existing programs to arm teachers and administrators vastly expanded them. In Texas, for example, the number of districts arming school staff grew by 72 percent, from 172 districts in February to 303 by December. In Colorado, at least 30 school districts now arm school staff, compared to seven pre-Parkland.

This push to arm school staff comes despite the strong opposition of the nation’s largest teachers union, the National Education Association, which called the premise “ “ill-conceived, preposterous, and dangerous” in March of last year.

Fringe policy, gone viral

The idea of arming teachers started on the fringes of the national conversation following the 1999 shooting at Columbine High School and gained momentum after the 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook elementary school in Connecticut, which left 20 young children and six staff members dead.

In response to Sandy Hook, states like Kansas and Georgia passed laws allowing concealed carry in schools for the first time, and the Ohio-based Buckeye Firearms Association launched FASTER Saves Lives, a program offering firearms training to teachers.

Then, on Valentine’s Day 2018, the massacre at Parkland left 17 students and staff members dead. While the Parkland tragedy energized the student-led gun control movement, the gun lobby came out hard in favor of arming teachers, as did President Donald Trump. “Armed educators (and trusted people who work within a school) love our students and will protect them,” Trump tweeted 10 days after the shooting. “Very smart people.”

Since Parkland, the idea has spread quickly across the country. Joe Eaton, the director of FASTER Saves Lives program, told VICE News in December that 2018 was the “busiest year ever” for the group.

School districts in at least 21 states enjoy expansive “local control,” an education and government philosophy that says local elected officials are best equipped to make important decisions about schools and students. In those states, which include New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Vermont, school officials have the power to authorize select staff to carry guns at schools. Officials in those states, however, told VICE News they’re confident no schools are arming teachers.

Colorado more than quadrupled the number of school districts that arm teachers or staff — from seven to 30 — in the past ten months, according to FASTER Colorado, a private company that works with schools to provide firearms training to teachers and staff.

Texas, which has around 1,000 school districts in total, saw significant movement towards arming school staff last year. As of January, 303 Texas districts had adopted policies to arm teachers or school staff, up from 172 districts last February, according to Dax Gonzalez, communications manager for Texas’ State Association of School Boards. Gonzalez attributes the growth, in part, to the shooting last May at a high school in Santa Fe that left 10 dead.

“The Santa Fe shooting, and the number of shootings across the nation, has led district leaders to start thinking about this,” Gonzalez said. “It’s something they can’t put off any longer — they have to address it sooner rather than later, especially in rural areas.”

Cheaper than cops

For many poor or rural school districts, arming teachers or school staff is a cheaper alternative than paying salary and benefits for a school resource officer hired from the local police department.

While a school resource officer’s annual salary ranges from $35,000 to $75,000, arming a teacher usually amounts to the cost of the weapon and training, which can be as little as $250. Some groups, like FASTER, which is funded by corporate and individual donors, offer training for free. The state of Ohio has also allocated funding for FASTER to train the state’s teachers in the past.

Under Florida’s Guardian program, as another example, volunteers receive a one-time $500 stipend after they complete training to cover equipment costs, firearms or holsters.

Cost-saving was on the minds of board members at the Little Axe School District in rural Oklahoma, which was among at least 10 districts in the state that voted in April to allow teachers to carry guns during school hours, bringing the total number in the state to 15.

“I don’t know if it was in response to Parkland, but Parkland may have helped us finalize the decision.”

When the Parkland shooting happened, the district had just one part-time school resource officer, responsible for overseeing the security of 1,300 kids across the elementary, middle and high school, in three separate buildings. The closest police station is a 20-minute drive away.

Little Axe, along with dozens of Oklahoma school districts, recently moved to a four-day school week due to severe budget cuts and low teacher-retention rates, so hiring supplemental resource officers wasn’t really an option.

Arming teachers, however, seemed like a no-brainer.

“I don’t know if it was in response to Parkland, but Parkland may have helped us finalize the decision,” said Jay Thomas, superintendent of the Little Axe School District. “It wasn’t a knee-jerk reaction.”

After Parkland, the question of arming teachers quickly became a financial decision for the Park 6 School District in Cody, Wyoming. At the time, the district had just one school resource officer for about 2,000 students across all seven of its schools.

But in April, the school board voted 4-2 to allow its teachers to conceal-carry during school hours, rather than hiring additional school resource officers. Under the new policy, select teachers and other staff would undergo 18 hours of initial firearms training and receive recertification every year.

“It did become a financial question,” said Ray Schulte, the superintendent of Park 6. “Do you eliminate a teacher from a teaching position in order to fund another school resource officer? That’s a hard decision to have to make.”

In May, the school board of Jay School Corporation, a district made up of eight rural schools serving around 3,500 students in Indiana, also voted to allow teachers to carry guns. Jay School was one of at least four districts across the state to do so in 2018, according to a survey conducted by Indiana’s School Board Association last fall.

“When all else fails, this might be the last line of protection we have.”

“We have to reimagine possibilities for schools that don’t have the resources to put an officer in every building — and we don’t — by considering arming individuals on the staff to protect the kids,” said Jay School Superintendent Jeremy Gulley. “When all else fails, this might be the last line of protection we have.”

