Columbus OH Nov 7 2016 The next person to be shot in an Ohio school could be at the hands of a teacher allowed to carry a gun.
In a trend that has grown rapidly since the late 2012 school shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, an increasing number of school districts around Ohio have authorized teachers and school staff members to carry concealed firearms in classrooms.
But which schools allow armed teachers, or which teachers volunteer to be armed, across Ohio is not known. Details of the policies are legally allowed to be secret and some districts do little to let the public know such a policy has even been enacted. But expert estimates put the number of districts arming staff members at more than 175, or more than one in four districts in the state.
The surge in such policies is significant for Ohio students, parents and for those who work in schools. Some view allowing the concealed carry of firearms at schools as a major boost to staff and student safety. If a child or other perpetrator goes on a shooting spree, an armed teacher can kill the shooter before more lives are lost. Others flatly oppose the measures — citing a raft of concerns including the potential for accidents, potential confusion over distinguishing a shooter from a staff member and worries that armed staff members are ill-trained to manage the authority to take a life during a crisis.
“Five years ago we probably wouldn’t have considered it, and even three or two years ago I would still have been saying this is not the direction we want to go,” said David Hire, Superintendent of Coshocton City Schools, who hopes to have armed staff members in his schools by year end. “But we’re living in a society where this is becoming almost weekly or every other week where there is some event somewhere around the country.”
School policies in Ohio on guns vary. Districts have long been allowed by state law to authorize specific staff members such as teachers, custodians or administrators to carry concealed weapons. Few, if any, districts were known to have done so — until the Dec. 2012 Sandy Hook shooting, when 20 children and six adults were fatally shot by a gunman in Connecticut.
Following that incident, the Columbus-based Buckeye Firearms Association, which advocates for gun ownership and fewer gun control laws, began more actively promoting the arming of school staff, along with spearheading a training program for school employees who want to carry concealed firearms in schools. The West Union-based Tactical Defense Institute, funded by the Buckeye Firearms Foundation, said that it has trained staff members from 175 districts around the state to carry concealed firearms.
As more schools have adopted such measures, district administrators have begun to get more comfortable with the notion of arming school staff, said Hire, who estimates as many as 200 districts in the state have adopted the firearms measures. Hire said he expects that number to continue to grow.
“It has always been the thinking that we don’t need to go in this direction,” Hire said. “But I said I’m so impressed with the quality of the training and what they are learning that I think this is something we need to talk about.”
The River View Local Schools Board of Education approved allowing select employees to carry concealed guns on school property and at school events to protect against armed attacks last month, and staff at Coshocton County Career Center has undergone concealed carry training. Ridgewood School District will not arm its staff, but the district's 165 employees will begin ALICE training this month to learn how to react to an armed intruder.
There is no official list of which Ohio schools allow school staff to carry concealed weapons, and it isn’t always easy to find out if such policies are in place. School districts are required to adopt policies in public school board meetings, but Ohio law gives districts the ability to keep much about arming staff members secret because school security plans aren’t public. That can lead to some schools disclosing their approach, and others staying mum.
The Zanesville City Schools District for example, adopted a concealed firearms policy in a public meeting in June, but at East Muskingum Local Schools, the neighboring district to the east, parents and students are kept in the dark on whether staff members are carrying guns or not.
“As protected by the law, school safety plans are not public record,” Superintendent Jill Sheridan said in an email inquiring as to whether the school district has adopted a policy to arm its staff.
Many school superintendents, however, are quick to say they don’t support arming school staff members.
“As far as a lethal response, with a gun, we’re not comfortable with it here,” said Colonel Crawford Local Schools Superintendent Todd Martin, whose schools are near Bucyrus.
He said he is an avid supporter of the right to bear arms, holds a concealed carry permit and carries a gun when he’s not at school. Plus, he was stabbed during a hostage situation with a student in 2007. Despite that incident, and his experience with firearms, Martin said he still is against carrying guns in school, and personally doesn’t feel qualified to draw a firearm to diffuse a school shooting incident.
“If I’m going to have a gun on the premises I’d rather have a resource officer who has been trained,” Martin said. “If I’m going to defend myself in the community, I’m not firing around potentially 1,000 kids in classrooms and hallways.”
Colonel Crawford does not employ a resource officer — typically a sworn local police officer who acts as a security guard for schools, but many schools do. Liberty Union-Thurston Local Schools in Fairfield County opted not to arm school staff members — instead the district made its resource officer full time in 2015, said Superintendent Todd Osborn.
The officer provides an armed presence in the schools, but has also become an important role model for students, he said.
“Kids feel comfortable going to him if there are problems, and we’ve been able to get out in front of potential issues or to help kids when things are happening at home, not even at the school,” Osborn said.
Concerns from the Baltimore Police Department that armed school staff might be mistaken for an active shooter were one reason the district didn’t move forward with a concealed carry policy, Osborn said.
Schools often pay the salaries of resource officers, but arming staff members is usually a much cheaper route as existing employees are already being paid to perform their normal duties and typically purchase their own firearms.
Arming school staff members is a decision each district has to make based on its own needs and circumstances, said Dick Caster, the school safety and security consultant for the Ohio School Boards Association.
“I have 35 years in public school administration in some capacity and never did I think we would be arming staff,” he said. “When you talk about arming staff, it’s kind of chilling but you cannot not have the discussion.”
But for Hire, who said he never had much of an interest in guns, and whose religious beliefs don’t align with carrying a firearm or taking a life, the risk of a school shooting is just too high not to have armed staff. The school also employs a resource officer.
“I’ve come full circle to say that I’m not going to allow someone to take someone else’s life,” he said. “I feel a confidence about the people that have gone through the training.”
Hire said he also got the support of the Coshocton County Sheriff’s Office before moving ahead with a concealed-carry policy.
“I doubt we would have done anything if we didn’t have the blessing of the sheriff,” he said.
Calls to Coshocton County Sheriff Tim Rogers were not returned.
Coshocton staff were trained by the Tactical Defense Institute during a three-day class with extensive live-firing exercises, and training in conflict resolution, medical trauma treatment and more, Hire said.
Training is crucial for armed staff members to be effective, said Joe Eaton, who runs the institute.
“All you have to have is a concealed handgun license and permission from the school board,” he said. “But most schools realize that getting additional specialized training on these kind of events is necessary.”