Trained, armed and ready—to teach kindergarten

Second Amendment

RITTMAN, Ohio — Mandi, a kindergarten teacher in Ohio, had already done what she could to secure her classroom against a gunman.

She positioned a bookcase by the doorway, in case she needed a barricade. In an orange bucket, she kept district-issued emergency supplies: wasp spray, to aim at an attacker, and a tube sock, to hold a heavy object and hurl at an assailant.

But after 19 children and two teachers were killed in Uvalde, Texas, she felt a growing desperation. Her school is in an older building, with no automatic locks on classroom doors and no police officer on campus.

“We just feel helpless,” she said. “It’s not enough.”

She decided she needed something far more powerful: a 9 mm pistol.

So she signed up for training that would allow her to carry a gun in school. Like others in this article, she asked to be identified by her first name because of school district rules that restrict information about employees carrying firearms.

A decade ago, it was extremely rare for everyday school employees to carry guns. Today, after a seemingly endless series of mass shootings, the strategy has become a leading solution promoted by Republicans and gun rights advocates, who say that allowing teachers, principals and superintendents to be armed gives schools a fighting chance in case of attack.

At least 29 states allow individuals other than police or security officials to carry guns on school grounds, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. As of 2018, the last year for which statistics were available, federal survey data estimated that 2.6% of public schools had armed faculty.

The count has probably grown.

In Florida, more than 1,300 school staff members serve as armed guardians in 45 school districts, out of 74 in the state, according to state officials. The program was created after a gunman killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland in 2018.

In Texas, at least 402 school districts — about one-third in the state — participate in a program that allows designated people, including school staff members, to be armed, according to the Texas Association of School Boards. Another program, which requires more training, is used by a smaller number of districts. Participation in both is up since 2018.

And in the weeks after the Uvalde shooting, lawmakers in Ohio made it easier for teachers and other school employees to carry guns.

The strategy is fiercely opposed by Democrats, police groups, teachers unions and gun control advocates, who say that concealed-carry programs in schools — far from solving the problem — will only create more risk. Past polling has shown that the vast majority of teachers do not want to be armed.

The law in Ohio has been especially contentious because it requires no more than 24 hours of training, along with eight hours of recertification annually.

“That, to us, is just outrageous,” said Michael Weinman, director of government affairs for the Fraternal Order of Police of Ohio, the state’s largest law enforcement organization. By comparison, police officers in the state undergo more than 700 hours of training. And school resource officers — police assigned to campuses — must complete an additional 40 hours.

Supporters say 24 hours is enough because while police training includes everything from traffic tickets to legal matters, school employees tightly focus on firearm proficiency and active-shooter response.

Studies on school employees carrying guns have been limited, and research so far has found little evidence that it is effective. There is also little evidence that school resource officers are broadly effective at preventing school shootings, which are statistically rare.

Yet arming school employees is finding appeal — slight majorities among parents and adults in recent polls.

Of the five deadliest school shootings on record, four — in Newtown, Connecticut; Uvalde; Parkland; and Santa Fe, Texas — have happened in the past 10 years.

It was this possibility that brought Mandi and seven other educators to a gun range tucked amid the hayfields and farm roads of Rittman, in northeast Ohio.

Over the course of three days, Mandi practiced shooting, tying a tourniquet and responding to fast-paced active-shooter drills. Her presence on the range, firing her pistol under the blazing sun, cut a contrast to the classroom, where she dances to counting songs with 5-year-olds, dollops out shaving cream for sensory activities, and wallpapers her classroom with student artwork.

That she was being trained at all spoke to the country’s painful failure to stop mass shootings and to the heavy responsibilities piled onto teachers — catching students up from the pandemic; handling mental health crises in children; navigating conflicts over the teaching of race and gender; and now, for some, defending their schools.

Mandi, in her 40s, arrived at the training with nervous anticipation. She had been a teacher for a dozen years and has children of her own. She wanted to be sure she could carry her gun safely around students. “I get hugs all day long,” she said.

And then there was the prospect of confronting an actual gunman. Could three days of training prepare her for the unthinkable?

‘Time Is All That Matters’

The educators had come from Ohio and as far as Oklahoma for a 26-hour course by FASTER Saves Lives, a leading gun-training program for school employees. It is run by the Buckeye Firearms Foundation, a Second Amendment organization that works alongside a major gun lobbying group in Ohio. The lobbying group, the Buckeye Firearms Association, supported the new state law for school employees.

