On Sept. 11, 1992, a student at Palo Duro High School in Amarillo, TX brought a gun into the building. He opened fire after a pep rally, shooting and wounding six other students.
Steve Reams, a survivor of this shooting, now serves as the Weld County sheriff. In reflecting on the experience, he wondered if the situation could have turned out better had teachers been armed.
“I remember teachers trying to figure out how to shield students and trying to figure out how to subdue or take on the suspect without any tools to do so,” he said. “I watched what happened and I can definitely see… if all those teachers had been armed, how that would have probably turned out much differently.”
Reams is not the only person considering the idea of armed school staff. As the national community wrestles with the pros and cons of the idea, the Weld RE-8 school district has joined the conversation – with a diverse array of opinions coming from community members.
Colorado law allows school districts and charter schools to designate a policy of armed school staff.
Although the state does not specify training requirements for staff members who will carry a firearm, school district insurance providers such as the Colorado School Districts Self Insurance Pool, which covers Weld RE-8, often have requirements for training.
Laura Carno is the executive director of FASTER Colorado, a provider of armed staff training for schools. She presented her program to the Weld RE-8 Board of Education at a Sept. 8 work session.
FASTER Colorado is a project of the Independence Institute, a Denver-based think tank that has received funding from the National Rifle Association, as reported by the Denver Post.
In the program’s three-day level one course, class members learn tactical emergency casualty care, participate in scenario-based training and simulations, learn advanced handgun basics, spend time on the range to work on marksmanship and tactical skills and complete the Colorado Peace Officer Standards and Training qualification in handgun proficiency test, according to the website.
School staff in a district where it is authorized would choose to be armed on a volunteer basis, Carno said. School boards have the power to determine specific vetting processes to decide which staff members can participate in the program, she added.
Carno said having an armed response to mass shootings would lead to lower death counts and would discourage school shooters in the long run.
“Once it’s known in society that you can’t go… unchecked – you can’t try and kill children on a campus where they’re innocent and they’re there to learn – when that stops happening because they’re stopped in their tracks, the killers will stop going to schools,” Carno said.
“You can’t take a bullet back”
But not everyone agrees. During a Weld RE-8 work session on Oct. 12, district instructional coach and former Fort Lupton High School teacher Judy Callaway expressed concern about arming teachers in the district.
“I think it puts kids at greater risk,” she said.
Callaway, who grew up in a family that hunted, emphasized the seriousness of firearms.
“Growing up, if you messed around with the guns, you didn’t get dinner,” she said. “You gotta be really confident if you’re gonna handle a firearm, I feel. Really confident. You can’t take a bullet back, so you gotta make sure it’s going where you want it to go.”
Fort Lupton Police Chief John Fryar also commented on the weight of responsibility that arming teachers would place on them.
“I look at what training our officers go through to prepare them, and there's a fair amount,” he said. “Then they have to be able to justify exactly what they did, why they did it, and then the outcome. And you know, that's part of our job every day. But it's not part of a teacher's job.”
Carno said the FASTER program recognizes that there are risks involved in arming staff and it trains people to be as prepared as possible to mitigate those risks. This includes teaching staff proper weapon retention techniques and safety protocols for keeping their concealed weapon on their body.
But at the end of the day, she said the biggest risk is that of an unopposed school shooter.
“I know that (people who oppose armed teachers) are hoping fewer guns means less death,” she said. “But if the only gun on that campus is the killer, having no response to that is not okay. It's a unilateral gunfight.”
Emergency response concerns
According to Carno, arming school staff would give them the opportunity to act while they are waiting for law enforcement officers to arrive on the scene, just like someone would react during a fire.
“If there's a kitchen fire, I dial 911 because I want… the experts to get here,” she said. “But I also have a fire extinguisher and I'm not going to stand around while things could get worse. I'm going to stop the fire.”
Considering response times
According to Fryar, the Fort Lupton Police Department’s average response time for critical emergencies is three minutes and 38 seconds. Although several RE-8 schools are just down the block from the station, he said his officers could be anywhere in the city during a potential active shooter situation.
Reams, whose department would be part of the response chain for an active shooter situation in Fort Lupton, said his team’s average response time for high-priority emergencies is seven minutes or less because they respond to calls across the entire county.
Fryar said he sees both pros and cons to arming teachers. For him, the primary benefit would be the ability to divert a shooter more immediately.
“The sooner a shooter is confronted, the more likely that shooter is to stop,” he said. “A teacher or administrator being able to do that before we get there may improve the odds of the situation turning out better.”
When officers arrive to the scene, however, some people worry that a dangerous situation could occur. In the study session, Superintendent Alan Kaylor said he had heard the concern that a “good guy” intending to help could be shot by a police officer.
“The most dangerous part of this whole thing aside from confronting an active killer is that link-up with law enforcement,” Carno acknowledged.
She said in addition to training for the transition, a technology called LifeSpot can help address the risk of accidentally shooting an armed staff member. The application displays a live virtual map of where authorized armed individuals are in the building so officers can identify who the threat is.
Fryar said the risk of confusion is still a concern for him, even with the availability of risk-reducing tools.
“You get that call and your set of priorities start running in one direction. Where's the shooter? Where do I go?” he said. “Your mind really isn’t going to say, ‘I need to look at that database and see where the guns are.' It sounds like a great idea, but when the stress is on, I’m concerned about the ability to manage that successfully.”
For Reams, confusion about which armed person is the threat would still be better than the alternative.
“As a law enforcement officer, I would much rather be faced with (that scenario) than showing up to a school where everyone is just set to be a victim,” he said.
“Those that it immediately affects”
As the conversation about armed staff continues in Weld RE-8, the board of education members have repeatedly emphasized the importance of including the community in the conversation.
“We can go very far with school safety,” board member Matthew Bovee said. “We have to find out where that line is and what’s right for Weld 8. And in order to do that we need to get feedback from staff and we need to get feedback from the community. I’m in favor of what the community and staff would like to see.”
Fryar also said the community’s perspectives are important in making this decision.
“There's good parts to it, and there's bad parts to it,” he said. “And I think the weighing those out needs to be done by those that it immediately affects.”
The school board members will speak to the principals at their respective schools in the coming weeks to gauge interest in the program and gather opinions. At the RE-8 study session on Nov. 10, the board will discuss the next steps for how to involve the community in the conversation.
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