The Valentine’s Day shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, which left 17 dead and many others injured, has some Guilford County officials strongly advocating for arming teachers in Guilford County schools.
The Guilford County Board of Education handles school matters; however, the county helps fund the schools and currently the Board of Commissioners and the school board are working together to enhance school safety as one part of a major joint facilities study now underway.
In the wake of the horrific Parkland school shooting, some county commissioners and Sheriff BJ Barnes are asking the school system to implement a new program that would offer training to teachers in the use of firearms and provide them with access to guns.
Guilford County Commissioner Jeff Phillips fervently backs the move, which he said this week is one whose time has come. He said elected officials and educators have to address the issue of gun violence in schools and prepare for the threat of someone committing a mass school shooting in Guilford County.
“We can’t keep our heads in the sand,” Phillips said. “It’s not whether it’s going to happen; it’s a matter of when. And I just want to make the statement loud and clear – not on our watch.”
As it is now, Phillips said, a shooter has “a gun-free zone filled with arguably some of our most vulnerable citizens.”
He said at some schools there is one armed school resource officer (SRO), but otherwise nothing.
“You’ve got this gaping hole,” Phillips said.
He said he’s very aware that implementing such a change would carry risks, but he added that the risks of not arming teachers are greater. He said the teachers wouldn’t have handguns “strapped to their side” but instead would have quick access to a gun from a secure place in the event of a shooter on campus.
“Some people say, ‘What if this?’ and ‘what if that?’ – but what if a kid comes in and kills 40 people?” Phillips said, adding that the time for action is now. “What are we going to do – wait for 20 of our kids to get shot up. We’re in a different world now.”
Phillips said he was confident most educators with a gun would do whatever they could to stop a shooter if that situation arose.
“Who better and who quicker to address an active shooter than someone armed, well-trained and already on the premises,” Phillips said.
He also said that, no matter how highly trained and well-intentioned law enforcement officers are, they can’t always get to the scene fast enough.
“We don’t have that kind of time to spare should a madman come through the door with the intent to kill our students,” Phillips said. “Every second counts.”
He said arming teachers needs to be part of a larger effort that could include a variety of security enhancements.
“I think we’ve got to take a comprehensive approach,” Phillips said. “I don’t think [arming teachers] is the one solution.”
According to Phillips, more armed SRO’s, more security cameras in schools and better school security practices could all play a role in the solution, but, he added, “It’s also important that we don’t exclude the possibility of arming teachers, on a voluntary basis, as part of a program integrated with law enforcement.”
He said there are “absolutely” concerns about arming teachers and this certainly isn’t “just a flip the switch” program.
According to Phillips, school shootings and related incidents of school violence have become so prevalent that elected officials and administrators have no choice but to move the issue of school security in Guilford County to a front and center position, with everyone playing a role.
“I think it’s law enforcement, it’s elected officials, it’s mental health,” he said. “I think it’s all hands on deck at this point.”
Guilford County Schools has about 5,000 teachers in the system and, under one version of the plan, teachers willing to train and participate would receive an increase in pay.
Some school districts in other states already allow teachers to carry firearms. On Saturday, March 10, NBC News ran a story about the schools in Harrold, Texas, where many students, teachers and administrators say they feel much more secure knowing that some teachers are armed. Harrold Superintendent David Thweatt said not only does it make it possible to repel an attack, it also acts as a preventative measure since a shooter doesn’t know which teachers are armed.
Guilford County Commissioner Hank Henning said this week that he has trouble seeing how anyone opposes arming teachers in today’s world.
“I don’t get the argument,” Henning said. “If you are a parent with kids in school and you get that phone call that there’s a shooter at that school, are you going to be more relieved knowing some teachers are armed? Or are you more relieved if you know your kids are sitting ducks? It scares the hell out of me when I think of my kids in the classroom and I think of that call coming in.”
According to Henning, opponents to armed teachers want to rely completely on government to protect the students.
“At Parkland, government failed at every step of the way,” Henning said. “At Parkland, there were no guns; they relied 100 percent on government.”
Like Phillips, Henning said this isn’t the only step that needs to be taken.
“If there’s another way to keep our kids safe, I’m all ears,” Henning said.
Commissioner Alan Branson also said the option of arming teachers needs to be pursued in the wake of Parkland. He said he’s brought up the idea before but it was met with resistance.
“Nobody wanted to do anything like that,” Branson said,
Branson, who has a concealed carry license, said he believes a lot of teachers would be willing to undergo the necessary training. He said he loves to shoot targets and practice his gun skills.
According to Branson, it makes sense to have “good guys” trained and armed on campus since there’s always the threat of a “bad guy” with a gun showing up.
The county’s sheriff also believes arming teachers is a good idea if done right. Barnes serves on the Governor’s Crime Commission with law enforcement officials from across the state. He said the commission met last week and preventing school shootings was a major a topic of conversation.
Barnes said he believes a well thought out program of arming teachers could enhance school safety. He said that’s true even though Gov. Roy Cooper opposes the move.
