With No National Standards, Policies For Arming Teachers Are Often Left To Local School Districts
Teachers or other school staff in districts in 31 states can legally carry weapons in schools, according to a review of state laws and local news coverage by Guns & America.
In five states — Idaho, Kansas, Missouri, Texas and South Dakota — teachers or other school staff are explicitly authorized by state law to carry firearms in schools, according to a report by the Education Commission of the States.
Another 26 states leave approval, policies and training requirements up to local school districts, or allow teachers with concealed weapons permits to carry firearms in schools. That means districts can legally allow armed teachers.
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Eighteen states and the District of Columbia have laws explicitly banning the arming of teachers. An ongoing court case in Pennsylvania will likely decide whether or not local districts can decide to arm teachers there.
Many schools employ school resource officers (SROs), which the U.S. Department of Justice defines as "sworn law enforcement officers responsible for safety and crime prevention in schools." In many instances, the SRO is a member of a local police department or sheriff's office.
There is no standard training for armed teachers, however, or set of federal guidelines to help states create policies for allowing teachers to carry firearms. That leaves in many areas a patchwork of protocols and training that depends on the local school district.
'When Something Happens, Everything Changes'
Lakota East High School sits in the middle of open fields, not far from the freeway, 25 miles north of Cincinnati, Ohio. On a recent February morning, Butler County Sheriff's Deputy Doug Hale walked the wide hallways as some of the school's 2,300 students streamed past.
"I can remember when we first opened the building here, 22 years ago," Hale said. "You'd leave the doors unlocked. We never had a problem."
Hale is a school resource officer, county law enforcement's connection to the school. He is there to help students and as an armed presence, in the case of a school shooting. For years, Hale's training required him to wait for backup if a shooter attacked the school.
"I had to wait for three others if something happened in here," Hale said. "Well, you know how it is when something happens, everything changes."
Everything changed in Butler County and in schools across the country after the school shooting in Parkland, Florida. News footage showed the armed school resource officer waiting outside while children were being shot inside.
"And so now we're being trained — solo engagement," Hale said. "If something's going on, I'm the only one here. I'm not waiting on backup."
School shootings are extremely rare, but districts everywhere are under pressure to show they're keeping kids safe.
Many districts have in recent years added more school resource officers or law enforcement personnel. Some districts, though, decided armed police like Hale aren't enough.
Lack Of Consistent Policies
State laws in Connecticut, Georgia, Ohio, Colorado, Oregon, and 21 other states leave the choice to arm school staff to local districts. In Georgia, the first district to arm teachers adopted the policy shortly after the Parkland shooting. In Connecticut, state law leaves the decision to districts, but according to the state's Department of Education, none have adopted an armed teacher policy.
Some school districts in Ohio have decided to allow armed teachers. It is unclear how many because there is no official statewide tracking mechanism. In 2013, a gun rights lobbying group called the Buckeye Firearms Association stepped in and began offering training for teachers and staff who would carry firearms.
Buckeye's three-day training session shows teachers how to stop an active shooter. It includes role-playing and a crash course in police tactics.
According to Buckeye Firearms executive director Dean Rieck, nearly 200 districts across Ohio have attended. Rieck said training sessions were carefully chosen to fit school shooting scenarios.
"We went to the trainers who train police and train SWAT and train military," Rieck said. "So we went to the people who are at the top of the food chain for this type of training."
Parents Sue Over Training
The school board in Madison, Ohio, near Cincinnati, approved a plan to arm teachers by a unanimous vote in April 2018. The board also approved the Buckeye Firearms training program as a requirement for any armed teacher.
The district, however, classified many of the specific policies used for arming teachers as confidential. Details like how teachers are selected to be armed; the weapons they are allowed to carry; when teachers would begin carrying guns; and the rules for engaging with a suspected threat were not released when parents requested them.
In 2018, five parents in the Madison Local School District sued the state, saying that Ohio state law does not allow school districts to arm teachers without requiring teachers to undergo hundreds of hours of training to become a certified peace officer.
Some parts of the district's plan were revealed in court filings: armed teachers are required to carry their gun at all times; they are not supposed to pursue a shooter; and using their firearm is supposed to be a last resort, if lockdown or escape fails.
The number and names of armed teachers approved by Madison's board remained confidential.
Safety In School
Ben Adams is one of several plaintiffs in the lawsuit. He has five children in Madison schools. Adams insisted armed personnel like school resource officers aren't the problem.
"We have two SROs in our building," Adams said. "We have never said that was a bad idea. Because we know that they're properly trained. They have experience."
At the end of February, a judge in the Butler County Common Pleas Court ruled against the parents' lawsuit, ruling that local school districts can arm teachers under existing state law. Though the state requires school resource officers to undergo more than 700 hours of training, those requirements do not apply to teachers, the court ruled.
Ohio districts are free to rely on Buckeye's training.
Research on whether arming teachers makes kids safer is sparse. At this point, few studies have examined the effects.
Adams, a gun owner himself who works in the local fire department, says he thinks about what he has seen as a first responder when he imagines a teacher at his kids' school trying to stop a shooter.
"Adrenaline kicks in," Adams said. "You have to have training to guide you through those moments. I've just seen it. I can't not know that now."
Adams is debating whether to join an appeal to the state Court of Appeals. He and his wife say they're also considering moving their children to another school district.
KERA is part of Guns & America, a national reporting collaborative of 10 public media newsrooms focusing attention on the role of guns in American life. You can find more Guns & America coverage here, and learn more about the collaboration here.