RIVERSIDE, Ohio — The safes were installed last summer. Thirty-two in all. Spread out among the four elementary schools, the two middle schools, the high school and the administration building of the Mad River Local Schools district here on the outskirts of Dayton.
On Aug. 14, the first day of school for the district’s 3,900 students, each safe contained the centerpiece of the district’s new security plan: a semiautomatic pistol and a removable magazine loaded with bullets.
The guns are not there for law enforcement. There are no armed security guards at the schools. The weapons, paid for with money from the district’s operating budget, are for teachers and staffers who have volunteered and trained to be part of the school’s response team if a shooter enters a building. Each team member has access to a safe that can be reached quickly in case the unthinkable happens.
Chad Wyen, the district’s soft-spoken, 42-year-old superintendent, thinks about the unthinkable often. He has twin daughters in Mad River schools. To Wyen, arming staffers and teachers will make all the students in the district safer.
“A bad guy is going to do whatever he wants in that building until someone either addresses him, or he runs out of ammunition, or he shoots and kills himself,” Wyen said in an interview in his office. “Otherwise, you are literally a sitting duck in a school if you are not able to respond. And I’m not willing to do that. I’m not willing to put our kids at risk.”
In 10 states, schools allow teachers and staff members to be armed, with administrators’ permission. After the shooting that took 17 lives at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida last month, pressure is increasing to expand that approach.
The White House said Sunday night that it will establish a Federal Commission on School Safety, chaired by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, and will begin working with states to provide “rigorous firearms training” to some schoolteachers.
President Trump and the National Rifle Association have been clear: Make schools fortresses. Employ every deterrence. Fight fire with fire. Arm teachers.
“Armed Educators (and trusted people who work within a school) love our students and will protect them,” Trump tweeted last month. “. . . Shootings will not happen again — a big & very inexpensive deterrent.”
Florida legislators passed a gun bill Wednesday that includes $67 million for the training and arming of certain school staffers, though it excludes full-time teachers from those who are eligible to volunteer. Gov. Rick Scott (R) signed it Friday.
During her visit Wednesday to Stoneman Douglas, DeVos said arming teachers should not be mandated, but she pointed to gun and safety training programs for teachers in Texas and Polk County, Fla., as examples for schools that want to increase security.
“I think that’s a model that can be adopted and should be an option for schools, for states, for communities,” DeVos said.
But gun-control proponents and teachers unions have also been clear: Raise the age to buy guns. Expand mental health access. Ban assault-style weapons. Don’t make teachers do double duty as volunteer security guards.
“The gun lobby’s proposals to arm teachers are a deliberate, outrageous distraction from the real threats we face and the serious policy discussion we need,” said Ari Freilich, a lawyer with the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.
According to a Washington Post analysis, it could cost more than $1 billion to arm and train 20 percent of American teachers — a percentage suggested by Trump.
The White House said Sunday that the administration will help military veterans and retired law enforcement transition into new careers in education, and that the Justice Department will work with local and state law enforcement to provide firearms training for teachers and school staffers.
Fifty-nine percent of Americans oppose training teachers to carry guns, according to a recent NPR poll. And 51 percent of respondents in a Washington Post-ABC News poll last month said the Stoneman Douglas shooting could not have been prevented by equipping teachers with guns. Forty-two percent said it could have.
But even as elected leaders and national organizations weigh the political impact of arming teachers, some school districts are already embracing programs that put guns in the hands of educators and staffers.
The debate over arming teachers is now percolating nationally, but it has been stirring in school districts across Ohio for the past five years. It began soon after the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut that left 26 students and educators dead. A number of Ohio districts, particularly those in more rural areas, worried that their schools were vulnerable and began weaponizing staff members and training them to respond to a shooter.
“Ohio is really ground zero for this,” says Kate Way, an educator and co-producer of the documentary “G Is for Gun: The Arming of Teachers in America,” which airs this month on public television in Ohio. “My sense after following this for three years is that the move to arm teachers is growing like wildfire here.”
Wyen did not sugarcoat the potential dangers for teachers and staffers in his district who wanted to take part.
“We told them, you have to understand that if you choose to do this, you’re putting your life at risk, and you have to be comfortable with that,” he says. They do not get extra pay.
From his staff of 460 system-wide, 50 volunteered to take part. All had experience with guns and possessed concealed-weapons licenses. Each was interviewed several times. Why do you want to do this, they were asked. Can you move toward a threat? If a suspect is a student, can you shoot to stop him from hurting others?
Wyen selected 32 teachers and staff members for his team. Their identities are known only to Wyen and law enforcement. Their anonymity is part of the district’s security strategy. The only sign to outsiders of their existence is one that greets visitors at every entrance to Mad River schools: “WARNING: Inside this building our children are protected by an armed and trained response team.”