Over the past decade, the foundation estimates it has spent more than $1 million training at least 2,600 educators.

Its approach aligns closely with an argument that has become a hallmark of the National Rifle Association and the gun lobby: “The only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”

In this view, teachers are the ultimate “good guys.”

“We trust them with our kids every day,” said Jim Irvine, an airline pilot and a longtime advocate for gun rights who is president of the Buckeye Firearms Foundation and volunteers as a director with FASTER.

Their philosophy is that saving lives during school shootings is a matter of speed and that schools cannot afford to wait for the police.

At Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown in 2012, the first 911 call was made after about five minutes, and the first officers arrived at the school less than four minutes later. Still, 20 children and six adults were killed. In Parkland, the gunman killed 17 people in just under six minutes.

Even in Uvalde, where the police have been criticized for waiting on site for more than an hour, the gunman is believed to have fired more than 100 rounds within the first three minutes, according to a state report.

“Time is all that matters,” Irvine said. “It’s that simple.”

Of the eight school employees being trained, Mandi was in some ways an anomaly. She was the only woman in the group. Several others were administrators — a superintendent, a principal — rather than teachers.

In other ways, she was typical.

Everyone had some comfort with guns. Mandi described hunting with her husband and shooting at a gun range on weekends. She said she had taken other firearms classes, including concealed-carry training, one of the prerequisites to participate in FASTER.

Like others, she worked in a rural area, where carrying guns in schools is more common, in part because of longer response times by police. One group in the training, from Oklahoma, estimated the response time in its area was at least 22 minutes.

“The last thing I want is for people to think we are just a bunch of gunslinging teachers who want an excuse to carry guns in schools,” said Mark, a middle school teacher in Ohio who described measuring his school’s hallway to determine how far he needed to learn to shoot.

“I love my kids,” he said. “I’m going to do everything I can to keep them safe.”

School districts typically require anonymity as a tactical and safety strategy so that would-be gunmen cannot plan around armed employees. Although the school community may know someone on campus has a gun, employees and parents will not be told who.

That makes the choice of candidates especially crucial.

“We don’t always consider an individual that’s like, hey, jumping up and down,” said Malcolm Hines, an assistant superintendent in Suwannee County, Florida, where armed employees must pass a psychological screening and complete 144 hours of training. “My Spidey senses always go up on that — if someone is too eager.”

In Mandi’s school district, the superintendent said candidates must be approved by the school board. In addition to going through the FASTER training, they must meet annually with the sheriff’s department and may be removed if their skills are not up to par.

At the FASTER program, much of the training focused on firearm proficiency. The group practiced shooting for hours — up close and far away, right-handed and left-handed, small circular targets and life-size human silhouettes.

“I want to be perfect,” Mandi said, noting that accuracy would be paramount if she ever needed to fire her gun in school.

Instructors offered safety and technical critiques, timed individuals’ shots, and urged teachers and administrators to be assertive.

All of it was aimed at one thing: stopping a gunman in the act.

“This is a very reactive way to think about gun violence prevention,” said Sonali Rajan, an associate professor at Teachers College, Columbia University, who studies school gun violence.

School gunmen are often teenagers in suicidal crisis. To intercept them beforehand, experts recommend mental health support; systems to identify children who may become threats; and tighter gun laws, including mandates on safe storage.

“It’s one of the laws that has the best evidence,” said Andrew Morral, a lead gun policy researcher for the Rand Corp., a nonpartisan think tank.

In the face of an attack, one effective strategy is to lock classroom doors. More and more school districts have also hired school resource officers.

Still, campus police have not reliably prevented mass violence.

In one infamous example, a school resource officer present at the high school in Parkland stayed outside during the attack. In Uvalde, the school district had added officers to its police force and doubled spending on security in recent years.

“If trained law enforcement couldn’t stop that, what makes you think an ill-trained teacher or other school employee would be able to?” said Scott DiMauro, president of the Ohio Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, which opposed the new law.

This Is Only a Test

FASTER touts its program’s rigor.

Although not required by state law, some districts require teachers and administrators to pass the FASTER course, which includes a shooting qualification test — with distances ranging from close up to as far as 50 feet. To pass, participants must make at least 26 out of 28 shots.

