A small number of rural Missouri school districts are allowing some teachers to carry concealed guns. Instead of following a state law that sets out how districts can arm teachers, the schools are using a private security firm to oversee training.
Some say that raises legal and liability questions.
Missouri lawmakers passed a law in 2014 that creates a framework for how school districts can arm their employees to protect against school shootings by becoming “school protection officers.” It sets out how teachers seeking to carry a gun would have to go through special training at a certified law enforcement academy and file their name with the Missouri Department of Public Safety.
Yet no teachers in Missouri have done so.
“There is still no list,” said department spokesman Mike O’Connell. “No names have been received.”
Instead the handful of rural Missouri schools that have armed some of their staff members have contracted with a private security firm to train their employees. Gun laws in Missouri are broad enough that districts simply amend their policies to allow concealed weapons on campus.
Differences in training
Shield Solutions, a private security firm based in West Plains, has trained teachers in several school districts in southwest Missouri, although the company won’t confirm how many. The company provides an initial 40-hour course followed by three days of additional training each year.
CEO Greg Martin said it focuses heavily on firearms training in active shooter situations.
“All of our training, we set up our scenarios so they are high stress. We want them to be able to react properly in a high stress event,” Martin said.
Under the Missouri School Protection Officer law training is supposed to be through a center licensed by the state’s Department of Public Safety.
The law demands three weeks of training that includes crisis prevention, criminal law, use of defensive force, use of deadly force, active shooter situations and use of chemical munitions, such as pepper spray.
Much of the course — such as using pepper spray or detaining people — is unnecessary in a school shooting, contends Martin, whose training is shorter and more focused toward defusing an active shooting situation.
“Our training, it goes so much more past that,” he said.
Just because it doesn’t follow the school protection officer law does not make Shield Solutions’ program a bad options for schools, said John Warner, a former school resource officer who now is the emergency planning coordinator for the Missouri School Boards Association. “It’s just a different way of doing it than what was set out through the legislative action.”
What if something goes wrong?
School employees that go through Shield Solutions training become contractors of the security firm. If an educator uses their weapon to take down an attacker, they are considered employees of Shield Solutions and covered by its insurance rather than the school’s, according to Martin.
So far no teacher in Missouri has been called upon to use a gun at school, but the state’s largest school insurance provider is concerned over what might happen in such a situation.
The Missouri United School Insurance Council is a consortium of 480 school districts in the state providing damage and liability coverage. Executive Director Mark Stockwell said the council will cover districts with armed employees, as long as they’re following the law.
Stockwell said “just a few” of districts insured by the insurance consortium have armed teachers and more are looking into it. He estimates fewer than 10 districts have signed contracts with Shield Solutions so far.
“We don’t have a formal opinion on arming staff, but I can tell you we have concerns over it,” he said.
Liability and legality could be further tested if there is a mishap or if an armed teacher shoots a bystander by mistake during an attack. Stockwell’s “biggest fear” is that allowing more weapons into schools will increase the likelihood of accidental injuries.
“We have a lot of concerns over the school shootings that are occurring,” Stockwell said, “but we also have concerns over arming staff in schools.”
Is it legal?
It’s not illegal. But like insurance coverage for armed teachers in Missouri, the method hasn’t been challenged or tested.
Missouri law designates schools as so-called “gun free zones” but allows exceptions, such as for law enforcement or school-sanctioned clubs that use guns. The state’s concealed carry law, which is separate, gives flexibility to schools to allow guns on campus or to prohibit them completely. Districts with armed employees allow only designated people to carry on campus.
Having educators dually employed by a district and a private security firm lies somewhere between hiring a police officer and using the school protection officer law.
“I don’t know whether what Shield (Solutions) is offering is good or bad, or right or wrong, or legal or illegal,” said Kelli Hopkins, an attorney with the Missouri School Boards Association, or MSBA.
While MSBA wrote draft language for school boards that want to allow faculty to carry guns, Hopkins said if she were in their position, she would be asking “a series of questions” about what is covered by insurance and what the training entails.
So why not use officers?
It costs more to hire a school resource officer than simply paying to train teachers to carry their own weapons, according to several superintendents St. Louis Public Radio interviewed. Schools typically cover 75 percent of the salary of a resource officer, while a local police department would pick up the remaining 25 percent.
“So you’re able to employ more people, more bang for the buck in a sense” with an armed educator, said Howell Valley Superintendent Marvin Hatley, who contracted with Shield Solutions instead of hiring a police officer.
Superintendents, including Hatley, said they could not disclose the cost of training their teachers through Shield Solutions. CEO Greg Martin declined to say how much the company’s training costs.
St. Louis Public Radio obtained copies of contracts between Shield Solutions and the Fairview School District in West Plains. Cost and training specifics were omitted “as disclosure may immediately compromise the security of the school,” Superintendent Aaron Sydow said.
But KCUR reported in 2014 that a contract between Climax Springs School District in central Missouri and Shield Solutions armed two school employees at a cost of $17,500.
One superintendent considering using the private security firm told St. Louis Public he could arm “a couple” of teachers for half the cost of a school resource officer.
Follow Ryan on Twitter: @rpatrickdelaney