Sandy Hook tragedy prompts talk of arming teachers

Sandy Hook tragedy prompts talk of arming teachers

Currently, only the school resource officers are allowed to carry guns at Fairmont.

It’s something Kettering City School teachers likely never considered – and never had to – before the second deadliest school shooting in U.S. history occurred just before Christmas. Now, the topic of allowing teachers to carry firearms on school grounds has become a hot topic across the country.

On Dec. 14, 2012, Newtown, Conn., experienced a momentous event that not only impacted its community but made heads turn all over the United States. Twenty-year-old Adam Lanza shot his way into Sandy Hook Elementary School and fatally shot 20 children and six staff members before turning the gun on himself. Earlier, he had killed his mother. The death toll was surpassed only by the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre in which 33 people, including the shooter, died.

When an event like the Sandy Hook shooting happens, it sparks all kinds of emotions within individuals. Fairmont Principal Dan VonHandorf says his thoughts immediately went to the different people in his life. “I have a kindergartner at Southdale Elementary, so when I first heard about the Connecticut shooting, I thought about my own kids,” he said. “My next thought was Fairmont and our teachers and our kids.”

For others, the shooting was so horrific that all they felt was sadness. “All I can remember thinking was that it was awful,” said Fairmont English teacher Fig Poling.

Change for the future

As with other national tragedies, the Sandy Hook shooting has sparked a massive call for change across the country, and Ohio is no exception to these cries. Ohio is one of many states that generally prohibit concealed weapons on school property, but school districts are allowed to choose to make exceptions to that rule. That’s what the Orrville School Board did on Jan. 10, when it unanimously voted to allow a veteran science teacher and police officer in nearby Lawrence Township to carry a concealed firearm in the high school.

That may be the first but not last time that happens in the Buckeye state. In response to the Sandy Hook tragedy, the Buckeye Firearms Association, a gun-rights organization based in Delaware, Ohio, launched the Armed Teacher Training Program with a goal to select 24 teachers to attend a three-day firearm training at no cost. As of Jan. 9, 2013, more than a thousand educators had applied for the 24 spots.

Ohio isn’t the only state in the midst of change. Arizona Attorney General Tom Horne has proposed a state law amendment that would allow one teacher official in each school to carry a gun. Horne said the gun training for school officials would be funded. Other states considering changes to their gun laws are Wisconsin, Oregon and Colorado. According to USA Today, Utah, Hawaii, New Hampshire and Oregon already allow people to carry weapons onto public school properties.

Should teachers bear arms?

So far, the Kettering Board of Education hasn’t taken action to allow Kettering teachers to carry weapons in schools. But that doesn’t mean many of the educators and administrators aren’t pondering the idea – and all of the pros and cons associated with it.

Fairmont Physics teacher Chad Runyon, who has military experience, understands both sides of the debate over arming teachers. “I think in a situation such as the one in Connecticut, I would like to be armed,” said Runyon, who has a son in middle school. “But having said that, I think it’s a sad state that we are in a situation where we are thinking about arming teachers. And I’m sure a lot of teachers wouldn’t be comfortable with being armed.”

While some teachers could manage being armed at work, the idea horrifies others. “Fairmont has over a hundred teachers in the school and if every teacher decided to arm themselves, that’s over a hundred guns in one school,” said Poling. “There’s just too much up to chance and too many things that could occur. Guns could get stolen and you could have an unstable student or even a teacher.”

Poling reminisces on a time a few years ago when she had her laptop, cell phone and iPod stolen at school. “My fear is teachers may not have a secure place to have guns,” she said. “I have one cupboard in my room with a lock on it, and honestly, if someone wanted to get into it, they could. And that just scares me.”

West Unit English teacher Rebecca Templeton-Owens has two children, one of whom is in first grade. “As a parent of a first-grader, when I heard about the shooting, I cried,” she said.

Even so, she does not want to be carrying a gun at Fairmont. “I wouldn’t want to be known as a teacher who is packing heat,” said Templeton-Owens. “I can see why people think it’ll be a deterrent; I just don’t think that it will stop people who want to do harm.”

Fairmont Latin teacher David Vesely says he’s a gun-rights advocate, but he also feels teachers shouldn’t be armed in schools. “I don’t think arming teachers is a good idea because I’m afraid the wrong sort of teacher will have a gun. They’re talking about a small 6- or 8-hour course in learning about guns, and yet, it takes several years to train and psychologically evaluate a police officer,” said Vesely.

