The Washington Post

Pepper spray, locked gun cabinets: Will they protect students from shooters?

Law enforcement vehicles are parked outside Arapahoe High School after a school shooting in Denver on   Dec. 13. A student fired on fellow students, critically injuring one, then killing himself. EPA/Bob Pearson

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Even before Friday’s school shooting in Colorado, lawmakers in Missouri and lawmen in Kansas were among those offering new ways to try to keep students safe.

Missouri state senator Jason Holsman, a Democrat from the Kansas City area, will introduce Senate Bill 603 in January’s legislative session to train and arm teachers and administrators with pepper spray.

It’s in response to Missouri Sen. Nieves, a Republican from the St. Louis area, who has prefiled SB 613, a revised version of legislation known as the Second Amendment Preservation Act that passed last year but was vetoed by Gov. Jay Nixon.

Nieves, along with other Republican lawmakers in Missouri, would like to encourage teachers and administrators to carry concealed weapons in schools as a defense. It’s already legal; West Plains’ Fairview School in the Ozarks made national headlines when it was revealed that several staff members were carrying concealed weapons.

Holsman wants a non-lethal option. “These six-ounce canisters of bear spray shoot 30 feet in a ten-foot wide radius,” he explained during an interview with WDAF-TV in Kansas City. “It is conceivable that you could blast the hallway if it was on lockdown, and if the perpetrator was to run into that mist, it would disable him.”

Holsman’s bill would allow school districts to designate teachers or administrators as “school protection officers” after they receive training as such and they would be allowed to carry — and use, if necessary — pepper spray.

Training teachers to use pepper spray is not a new idea, nor is it as far-fetched as it sounds. Republican Ron Meyer, who ran first for a congressional seat before vying for a vacated state senate seat in Virginia, wrote an opinion piece for The Daily Caller calling pepper spray a “school-friendly weapon.”

John McCann, president and CEO of Mace Security International, told members of Congress last summer that pepper spray should be part of a school’s comprehensive safety plan.

Meanwhile, Kansas passed a law last year to allow teachers with concealed carry permits to bring their guns to school. Insurance companies had a different idea.  EMC Insurance Cos., which insures 85 to 90 percent of the schools in Kansas, announced it would not write policies for any institution where teachers carried guns.

Locally, law enforcement came up with a different plan: Install locked gun cabinets containing weapons and ammunition in secret “strategic locations” in schools. Only the school resource officers, who are city police, would have access to those units.

So far, such locked cabinets were installed in two schools in Shawnee and one in Lenexa, all part of Shawnee Mission School District, the third largest in the state of Kansas.

Now the cabinets will be installed in six Shawnee Mission schools in the city of Overland Park. Police Chief John Douglass explained why these locked storage units are needed: Speed.

School resource officers are armed with handguns and must exit the school building to their patrol cars where their rifles and additional ammunition are stored.

“What it takes is absolute speed,” Douglass said in an interview with KCTV5. “Statistics show during the first confrontation with the officers, active shooters surrender or kill themselves. The point is getting officers to the point of contact just as fast as possible.”

Money seized from drug busts will pay for the locked cabinets as well as for “jump bags” containing essential equipment, including first-aid kits, for Overland Park police cars, making it faster for officers to respond to a school emergency.

Leo Johns, a teacher in an urban district in Kansas City, Kan. where he pulls metal-detector duty in the mornings, told me about hearing shots within an hour of his first day at work. (Turned out to be a drive-by shooting and no one was hurt.) He’s frustrated that technology hasn’t led to some sort of personalized gun lock that would keep anyone but the gun’s owner from firing it. That would stop students from being able to use any weapons carried by school staff members as well as help prevent accidents.

Johns said just knowing there are weapons in the school — even if you don’t know who’s got them — should be a deterrent to students.

We’re also forgetting something in this rush to create a defensive system against an active shooter situation. What stopped a potentially deadly incident in Atlanta was not another high-powered weapon or a can of pepper spray. It was school clerk Antoinette Tuff, who talked and prayed with 20-year-old Michael Brandon Hill. He had entered the school with an AK-47 and 500 rounds of ammunition. She convinced him to surrender to authorities.

I doubt that her compassion, intuition and people skills can be taught. And I’m doubtful, as well, that every potential shooter is willing to listen as Hill was.

But we’re still failing to address the underlying cause. In many of these cases, you can blame mental illness. We need to develop better screening methods and more effective treatments. Without that, it really doesn’t matter how many cans of pepper spray or hidden rounds of ammunition are out there.

Diana Reese is a journalist in Overland Park, Kan. Follow her on Twitter at @dianareese.

The Freddie Gray case

Please provide a valid email address.

You’re all set!

Campaign 2016 Email Updates

Please provide a valid email address.

You’re all set!

Get Zika news by email

Please provide a valid email address.

You’re all set!
Show Comments
Republicans debate tonight. The South Carolina GOP primary and the Nevada Democratic caucuses are next on Feb. 20. Get caught up on the race.
The Fix asks The State's political reporter where the most important region of the state is.
He says he could talk about Charleston, which represents a little bit of everything in the state has to offer from evangelicals to libertarians, and where Ted Cruz is raising more money than anywhere else. In a twist, Marco Rubio is drawing strong financial support from more socially conservative Upstate. That said, Donald Trump is bursting all the conventional wisdom in the state. So maybe the better answer to this question is, "Wherever Trump is."
Past South Carolina GOP primary winners
South Carolina polling averages
Donald Trump leads in the first state in the South to vote, where he faces rivals Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio.
South Carolina polling averages
The S.C. Democratic primary is Feb. 27. Clinton has a significant lead in the state, whose primary falls one week after the party's Nevada caucuses.
62% 33%
The complicated upcoming voting schedule
Feb. 20

Democrats caucus in Nevada; Republicans hold a primary in South Carolina.

Feb. 23

Republicans caucus in Nevada.

Feb. 27

Democrats hold a primary in South Carolina.

Upcoming debates
Feb 13: GOP debate

on CBS News, in South Carolina

Feb. 25: GOP debate

on CNN, in Houston, Texas

March 3: GOP debate

on Fox News, in Detroit, Mich.

Campaign 2016
Where the race stands

To keep reading, please enter your email address.

You’ll also receive from The Washington Post:
  • A free 6-week digital subscription
  • Our daily newsletter in your inbox

Please enter a valid email address

I have read and agree to the Terms of Service and Privacy Policy.

Please indicate agreement.

Thank you.

Check your inbox. We’ve sent an email explaining how to set up an account and activate your free digital subscription.