UTOPIA, Tex. — Three months before a teenager opened fire on fourth-graders in Uvalde, school administrators in Utopia, about 45 minutes north, called a lockdown. A man who had been pulled over and arrested suddenly escaped police custody and tore through campus. In the dark, quiet classrooms, one teacher handed out lollipops to keep students quiet. Older students piled desks in front of a classroom door. Another teacher told the children not to flush the toilet, fearing it would make too much noise.
And, unbeknown to their colleagues, a cadre of armed school staffers readied themselves to act. After the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in 2012, this tiny Texas school system began worrying about what would happen if a shooter attacked the sun-scorched campus, where fewer than 200 students attend classes. It takes 30 minutes for a sheriff’s deputy to reach the town, even in an emergency, and the district cannot afford to hire a police officer.
So, in 2013, the school board allowed school employees to arm themselves, as long as they had a concealed carry weapon permit and the permission of the board. The town does not publicize the names of its would-be defenders.
“When you live out like this, you have to take care of yourself,” said Karen Heideman, the longtime business manager of the Utopia Independent School District. She is working to get a permit so she can carry a firearm to work. “You can’t just dial 911 and expect to have a policeman here in less than five minutes.”
Now, after the Uvalde shooting that left 19 students and two teachers dead, more school districts are considering doing what Utopia did by making armed teachers a part of their security. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said the solution to school shootings lies in “hardening” schools, including allowing teachers and administrators to carry weapons.
“First responders typically can’t get there in time to prevent a shooting,” Paxton said. “You’re going to have to have more people trained to react.” Last week, the Supreme Court struck down some of the toughest gun restrictions, even as Congress passed gun safety legislation.
For residents of this small town, the Uvalde shooting drove home the need to be prepared. Arming school personnel is common sense, and a gun is merely “a tool,” not so different from a crescent wrench or a hammer or a laptop for a journalist, said Utopia Schools Superintendent Michael Derry.
Even though parents do not know the names of armed staffers, they put their faith in the educators who carry weapons to keep their children safe. In a town this intimate, where the community is just an extension of family, that trust is easier to come by.
There is no good tally of the number of school districts that arm educators and other school staffers, people whose primary job is not school security, and the practice is unheard of in larger districts that employ guards or police officers. It is still uncommon even in Texas, where the state permits teachers to carry firearms on campus with as little as four hours of training. The districts that employ the strategy are often tiny and rural, like Utopia.
But the practice appears to be gaining as politicians on the right push it as a solution to stop school shooters. After a former student killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in Parkland, Fla., in 2018, President Donald Trump pitched the idea of arming hundreds of thousands of teachers. And although a program of that scope never took hold, his administration would later issue a report recommending the arming of teachers.
Florida started a school guardian program in 2018, naming it for Aaron Feis, the football coach who died while shielding students from bullets in a hallway of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High. Proponents suggested that if he had been armed, things might have turned out differently. Now, nearly 1,400 school staffers have received guardian training, according to Politico.
In Texas, a shooting at a high school in Santa Fe in 2018 led to an expansion of the state’s school marshal program, which trains security guards, administrators and teachers to respond to school shootings and certifies them to carry guns on campus. The program had 34 school marshals before the shooting. It now has 256.
The number is likely to rise in the months after the shooting in Uvalde and not just in Texas. This month, Ohio passed a law that reduces the training requirements for teachers who want to be armed from 700 hours to 24, opening the door for many more to carry guns on campus.
Laws in 29 states now permit people to carry guns in to K-12 schools under some circumstances, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Several states, both blue and red, allow it if individuals have concealed-carry permits, permission from the schools involved, or both. In Arkansas, school staffers have been able to work around gun bans by training to become security guards or reserve police officers.
“After the horrific event that transpired in Uvalde, Texas, constituents and even many lawmakers were advocating for, and I quote, to ‘do something,’” said Thomas Hall, the Ohio state representative who sponsored the bill. “I’m proud to be a part of this moment of, in fact, doing something that will without a doubt protect students and staff.”
For many proponents of gun restrictions, the notion of asking teachers to confront a shooter is unthinkable, with teachers and unions broadly rejecting proposals to arm educators. The month after the 2018 shooting in Parkland, Fla., a survey of teachers found that nearly 73 percent opposed the idea, and nearly six in 10 thought it would make their schools less safe.
Opponents of arming teachers, like the group Everytown for Gun Safety, point out that even police officers, who have far more training than school staffers, more often than not miss their targets when they fire their weapons in emergencies. In 2016, at Alpine High in Texas, a federal law enforcement officer responding to a school shooting accidentally shot another officer.