Jade Deis, a freshman at the district’s high school, says she feels safer knowing that teachers are armed. “What’s a stapler going to do against a gun?” she asks. For Deis and her friends, the new program hasn’t been the subject of much discussion.
“The teachers don’t talk about it, they don’t show the guns,” she says. “I kind of forget it’s there.”
But some parents, students and teachers have raised concerns that having guns in school makes it more likely that an accidental shooting — or worse — could occur.
“It’s good that they want to protect us, but what if a teacher just pops off? Anyone can go crazy, and then they have the gun right there,” says Jalen Yarbrough, a freshman. “Or let’s say a kid gets rowdy. The teacher could say, ‘I feared for my life and I shot him.’ ”
Amanda Gallagher, who has two daughters in grade school in the Mad River district, expressed concerns to administrators that not enough research has been done about the dangers of having guns in schools.
“They seem very concerned with response times but not as concerned with the rest of the risks of having armed teachers in school,” Gallagher says. “I can appreciate how afraid they are. I’m very concerned that my kids aren’t going to come home from school one day, but it doesn’t make me feel better that the teachers are armed. It just gives me new things to worry about.”
In Ohio, the decision on whether to arm teachers is made by school districts, and they are not required to make that information public, so there are no figures on how many of the state’s 610 districts have armed teachers.
Michael Hanlon, superintendent of the Chardon school district in northeast Ohio, says he is often asked if his district arms its teachers.
Six years ago, 17-year-old T.J. Lane entered Chardon High School with a .22-caliber semiautomatic handgun. He killed three students and injured three others. In a matter of minutes, the school joined “a club that no one wants to be part of,” Hanlon says.
Whenever there’s a school shooting anywhere in the country, he says, teachers and staffers in his district feel it to their core. “You can never escape it.”
And after every shooting, Hanlon hears renewed calls to arm teachers. His district has chosen not to.
“If we saw the same thing happen in a hospital, I don’t think we’d start saying we need to arm doctors and nurses,” Hanlon says. “They have important lifesaving work to do. And the work that teachers do is just as important. The argument to arm teachers once again diminishes the core work of teachers.”
Sitting at a conference room table at the Premier Shooting and Training Center just north of Cincinnati, Joe Eaton says he hears the same questions from all of the teachers, bus drivers, cafeteria workers and administrators who take part in the gun and tactical training his organization provides to schools across Ohio.
“Am I going to be able to do this? Am I going to be able to perform? Am I going to be outgunned?”
The 52-year-old grandfather, IT professional and gun enthusiast says he also has a question for them: If the shooter is a student or a former student, as most school shooters are, will you be able to stare down the barrel of your gun and pull the trigger?
“The rules of engagement are, if someone is murdering people in your school, you kill them as soon as possible and stop the killing,” says Eaton, the program director for Faster Saves Lives, an emergency-response training program for schools created five years ago by the Buckeye Firearms Foundation, an Ohio nonprofit gun advocacy and training group.
According to Eaton, roughly 1,000 of the 1,300 participants in the Faster program have come from more than 200 Ohio school districts. Demand has never been higher.
When the program began, most participants were former law enforcement, military or hunters, Eaton says. But in the past two years, that has changed: More than half had never touched a firearm until their schools asked them to take part.
During a three-day course, participants study the history of active-shooter situations, engage in tactical drills and maneuvers, practice firearm skills, and work on trauma aid techniques.
So far, none of the Ohio teachers trained to use guns have been forced to do so in a school,Eaton says.
“We’re giving them simple, easy, clearly defined training and tools that they can use in the event of the worst day possible at their school,” he says.
One of the first Ohio districts to arm its teachers was Sidney, a rural community less than an hour north of Dayton. There, the training is extensive and participants are carefully selected, says Superintendent John Scheu, who launched the program five years ago.
“This is not just giving someone a gun. It’s not a hobby. It’s a serious, serious thing,” says a Sidney teacher who participates in the program and asked not to be identified because of the school’s security protocol. “I love to train for it, and I never, ever want to use that training. If your mentality is to be the cowboy, you don’t belong in this program.”
The teacher, who started his career just before the 1999 attack at Columbine High School in Colorado that left 15 dead, says he understands that arming teachers isn’t for every school district.
“Teachers are nurturers,” he says. “And now we’re protectors.”
But Lori Hedberg, who heads the Sidney teachers union, says that’s a choice teachers shouldn’t have to make. She fought to keep the school district from adopting the program. The union lost. Hedberg continues fighting.
“This is a knee-jerk response that won’t solve the problem,” says Hedberg, who has been with the district for 29 years. “Let’s beef up our barriers so a teacher won’t have to shoot a gun. I don’t want a teacher to ever shoot a gun. That is not part of your job description.”