Some, like Mandi, scored 28 out of 28.

Shooting in a controlled environment on the gun range, though, does not necessarily translate to high-stress, real-world scenarios. Even police officers lose accuracy on the street, with hit rates below 50%.

“I would consider those to be marksmanship tests, to show you can handle the firearm safely, but they are not combat shooting,” said Pete Blair, executive director of the Advanced Law Enforcement Rapid Response Training Center at Texas State University, which specializes in active-shooter training.

A more dynamic environment came later, when Mandi and her classmates practiced simulated scenarios in an empty school building. Experts say these kind of live scenarios offer more realistic preparation.

Mandi said she heard gunshots — blank shots — ring out in the hallways. Peering into a classroom, she saw a role player pointing a gun and threatening to shoot amid teacher and student actors. She aimed at the role player with a rubber bullet and was encouraged, she said, that she did not miss. (Because of media restrictions on campus, The New York Times was unable to attend this portion of the training.)

Other scenarios called for de-escalation. In one example, two role players tussled over a gun, making it difficult to tell who had brought the firearm and who was a bystander.

“We learned that it is just as important not to pull the trigger,” Mandi said.

The program did not include formal training on how implicit bias might affect decision-making.

Black and Hispanic Americans are killed by police at significantly higher rates than white Americans, and in school, Black students experience the highest rates of suspension of all racial groups.

At one point in the program, the group fired at a row of paper targets showing a photo of a Black woman holding a handgun. Later, the targets showed a white man with a rifle.

But some experts say that targets should show a greater mix of race, gender and age so as not to reinforce stereotypes or prime the mind to see particular groups as a threat.

“If you are trying to look at bad guys, then there should be an array of bad guys,” said Tracie Keesee, a co-founder of the Center for Policing Equity. “We also know the prominent folks who do the types of shootings in schools are not Black women.”

Irvine said the training is meant to focus on risk, not race. Shooting is warranted only if there is an “imminent threat to innocent people,” he said.

For critics, the everyday dangers are among the most worrisome.

Mass shootings, for all their heartbreak, remain exceedingly rare in a country with nearly 130,000 schools and 54 million schoolchildren.

Teachers, principals and janitors, on the other hand, interact with students every day.

“Arming teachers doesn’t make kids safer,” said Shannon Watts, founder of Moms Demand Action, a network of parents fighting for stronger gun laws. “In fact, it increases the chances that a teacher’s gun will fall into the wrong hands or discharge unintentionally.”

Laws vary by state but often are not specific about how teachers must carry or store guns.

In one case, two first graders in Ohio found a gun after an employee in a concealed-carry program left it in an unlocked case near her desk. Students have also discovered guns on buses and in school bathrooms, according to news reports.

A Growing Stealth Force

By the end of the program, Mandi and her classmates had enough training to carry a gun in school under the new Ohio law. They are part of a growing and somewhat experimental stealth force in schools.

The outcome is far from known.

Although there have been anecdotes of armed citizens intervening in public shootings, such as the recent case at an Indiana mall, “that is an anomaly,” said Jaclyn Schildkraut, an associate professor of criminal justice at the State University of New York at Oswego, who studies mass shootings.

Most mass shootings end when a gunman is shot or subdued by police, dies by suicide or leaves the scene.

FASTER officials said they were not aware of any graduates of their program who had responded to a school shooting.

Jennifer, a school custodian who volunteers as an instructor with FASTER, said that in four years of carrying in her school, she had never needed her weapon. She does not doubt her ability, she said, but believes the hardest part would be using her firearm on a student. She recalled a time when a middle schooler she had been mentoring threatened to bring a gun to school.

“My heart just dropped,” she said, adding that administrators were able to intervene.

For Mandi, the decision to be armed in the classroom seemed like a better solution than wasp spray or a tube sock.

She has worked through logistical details, such as how she will carry her pistol: inside her waistband, in a holster meant to prevent accidental discharge. She did handstands to check that her gun remained secure. When students come for hugs, she plans to turn her hip to direct them to the other side of her body.

To keep up her training, she goes to the gun range each week, she said.

And although she acknowledged that other important policies could help prevent school shootings, she did not feel she could afford to wait for change.

“We’ve got to help the kids right now,” she said.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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