“The governor said it’s a terrible Idea,” Barnes said, “but the reality is that I may have a car that’s 15 seconds from the campus but I also may have one that’s 10 minutes away.”
He said most shootings are over in three to five minutes.
Barnes said he wants to see several requirements for the program. For instance, teachers would have to go through concealed carry classes first and then take part in more advanced training overseen by law enforcement professionals. The sheriff also said there would have to be legislative support for a change in the existing gun laws covering school campuses across the state.
Barnes said the reaction to the proposal among school staff varies.
“I’ve talked with some teachers who don’t want their fellow teachers armed and with some who do,” the sheriff said. “It’s a mixed situation.”
“The school board is not going to go along with it,” Barnes added. “This is the same school system that did not want my officers [in schools] to have Tasers.”
SRO’s now have both Tasers and guns.
Barnes added that school officials didn’t even want his SRO’s wearing uniforms. Instead, they asked for officer to have a “softer” appearance by wearing polo shirts or similar clothes. Barnes said his SRO’s tried that for a while but then he had those officers go back to wearing standard uniforms for a number of reasons.
While some county officials find the idea of arming teachers a virtual no-brainer, others are highly opposed to the move. Commissioner Kay Cashion, for instance, said she doesn’t want to see it happen.
“I would not be for arming teachers,” she said. “I have a lot of friends who are teachers and they say this is the worst thing that could happen.”
Cashion added, “I think parents will have plenty to say about this,” indicating that she expects the vast majority of that feedback to be against arming teachers.
Guilford County School Board Member Wes Cashwell also said he’s opposed to the idea. He said that, for one thing, there’s no place secure enough in a school where it would be safe to store guns.
Cashwell added in an email, “Arming classroom educators to serve as first responders in a active shooter situation is both logistically and emotionally an inappropriate best practice for defending our schools.
“While I appreciate that there are teachers who would voluntarily carry weapons, firing shots at a practice range is far different from the split-second that an armed intruder suddenly and violently invades the campus halls or classrooms.”
Cashwell stated that no training program would be enough to prepare a teacher to combat an active shooter who had an automatic weapon – a situation he added, where both physical and mental preparedness are at a premium. He also stated that one SRO recently told him, “If you can’t accurately aim and pull the trigger on the bad guy standing in your classroom doorway, then you become a victim.”
Cashwell summed up his view succinctly: “Teachers should not be placed in that position.
Phillips said some people don’t want to support the move because it “is not politically correct,” and he added that too many people want to focus on gun control when having this debate.
“It’s easy to go there,” he said. “But you could ban all guns and bad people will still do bad things.”
Like Barnes, Phillips said that it will take the support of state legislators to make the change.
“We need them to step up,” said Phillips, who has been talking with school, county and state officials about the proposal.
Guilford County Schools Chief of Staff Nora Carr said this week on the issue of arming teachers, “The school board, as a board, has not taken an official stance on the issue. Without that, there are different opinions on the issue.”
Carr said Guilford County Schools Superintendent Sharon Contreras has expressed her hesitation about arming teachers.
“Certainly, the superintendent has shared concerns, as an educator with 26 years of experience in schools, including Syracuse,” Carr said.
She said that Contreras had a great deal of knowledge and experience regarding “tough schools.”
While Contreras clearly has reservations about arming teachers, she spoke at length at a school board meeting after the Parkland shooting about Guilford County school system efforts to keep students safe.
“Inevitably, when something like this happens, our concern turns to our own schools and communities,” Contreras said. “I want to assure our students, staff, parents and citizens that we make every effort to keep our students safe.”
She also said that, in the wake of the Parkland shooting, meetings with principals had been refocused on school safety and procedures for identifying and preventing potential violence. She also said it’s “deeply unfortunate” that ‘run, hide, fight’ – the FBI protocol for dealing with active shooters – has become part of our educational lexicon.”
The school system is now making a special effort to train substitute teachers in the safety procedures so that they’re as well trained as other teachers in this regard. The school system already prepares students to some extent: Schools conduct lockdown drills for an active shooter or similar threat at least once a semester. (Fire drills are conducted monthly; tornado drills occur once a year.)
According to Contreras, Guilford County’s school system is now scheduling more safety training for administrators, teachers, counselors and support staff. She added that a comprehensive security plan for every school has been worked out with the help of law enforcement.
“Each school is required to have an emergency management plan that must be reviewed and approved by our safety office,” she said.
She told the school board that the school system has a district-wide crisis response team that includes counselors with training in trauma. That team, she said, participated in a full-scale active shooter exercise with first responders from 10 different agencies.
While the school system has taken a number of steps to address school violence, many school officials haven’t said much on arming teachers as a viable move. Instead, they are focused on other moves to keep students safe, such as making sure facilities are as secure as possible.
The school system has spent nearly $2 million since the 2012 Sandy Hook shooting on entry systems, new school alarms and surveillance cameras and more than $6 million on doors, window locks and other safety measures.
Contreras said school officials understand the anxiety in the community.
“This is a challenging time for students, staff and parents. Everyone is nervous; everyone is on edge … We understand that people are scared. Let’s work together to come up with practical and research-based solutions.”