American schools in the wake of Parkland and Santa Fe have shown a willingness to try almost anything to stop the next active shooter incident.
Gov. Greg Abbott’s recently released “Safety Action Plan” is a 44-page laundry list of the most popular solutions, including mental health screening, safe gun storage laws, behavior threat assessment programs, and more secure school infrastructure.
On the other side of the aisle, Hollywood types and politicians alike have pushed gun control as a way to stop the next massacre. “How long will we accept weapons of war being used to slaughter our children?” Sen. Dianne Feinstein tweeted the day after Parkland.
Some of these solutions have more merit than others, of course, but none of them will matter the next time a troubled young person steps on campus wielding a firearm. On that day and in that school, only one solution has a chance to save lives: another person with the tools and the training to fire back.
Unfortunately, not all schools are willing to consider this scenario.
“The thing that aggravates me talking to schools is that it seems that violence is the only emergency that they’re comfortable saying they’ll wait on outside help,” Joe Eaton told me in a recent phone interview. Eaton directs FASTER Saves Lives, a firearms training academy designed specifically to help teachers react to active shooter incidents.
“I tell them, if you’ve got a kid that falls in a swimming pool and drowns, you don’t simply call 911 and wait for the ambulance to show up. You jump in the pool, you pull the kid out, you start CPR, and then when the professionals get there you have a patient to transfer to them instead of a victim. Violence has to be the same exact way.”
Some school districts are getting the message, and many have turned to resource officers as a way to have at least one defensive firearm on campus. A recent federal study indicates that the percentage of schools with a security guard, a school resource officer or other sworn law enforcement officer on campus at least once a week has gone up from 42 percent in 2005-06 to 57 percent a decade later.
But while schools may be warming to full-time law enforcement officers, there remains a strong opposition to allowing teachers to perform similar functions.
Teacher’s unions have been among the loudest voices to oppose allowing instructors to arm themselves. I reached out to the National Education Association’s Center for Advocacy (NEA), the nation’s largest teacher’s union, but didn’t receive a response. Still, they’ve made their position clear.
“The overwhelming majority of teachers oppose being armed,” Mary Kusler, the NEA’s senior director, told CNN. “Teachers want to be in their classrooms to teach their children… it is incredibly hard to do that when you’re packing heat.”
Only 18 states allow school districts to grant a teacher permission to carry a firearm on campus, and only four allow a teacher to carry with a concealed carry permit alone, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
More recently, this issue made headlines when some insurance companies decided to distinguish between school resource officers and armed teachers when crafting their policies. These companies refuse to insure schools that allow their teachers to be armed, but industry officials also said that adding school resource officers is generally viewed favorably.
“Putting in more resource officers — that’s additional security — we feel that makes it safer,” Paul Marshall, of McGowan Program Administrators, told the Washington Post. “It’s different when you start pushing it to arming teachers, volunteers, voluntary security.”
The distinction sounds reasonable. Mo Canady, the Executive Director of the National Association of School Resource Officers, told me via email that SROs are all active duty law enforcement officers who undergo a minimum of 40 hours of training in addition to the other training they’ve received throughout the course of their law enforcement career.
“[The NASRO] strongly recommends that no firearms be on a school campus except those carried by carefully selected, specially trained school resource officers,” Canady said in a statement earlier this year. “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.”
Teachers are held to high training standards
Still, the training gap between SROs and school employees may not be as insurmountable as insurance companies and the NASRO believe. Many school districts require their armed teachers to undergo extensive training, multi-day courses that are comparable to those completed by school resource officers.
“One of the first push-backs we started hearing was, ‘Only police officers are qualified enough to have a gun in a school,”’ Eaton said. “So, we’ve taken their standard qualification that every [Ohio] law enforcement officer has to pass, and we’ve made it more difficult and held them to a much higher pass/fail line.”
Eaton is referring to the handgun qualification FASTER graduates must complete at the end of the 26-hour course. The Ohio Police Officer Training Academy requires its cadets to score 80 percent or higher on a 25-shot course of fire. The FASTER course requires students to score 93 percent on a 28-shot course of fire, which includes shots from close retention, shots with the non-dominant and dominant hands, shots while moving, and reloads.