What, opponents ask, if a student got hold of a teacher’s gun? What if a teacher accidentally shot an innocent student? What if police mistook an armed teacher for a threat and shot that person? And what if an armed teacher came face-to-face with a school shooter and discovered it was one of their own students? Could they pull the trigger? Should they?
National Education Association President Becky Pringle said that when the organization has polled its members about arming teachers, they “overwhelmingly reject” the idea. “They know by the time somebody shows up with a military-grade weapon, it is already too late,” she said.
But in 2013, when school board members in Utopia proposed arming teachers, there was no debate, according to Heideman. In a community where guns are ubiquitous for hunting, for sport and for personal protection, the idea of arming educators was not controversial.
Utopia is set in the Texas Hill Country, where the dead flat landscape of San Antonio gives way to rugged hills. The school district draws in students from Utopia and surrounding communities and is the town’s largest employer, with 18 certified educators and 22 other staff members.
The town is unincorporated, and residents elect no mayor and no city council. Many of the functions normally performed by local government, such as the beautification of a business district bookended by “Welcome to Utopia” signs, responding to fires and medical emergencies, and running the recycling center, are undertaken by volunteers. Residents pride themselves on being self-sufficient. Many eat what they hunt, filling their freezers with deer meat.
In interviews, they say that arming educators is an extension of that ethos and a way to look out for each other. “I don’t know who they are, but I know that they love this community and they love these children,” said Chad Chamness, who teaches several subjects in Utopia at the school and is also the Methodist pastor in town, referring to the armed school staffers.
This small town was so trusting that last school year, its campus was open, and parents could walk freely into the school to deliver lunch to their children in classrooms. With the help of a federal grant, Derry is changing that in the coming school year, ringing the campus with a tall fence and installing electronic doors that open and close with the swipe of a card. Derry said some residents complained that the school would look like a prison. After the Uvalde shooting, he said, criticism quieted.
The staffers who carry weapons volunteered for the role and take the responsibility seriously. The school system is intentionally opaque about the issue for security reasons, including on details such as which staff members, and how many, are armed. But the district announces the program at the school’s entrance with a paper sign taped to the window that reads in all caps: “Attention! This school is protected by armed personnel.”
One teacher, whom The Washington Post is not identifying out of respect for the school’s security policy, said he took on this role when an administrator asked for his help. He said he hoped he would never have to use his gun but that if he had to, he envisioned the scenario playing out something like this: “If there was a shooter on campus, our job is to neutralize the threats, or at least hold them in the area until law enforcement can get here and do their jobs,” he said.
He knows, too, that carrying a gun on campus means that if there is danger, he may have to run toward it, putting his life on the line. “For my kids, I’m going to protect them with everything I have until my last breath,” teacher said. “And, yes, I do want to go home at the end of the day. But I’m old. They’re young. They still have a lot of life ahead of them.”
Derry will not say how many staff members are armed, though he said “it’s enough,” but the group meets regularly with sheriff’s deputies so that they will be recognized in the midst of a school shooting. Beyond that, there are also at least two slim black gun safes in the schools.
In Utopia, the presence of guns on campus does not rattle teachers or students. Bradie Williams, who teaches third-grade and fourth-grade social studies and sends her two children to Utopia’s school, does not carry a firearm on campus in part because she said she is too busy to do the training required to get a concealed-carry permit. But she understands the reasoning behind it.
“If the intruder were to enter the room, then I would have something to protect my kids with,” Williams said. “Otherwise, you’re just sitting ducks, you know? I mean, what are you going? Throw a pencil at him?”
Sarah Wernette owns a home decor and gift store in Utopia that sells embroidered pillowcases from Mexico, organic skin-care products and tea towels with cheeky sayings on them, and other items. She also has two children in the schools. What outsiders often fail to understand, she said, is what it means to grow up around guns.
“The difference is everybody was raised with the rules about guns,” said Wernette, who keeps firearms in her truck. Her children started with BB guns as 4-year-olds when they learned the basics. Never handle the gun without an adult, never point a gun anywhere you don’t want to shoot. By their fifth birthdays, each had shot a deer. She said she raised them with a healthy respect for firearms that she believes would prevent an accidental shooting.
The Rand Corporation in 2020 reviewed existing research to try to determine whether arming teachers would make schools safer or more dangerous. Researchers concluded that there wasn’t enough evidence to support either proposition. But for people who put their faith in firearms, the answer is intuitive: Arm the teachers.