Unlike Little Axe or Park 6, where teachers can carry concealed guns, Gulley said Jay District schools store guns in biometric safes, accessible only by a select group of volunteer school staff who undergo psychological evaluations and firearms training with FASTER Saves Lives.

“We didn’t see this as a philosophical or political issue,” Gulley said. “If we could put an armed security guard in every school, we would, but we don’t have the resources to do it.”

“Nobody is going to debate that it’s less expensive to have a teacher or janitor carry a gun than hire a police officer,” said Adam Skaggs, chief counsel at Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. “But in terms of effectiveness, having civilians carrying guns in schools is unlikely to prevent an active shooter and also creates serious dangers on a day-to-day basis that put children at serious risk of injury or trauma.”

A 2018 study led by public health researchers at Columbia University reached similar conclusions. “Increased gun access and gun possession are not associated with protection from violence,” the study explains, “which suggests that increasing the presence of guns in the hands of civilians in schools, no matter how well-intentioned, may backfire.”

Big liabilities

Even if the law permits arming teachers and administrators, and the board votes in favor, school administrators face a raft of hurdles to bringing guns into schools. Beyond the training issues, some find they face opposition from local law enforcement and from their own insurers.

“The devil is in the details of implementation,” said Kenneth Trump, president of the National School Safety and Security Services. “Superintendents and principals are unlikely candidates for carrying out weapons inspections and qualifications, to ensure teachers are carrying the right guns.”

During a firearm safety demonstration at Seaside High School in Monterey, California, in March, a police reserve officer accidentally discharged his weapon while it was pointed at the ceiling. Three students were injured, including one 17-year-old boy, who got fragments of the bullet lodged in his neck. In September, the students sued the school district for damages to cover resulting medical bills.

Firearm mishaps are exactly why some insurance companies won’t insure districts that arm teachers.

Insurance coverage for schools with guns was a major issue in Kansas, which passed a law allowing school districts to arm school personnel in 2013, shortly after the Sandy Hook massacre. Education officials in Kansas say they’re not aware of any districts that currently arm teachers, in part due to opposition from EMC, the insurance company that covers most schools in the state.

“EMC has concluded that concealed handguns on school premises pose a heightened liability risk,” the company wrote in a letter in 2013. “Because of this increased risk, we have chosen not to insure schools that allow employees to carry concealed handguns.”

After Parkland, state legislators in Kansas introduced a bill that they hoped would compel insurance companies to cover schools. The bill failed.

School districts in Tennessee have also encountered insurance hurdles. Tennessee is one of the few states that ban school districts from arming personnel (with the exception of staff with backgrounds in law enforcement). But, two years ago, state lawmakers agreed to give two rural districts special authorization to arm select staff — on the condition that local law enforcement does the training.

Still, citing insurance concerns, local police have refused to do the training. “They’re saying their insurance won’t cover them,” said Wayne County School Board Director Marlon Davis. “So right now we’re at a standstill.”

In Oregon, schools that arm teachers and staff have to pay a premium to cover potential liabilities; $2,500 per year for civilians, and $1,500 for staff with military training or equivalent experience.

Opposition from the insurance industry has been such a formidable obstacle that Betsy DeVos’ Federal School Safety Commission Report recommends school districts check in with their insurance company before pursuing policies to arm teachers. Other recommendations included rescinding Obama-era guidance on school discipline, making it easier to submit anonymous tips, and conducting further research into safe storage of firearms.

Police opposition

In other areas, proposals to arm teachers and administrators have faced opposition from local police. Last June, a school district in Pikeville, Kentucky, was forced to abandon plans to arm teachers, approved nearly unanimously by the county school board two weeks after the Parkland shooting, due to opposition from the local sheriff’s department.

“The sheriff’s office they were working with was adamant that arming teachers was not the solution.”

“The sheriff’s office they were working with was adamant that arming teachers was not the solution,” said Josh Shoulta, communications director of Kentucky’s School Board Association. Ultimately, the school board and sheriff’s department worked out a compromise, with the latter party footing most of the bill for five uniformed deputies to patrol each of the five district sites. “Anecdotally speaking, and it’s been our experience, that law enforcement do not agree in large part with arming teachers,” Shoulta said.

Their major concern: In the chaos of a mass shooting, police could mistake an armed teacher for an active shooter and open fire.

“There are so many reasons why it doesn’t make sense to arm teachers,” said Rick Myers, executive director of the Major Cities Chiefs Association, who formerly served as police chief of Newport News, Virginia. “Everyone wants to do something to prevent the unthinkable, but we have to be strategic.”

Myers added that law enforcement are constantly trained and psychologically prepared for the possibility they might have to use lethal force – and even then, sometimes make tragic mistakes by shooting innocent bystanders or other officers.

“You get what you pay for,” Myers said. “If they’re not paying to have a professional who is trained in the handling and use judgement of lethal force, and all they’re doing is putting guns in the hands of teachers, to me that is well-intended but shortsighted.”

Miranda Levingston contributed to this report.

Cover: A trainee takes part in a simulated active-shooter drill during a three-day firearms course for school teachers and administrators sponsored by FASTER Colorado at Flatrock Training Center in Commerce City, Colorado, on June 28, 2018. (Photo: JASON CONNOLLY/AFP/Getty Images)