Responding to an active shooter situation requires much more than marksmanship, of course, so FASTER students also receive training on how to move safely from an area of danger, how to move people to an area of safety, and how to deal with large chaotic crowds. They also receive a large block of trauma casualty care.
Eaton said that FASTER Saves Lives has trained over 1,300 staff members from 225 different school districts in 12 states.
In Texas’ Callisburg Independent School District, armed teachers must pass a four-day training and then a two-day refresher every year after that, Superintendent Steve Clugston told me via email.
“Our training is very intense and comparable to what law enforcement experiences,” he said. “We do range work, working as a tactical team and live scenario training in our buildings. We do periodic days at the range to practice our training, both in small groups and on our own. I believe we are well trained and have a great deal of confidence in our team.”
The same is true in Arkansas’ Clarksville Independent School District, where they’ve been training school employees to carry firearms for the last five years. Superintendent David Hopkins told me they’ve trained 25 school employees to carry firearms in their five buildings, and they require an initial 60 hours of training and a 24-hour refresher course every year after that.
The initial training includes CPR, combat medical training to stop puncture wounds and bleeding, legal authority training, judicious use of a firearm training, force-on-force training inside school buildings, and live fire exercises. They’ve hired law enforcement officers to conduct their course, and Hopkins said it’s comparable to northwest Arkansas police departments. By the course’s conclusion, graduates become Commissioned School Security Officers who are regulated by the Arkansas State Police.
In many states, independent school districts have the authority to develop their own training requirements, but some states have also developed minimum standards that school employees have to meet. Many of those standards are exceptionally high and require teachers and school employees to attend multiple-day courses and demonstrate proficiency with a firearm.
Florida, for instance, recently passed the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act, which allows sheriffs to establish in their jurisdictions a Coach Aaron Feis Guardian Program. These guardians must complete 132 total hours of comprehensive firearm safety and proficiency training, eighty of which are spent on firearms instruction based on the Criminal Justice Standards and Training Commission’s Law Enforcement Academy training model.
Like in the FASTER program, participants must demonstrate a higher proficiency than the law enforcement training model requires. Feis Guardian programs require at least 10 percent but no more than 20 percent more rounds fired than associated with academy training, and program participants must achieve an 85 percent hit rate.
Whether any sheriffs will actually adopt the program is yet to be seen, but 132 hours far exceeds the minimum required of SROs.
It’s the same story in South Dakota, where their “School Sentinel Program” has been training teachers to carry firearms since 2013. The training requires at least 80 hours of instruction in firearms proficiency, use of force, legal aspects, weapons retention, protocol for identifying sentinels, and first aid. School employees must also be interviewed by the school board, pass a physical examination, and hold a valid concealed carry permit.
South Carolina is currently considering a bill that would institute a program for training “School Protection Officers.” If passed, the bill would require school employees to complete a one-week training course offered by the Law Enforcement Training Council and Criminal Justice Academy. Employees must also hold a valid concealed carry weapons permit, keep the firearm concealed at all times, and not have a history of violence.
The list goes on, and while four states allow teachers to carry a firearm with nothing more than a concealed carry permit, the vast majority require training comparable to that completed by a school resource officer. Of course, the benefits of a career in law enforcement cannot be understated. SROs are qualified to perform a wide variety of functions that a teacher cannot, and in an active shooter situation, a sworn law enforcement officer is likely more capable than a teacher or janitor.
Still, it’s important in the debates surrounding school shootings to acknowledge the substantial amount of training most armed teachers receive. In terms of hours, content, and quality of instruction, these courses provide the information necessary for a teacher to respond effectively to a violent situation. If we’re willing to trust a school resource officer with the defense of our children, we should also be willing to trust a highly trained teacher to perform the same role.
Teachers offer unique advantages
Many school districts, including those whose superintendents I spoke with, install both SROs and armed teachers to defend their students. As Canady pointed out, SROs train constantly. They’ve chosen to make a career monitoring school safety, and, unlike teachers, they spend their entire day ensuring the security of students.
Hopkins also mentioned that while teachers and school employees are only trained to handle active shooter situations, SROs offer many additional services.
