Since 2013, there have been nearly 200 school shootings in the U.S., according to a study by advocacy group Everytown for Gun Safety. Two of those happened in Ohio, prompting school district administrators to re-evaluate their security plans. An increasing number of them have turned to arming teachers and staff members.
In a middle-school science classroom, teachers and school staff members stare up at a police officer lecturing at the front of the room.
They’re taking class that’s part of a larger program called FASTER, which was developed to train school employees with access to firearms how to respond during active shooter emergencies. It’s a three day course that includes target practice, emotional training, and first aid.
This program has become popular over the past few years. In Ohio, it’s estimated that 100 schools districts have incorporated firearms into school security plans. None of them are required by law to disclose that information though.
“The Sandy Hook Massacre was the 9/11 for school safety and security professionals,” says Dick Caster, School Safety and Security consultant for the Ohio School Board Association.
At the end of 2012, most schools districts in Ohio had active shooter response plans that featured lockdowns. Sandy Hook had followed a similar plan, but within 5 minutes 20 children were killed.
“Time is the factor in an active shooter,” says Caster. “What you basically have to do is neutralize the threat as quickly as possible.”
With that in mind, some Ohio districts hired armed School Resource Officers to patrol campuses, but that was expensive. The average yearly salary was $65,000.
Soon after the Sandy Hook shooting, Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine said that all school districts should consider arming at least one school staff member.
One of the first districts to take to that suggestion was Sidney City Schools, about 40 miles north of Dayton.
The question then became how to do it safely.
At Sidney, the answer involved surveillance cameras, bullet proof vests, school buzzer systems, and biometric safes that can only be opened with a fingerprint. The safes are only for members of the school’s armed response team, the group of staffers who volunteer to respond with firearms during an active shooter emergency.
Four years ago, this plan didn’t exist.
“It was so new and so unique that there weren’t really any training manuals for it,” says Sidney City Schools Superintendent John Scheu.
In Ohio, it’s legal for teachers and other staff members to carry weapons, as long as they have a concealed carry permit and permission from the school district. Beyond that, the state doesn’t really provide detailed guidance on how to enact these policies. That’s common throughout the country. Even though more than a third of states allow armed school staff, very few have concrete rules governing the practice.
So, the Sidney School District started from scratch. They went through several obstacles to get their program of the ground. And now, it’s a become a model for other districts in Ohio and across the country.
But there was some backlash. Parents were concerned about accidents. The teachers union brought the policy to arbitration, and the district faced a major financial hit.
“Our insurance rates went up astronomically that first year,” said Scheu. “Insurance companies were very timid about insuring school districts...it was just so new that it was difficult to get their hands around what they were insuring.”
Eventually though, the rates went back down, and the initial blowback started to fade.
“That has softened because now after maybe 4 year or 5 years of training,” says Caster. “We haven’t had an accident.”
But, Caster says the potential for accidents is definitely still there, especially if training programs among districts aren’t consistent or don’t include three critical factors.
“Number one is mental state, mental preparedness. Number two is tactics, and number three is shooting. You have to accept those in order to be successful. And if you’re not willing to really train your people in those three areas with intense training, you probably ought to look to do something other than arming staff.”
Caster says all safety plans should also include contingencies for more common events, like heated custody disputes on school grounds. After all, according to the latest national data, shootings are still one of the least likely school-based emergencies.