Glenwood Elementary School sits along a state highway between West Plains and the Arkansas border, in far south-central Missouri. If the school has an emergency, the Howell County Sheriff’s Department is more than 10 minutes away.
Superintendent Wayne Stewart said it’s a situation that makes the district of 240 students especially vulnerable if a shooter ever attacked.
“Very likely, the deed would be done by the time emergency responders got here,” he said.
Educators and lawmakers are immersed in a debate over arming teachers and staff to prevent future school shootings. It’s an idea President Donald Trump supports and something several rural Missouri school districts are already doing.
While urban superintendents shudder at the idea of bringing guns into classrooms, school leaders in more sparsely populated parts of Missouri, like Stewart, say help is often several miles away, and the cost of hiring security, known as school resource officers, is beyond their budgets.
With the increase in high-profile school shootings around the nation, Stewart spent money fortifying his school. He sealed off entry points and installed bulletproof glass. Teachers and students practiced lockdown drills.
“It seems like a purely defensive measure, and I would like to do something that gives us a little more advantage,” he said.
Now, in the weeks since the latest school mass shooting last month at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida, Stewart is getting pressure from parents to have armed employees. He’s still hesitant but said he’ll bring the issue up with his school board.
“I’m in a quandary,” he said.
A fighting chance
Police officers, known as school resource officers, have become nearly as common a sight in school for urban and suburban students over the past two decades as the cafeteria lunch lady. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, though, just about a quarter of schools had resource officers as of the 2013-14 school year.
The Howell Valley School District just north of Glenwood made the decision to arm its faculty for half the cost of hiring a school resource officer, to protect the school’s 200 kids.
“They become your family,” said superintendent Marvin Hatley. “They become the kids that you love. So it’s a very big motivator for our staff to be able to defend those we love.”
Howell Valley decided to allow teachers to be trained to carry concealed weapons in 2013 to provide “more of a chance."
"What's our other option, throwing a stapler at them? That's the helpless feeling we have," Hatley said.
The teachers who are willing to lay down their lives for their students act as both a deterrent and provide an element of surprise not possible with a uniformed guard, Hatley said.
Teachers as armed protectors
Many teachers bristle at the idea of being the first line of defense in a school. Broadly, teachers’ unions, including the Missouri State Teachers Association, oppose the idea of being armed. They instead say investment should be made in school counseling and students’ mental health.
“There’s a lot for teachers to do,” said John Warner, a former school resource officer who is now the emergency planning coordinator for the Missouri School Boards' Association’s Center for Education Safety.
Teachers are already overburdened, Warner contends, with classroom responsibilities, monitoring hallways and the weight of students’ social-emotional needs.
“And then we’re asking them in this situation to also be an armed protector,” he said. “That’s a lot to ask of a teacher.”
Lawmakers gave districts a blueprint to arm employees in a 2014 law. It allows for staff to become “school protection officers” after going through a certified police academy training program.
But Howell Valley and other districts are using a local security firm in West Plains called Shield Solutions. Greg Martin, Shield Solutions' chief executive officer, said he started the company shortly after the Sandy Hook school shooting in 2012.
“I think these districts realize you can’t put a price on life, on their children, on their staff,” he said.
Martin said school staff receive an initial 40-hour course and then three full days of training every year, firing thousands of rounds during active shooter drills and going through mental health assessments.
Once in schools, they must have their gun hidden on their body at all times.
“If you’ve got an argument or a fight, yeah, call the police,” Martin said, “but if there is a lethal force event, if there’s somebody coming through your door and he’s shooting up the school, those people that we train, it’s time for them to go to work.”
School employees trained through Shield Solutions become contractors of the company. They receive a stipend, according to Martin, and if they use their weapon are covered by his insurance; not a school district’s.
Martin will only say he’s trained “quite a few teachers” in “multiple” Missouri schools.
More districts allowing teachers to carry guns
The Crocker School District north of the U.S. Army’s Fort Leonard Wood in central Missouri recently decided employees can carry weapons if they go through a training program. The school board approved the move two weeks after the Parkland, Florida, shooting.
Superintendent Gary Doerhoff said many of his 550 students come from military families. Rural Missouri has a different relationship with guns, he said, either through the military or hunting.
Still, he said, only administrators, and no teachers, have expressed any interest in carrying a gun — and none have formally applied.
“I’m only interested in staff with firearms experience,” Doerhoff said, adding it may be unrealistic for teachers, especially those at the elementary level, to have a concealed weapon and still be able to interact with students.
For superintendent Stewart — who’s grappling with whether to arm teachers in his Glenwood District — there’s a worry that teachers might not have a police officers’ mindset in an active shooter situation.
“Obviously these people wanted to go into the business of loving and caring for kids, not the possibility of shooting a kid,” he said.
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