“[Our SRO is] a great guy. He does a fantastic job,” Hopkins said. “His role is a lot different than the Commissioned School Security Officers. If we have a situation where we have to call the police, we don’t handle it ourselves. We call the police or our school resource officer handles it.”
SROs care deeply about their students, handle their tasks effectively, and provide an invaluable asset to any school district.
All that being said, schools who are hesitant about arming teachers must also realize that armed and highly trained school employees offer unique advantages that SROs do not.
The first and most obvious is economic. Hopkins said that the cost of their SRO is pushing $60,000 per year. While the school shares that cost with the city, the district can train and equip all 25 Commissioned School Security Officers for $10-15,000 per year.
Eaton said in other areas of the country an SRO can cost over $100,000 per year. FASTER, by contrast, will train a teacher for $1,500, which includes a hotel room during their stay in Ohio.
For public school districts already strapped for cash, training teachers to carry firearms can be a cost-effective way to ensure that at least one person with a gun will be on campus to defend against an active shooter.
The ability to arm multiple teachers also means that a mass murderer can be engaged more quickly.
FASTER’s course was developed by John Benner of the Tactical Defense Institute. Benner spent twenty years commanding Hamilton County, Ohio’s, SWAT team, and he also traveled the U.S. under contract with the National Association of School Resource Officers doing similar training to that which he currently provides at FASTER.
Benner “quickly realized that if we put a police officer standing at the front door of a school, told him he was responding to a violent event, that by the time he could get into the school, find the problem, and solve the problem, we’d killed everybody in the room,” Eaton told me.
If a school can only afford to hire one resource officer, he or she may have trouble responding quickly to a mass murder occurring across campus, an event which might be over in a matter of minutes. Five teachers spread across one building have a much better chance of being in the immediate vicinity of an active shooter than one resource officer stationed near the front door.
Teachers are more numerous, and they’re also more concealed.
One student from Santa Fe High School specifically mentioned to Gov. Greg Abbott that students shouldn’t know who has a gun and who doesn’t.
“Arming teachers, and not knowing who is armed, that is what we need,” she said.
Eaton echoed this sentiment.
“[SROs] are a great resource for the communities, but they also have a big bull’s eye on their back,” he said. “And they’re easily tracked, they’re easily monitored. Regardless of how well-trained you are, anyone can be taken if they’re ambushed.”
It’s worth noting that SROs in Maryland and Illinois recently stopped mass murders despite their highly visible positions. Still, a young person thinking about killing his classmates knows he must either take down or avoid an SRO, and he can accomplish either task with some planning. Armed teachers, on the other hand, are impossible to target or avoid if none of the students know which of their instructors are carrying a firearm.
Finally, schools have the ability to carefully select which teachers they arm, an option not always available with SROs.
“We heard a lot about Parkland when the SRO didn’t go in, a lot of people said well it just proves it can’t work,” Eaton said. “The reality is that law enforcement is just like every occupation out there. Half are above average, half are below average, and you don’t get to pick who’s coming to help you on that day.”
By choosing the staff, overseeing their training, and monitoring the qualification level, schools can help ensure that only the best, most willing candidates are entrusted with the responsibility of responding to an active shooter situation. Hiring an SRO doesn’t always give school districts that ability.
SROs and armed teachers both offer schools a last resort defense against an armed intruder. While mental health screenings and gun storage laws might help long-term, no school should be defenseless if and when those measures fail.
SROs are understandably preferred over armed teachers by many school districts, but those superintendents—and the American public at large—owe it to their students to investigate every option at their disposal. School districts across the county have already proven that teachers can be trained to carry a firearm safely and engage an active shooter effectively.
The best argument in favor of armed teachers has been tragically enacted time and again by defenseless instructors like Aaron Feis, who throw themselves in front of bullets to protect their students.
“In every school building right now in the United States, there are certain school staff who would willingly stand between somebody with a rifle and these kids,” Eaton said, speaking of his experience interacting with thousands of teachers at FASTER. “And they’re going to do it tomorrow whether they have any chance of surviving or not.”
Schools have an obligation to give these men and women the tools and training necessary to help them return to their own families every night. Districts across the country have taken those steps, and it’s time more of them did the same.