Social Studies teacher John Butchko says that if he felt the need to be armed, then he would be armed. “I don’t look for the government to give me permission to protect myself,” said Butchko. “If I worked somewhere where I was afraid for my life, laws wouldn’t matter. I would change jobs to protect myself. I don’t work in a place like that.”

As superintendent of Kettering City Schools, Jim Schoenlein has to consider every angle of the possibility of arming teachers. “If you think hard for a few minutes, you can think of at least a half dozen serious philosophical and practical problems with arming teachers,” said Schoenlein. “Research is clear: feelings of anxiety and insecurity certainly inhibit learning, so we take measures to cause students to feel safe. But, does the ubiquitousness of bulletproof glass, locked doors, armed guards, cameras, etc. actually cause children to feel less safe?”

Schoenlein believes all aspects need to be considered before coming to a decision. “I, personally, have no thoughts of arming teachers, but I have not yet totally dismissed the idea of arming principals,” he said.

Prevention for the future

With several notable instances of gun violence in schools, such as the shooting at Chardon High School in Chardon, Ohio, the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting, and the recent shooting at Taft Union High School in California, the idea of arming teachers has brought some to question whether weapons on school campuses will prevent future events such as these.

Templeton-Owens believes there are other way to prevent tragedies such as Sandy Hook, but that they will take a lot of work and money. “I personally believe that taking semi-automatic weapons and rounds and making them illegal is only one step. I believe that looking into mental health care is another huge step, but these things cost money and nobody wants to spend it.”

This month, President Barack Obama presented his proposals for changes in gun laws and other measures in response to the gun violence and tragedies such as Sandy Hook. Any mention of gun control typically leads to a heated debate in this country, and while Templeton-Owens feels the dialogue is important, she also has a message for legislators. “I think partisanship shouldn’t play a role in what’s going to be the future of gun law,” she said. “There needs to be common-sense compromise.”

Fairmont has one security guard who patrols the inside, two who patrol the outside and a Kettering Police officer who is in the building from time to time. In addition, the high school is less than a block away from the Kettering Police Department.

“During training this past summer, one of the Kettering Police Department’s biggest messages was if a situation such as a shooting happened here, it would be a matter of minutes, if not seconds, until the entire police department was here,” said VonHandorf. “I would pick a trained Kettering police officer or SWAT team member 10 out of 10 times over a teacher who doesn’t have that training or doesn’t have that same expertise.”

School Resource Officer Carla Sacher is posted at Fairmont, Alter High School, Van Buren Middle School and the Dayton STEM School. She calls the topic of arming teachers a “double-edged sword. If it comes to a confrontation, then teachers need to be trained,” said Sacher. “However, I don’t think we need to rush to any decision to arm teachers. If a community decides to arm teachers, it is something that needs to be handled delicately.”

Sacher has looked at many sides of the controversial topic of arming teachers. She’s considered what a police officer arriving on a scene might encounter. “Identifying who the shooter is would be a lot harder if a teacher is armed. We don’t know which one is the assailant,” said Sacher. “It’s also very difficult for teachers to change their mindset to killing an assailant, which could even be a student; it is a very difficult mental state.”

Other methods are being taught to teachers to help them in these types of situations. One of them is named ALICE, which stands for Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter and Escape. “ALICE is a way of empowering teachers without arming them,” said Wayne Villelli, another Kettering school resource officer who works in the elementary schools.

According to Villelli, there is a 30-second to 4-minute window where a person is alone in any situation before a trained professional arrives. “If we leave you with the mindset that all you need to do is lock down and wait, you may be sitting ducks. The whole idea of ALICE is to empower teachers to repel attacks and contact the police in the first few minutes that they are alone.”

An informational demonstration about the ALICE method will be held at Wright State University on Jan. 28, 2013, from 6 to 9 p.m.

“We can’t guarantee that anything will work, we can just give teachers tools,” said Sacher. “You have to know what to do in those situations. As of now, ALICE is the more reasonable option to rush to.”

The Kettering School District is forming a committee to assess safety options in the wake of the Sandy Hook shooting. Headed by district Business Manager Ken Lackey, the committee includes a wide range of people from Kettering, including Mayor Don Patterson, a School Board member, parents, the Kettering Police Department, teachers and administrators.

“Our safety committee will proceed deliberately, consider all options, suggestions, evidence and options and try to make wise decisions,” said Schoenlein. While the Kettering City School District is in the midst of creating this committee, it encourages anyone who has questions or comments to call 937-499-1430 or 937-499-1458.

No matter the specific decisions the district makes, Schoenlein says one thing above all must remain at the forefront. “Keeping everyone safe is our absolute first consideration in the Kettering City School District,” he said.