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Armed Staff Keep Rural Schools Safe When Police Are Far Away, Panel Hears

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Proposals to arm teachers and school staff have stirred controversy since the February school shooting in Parkland, Fla., but such plans are sometimes the best options for rural schools far from first responders, state and school officials told the Federal School Safety Commission at a site visit in Arkansas on Wednesday.

"While we are blessed to have excellent law enforcement officers ... because of where we're located, the last two sheriffs here in Garland County told me we could expect 20 to 30 minutes wait time if an active shooter situation happened on campus before an officer could be here," Lake Hamilton, Ark., schools Superintendent Steve Anderson, who carries a gun at school, told the commission. "We're not willing to take that chance. We need someone to protect our kids."

Cutter Morning Star district Superintendent Nancy Anderson told the panel of a time she heard three gunshots on an elementary playground. Armed, she rushed to respond as the gunman ran away. 

"I was never so happy, and never so relieved, and never so empowered that I knew I had a gun and I could protect our children," she said.

The federal task force, chaired by U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, has held public comment hearings, convened panels of experts, and visited schools of various sizes to hear about how they prevent and respond to school violence since it was formed in the spring. DeVos was not present at Wednesday's meeting in Pearcy, Arkansas, which was led by U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

The commission heard testimony from local supporters of armed school staff, but it did not hear from any of the groups who have opposed such proposals.

School Shootings Are Rare

School shootings remain statistically rare, and schools remain relatively safe. Federal data show that student victimizations have trended downward for years. And the number of violent student homicides in schools have not trended significantly upward since the 1999 shootings at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., which sparked many school safety conversations.

Still, large shootings like those in Parkland and in Santa Fe, Texas, lead schools to explore their safety procedures, often in order to reassure anxious parents. A recent poll found about a third of public school parents fear for their children's safety at school.

In the days following the Parkland shootiing, President Donald Trump spoke in favor of arming teachers and "hardening schools"  by increasing the presence of armed adults. Federal law prohibits guns in school zones unless specific people are authorized to carry them under state and local laws. 

Recent polling data show a majority of teachers and parents do not favor such proposals. In the spring, the National Association of School Resource Officers discouraged arming school staff. Responding to active shooters requires hours of specialized training and ongoing practice that aren't feasible for many educators, the organization said.

"Anyone who hasn't received the extensive training provided to law enforcement officers will likely be mentally unprepared to take a life, especially the life of a student assailant," the organization said.

And some educators who've survived school shootings have told Education Week they don't believe educators should be armed.

Arming School Staff

Lake Hamilton has armed some school staff since 1993, first having them secure licenses meant for security guards of private businesses. After that use was deemed unpermissable by a state licensing board in 2013, the state passed a law allowing districts to commission screened staff members to carry weapons after they received an initial 60 hours of specialized training developed by the Arkansas State Police. Participating staff must receive 24 hours of additional training each year to maintain their commission.

In Lake Hamilton, armed staff include a few school resource officers, security guards, administrators, and a small number of noninstructional staff who have access to firearms that are double-locked in secured locations along with vests, radios, and other gear, Anderson said.

Other Arkansas districts also arm staff, but state law exempts school safety plans from open records laws, so the exact number is not publicly known.

Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, a Republican and former undersecretary in the Department of Homeland Security, led the National Rifle Association's response to Sandy Hook. That response, called Operation School Shield, recommended increasing the presence of armed adults in schools.

Some Arkansas districts, like Bentonville, have opened up rooms to allow city police officers to have a quiet place to fill out paperwork, adding an informal armed presence off-and-on throughout the day, Hutchinson told the commission Wednesday,  calling for "layered security" in schools. A school safety task force assembled by Hutchinson has also found that the state's school counselors are often burdened with administrative paperwork, leaving them little time to help support students who may be at-risk, he said.

While most professional groups and teachers unions favor on-campus law enforcement over armed staff, Arkansas struggles to recruit and retain a sufficient number of officers, said Jami Cook, director of the Arkansas Commission on Law Enforcement Standards and Training. She noted that one rural chief had a position open for a full year and saw no qualifed applicants.

"It may not be popular, but this is where we are," she said of armed school staff. "We have to give schools options to protect our babies."

While Hutchinson said he favored giving schools options, he said no teacher should be required to carry a firearm.

Jay Barth, the chair of the state's board of education, took that a step further, telling the commission that armed school staff should never include teachers.

"To be an effective classroom teacher, it requires 100 percent of one's attention," Barth said. "I think that to alter one's mindset in a way that is problematic."

Barth also challenged the panel to take a broader view of school safety, considering issues like bullying and school climate in addition to rare worst-case scenarios like shootings.

He noted that several schools around the country have had mass shootings, despite the presence of armed security and law enforcement on campus.

"It is not a panacea," Barth said of arming staff.

Absent from the meeting where representatives of groups that have opposed arming educators. Some of those groups have shared their thoughts at the commission's previous public hearings. Among their concerns:

  • The presence of firearms may make students feel scared or anxious;
  • The presence of firearms could create security risks and increase liability for schools;
  • Firearms training for educators may be insufficient for complicated active-shooter situations; and 
  • Arming educators may shift valuable resources away from necessary school programs, like those used to support students.

Photo: Teachers and staff of the Clifton Independent School District in Clifton, Texas, participate in a handgun training session in February 2013. --Lance Rosenfield/Prime for Education Week-File

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