Armed teachers may be an option for Sheridan Schools

In the wake of tragic school shootings across the country, a Sheridan School Board member proposed arming teachers might be a feasible option to strengthen school safety in the community.

Bill Wood suggested at last week’s regular school board meeting a number of Sheridan educators should be allowed to carry concealed weapons as a way to protect school children from a shooter. Wood would like to see the school board lead a discussion with the community to see whether or not armed teachers would be a viable idea to increase school safety in schools.

“I think it is a good idea, but I can’t say whether it is the right idea for our schools,” said Wood at the meeting. “I would like to see more community members and teachers come to meetings to give their input.”

Wood proposes the teachers who would be armed with a handgun would go through some type of extensive screening process and training regimen. Those carrying firearms would also remain anonymous except to two members on the school board, the other teachers carrying guns and the Madison County Sheriff’s Department.

Undersheriff Roger Thompson attended the meeting as a representative of the Sheriff’s Department.

“With proper screening and training, the sheriff’s office has no objections,” said Thompson at the meeting. “The sheriff’s department would be willing to do the training as well.”

The debate of whether arming teachers is the answer to school shootings is one that is not limited to the Sheridan School Board. In fact, the issue spans the entire country.

After the school shooting in Newtown, Conn., that left 26 kids and staff dead, school safety is a concern that doesn’t limit itself to one area of the country. One week after the shooting, the National Rifle Association reminded the country the organization called for armed educators since the 2007 Virginia Tech shootings. Over 1,000 pieces of proposed legislature have been introduced in states across the country. Some of these legislative pieces aim to extend gun rights while others seek limit those rights. Very few states have passed any type of legislation that would allow guns into schools.

South Dakota is the only state that passed a law pertaining specifically to elementary and high schools. Passed in March, the new law states school board members may dictate if teachers carry guns in the state’s schools.

Indiana may become the first state to require armed protection within their schools. The House Education Committee passed legislation April 2 that would require schools to have a protection officer. That officer may be a principal, teacher, staff member, police officer or security guard.

A lot of the legislation trying to get armed teachers in schools faced opposition from educators. Teachers expressed having guns around children created a sense of anxiety.

“We are deeply concerned about increasing the presence of guns on school grounds, which has never proven to be a deterrent,” Dennis Van Roekel, president of the National Education Association, the major teacher’s union, said in a press release. An NEA poll also showed close to 70 percent of educators nationwide oppose allowing teachers to be armed. The NEA president also mentioned how armed guards at Columbine and Virginia Tech were unable to stop those shootings.

Supporters of having armed teachers within schools say by declaring schools a gun-free zone, it is basically advertising the schools as easy targets for shootings since teachers and kids are left defenseless.

Former Congressman Asa Hutchinson (R-Ark.) led a $1 million-dollar study commissioned by the NRA that lends support to putting armed educators in schools. In the study, Hutchinson cited the 1997 school shooting in Pearl, Miss. In that shooting, a sixteen-year-old male murdered two people and wounded others. The assistant principal responded to the situation by retrieving a .38-caliber handgun from his truck and confronting the shooter as he tried to flee the scene in his truck. The assistant principal, an Army Reserve commander, never fired his gun but was able to detain the shooter till law enforcement had arrived.

In 1990, the Gun-Free School Zones Act was passed. This federal law established no individual can legally possess a firearm within a school zone. This year, a U.S. House Representative from Texas introduced the Safe Schools Act of 2013. This bill is currently in committee. The piece of legislation is designed to repeal the Gun-Free School Zones Act. The act states the Gun-Free School Zones Act is unconstitutional. It goes on to say school shootings have increased since the guns were outlawed in school zones, and teachers, staff and administrators should be able to defend themselves and the children.

Thompson told The Madisonian that different states have different laws that may differ from federal law and the U.S. Attorney General typically tries to honor state laws. The undersheriff says Montana has a state law that prohibits concealed weapons, but the use of lock boxes is a way around both federal and state laws. The Montana Code Annotated also says school boards are allowed to give permission to certain people to possess a firearm within the school. Thompson says this subsection wasn’t necessarily created for school protection purposes but rather for the purpose of storing firearms for things like gun shows or different organizations like 4-H or ROTC.

For those who call the Madison and Ruby Valleys home, the threat of a school shooting doesn’t seem so foreign. In January, a 14-year-old boy brought two handguns and 47 rounds of ammunition to Harrison Public School. After the boy reportedly threatened to kill her if she told anyone, a female student told school officials. The boy was arrested and charged with criminal endangerment.

“It was as close to an active shooter as possible,” said Thompson.

Wood said this not something he expects to take effect any time soon and more research needs to be done. The board agreed a formal security evaluation should be done as a first step in evaluating safety issues in Sheridan schools, which the board is in the process of scheduling.

Thompson said the board will also need to decide on the extent of training the board would like to pursue if they decide this is the right safety option for the school.

“Right now, there are no standards in training for something like this,” said Thompson.

Thompson pointed out how in a school safety situation, staff and teachers within a school are essentially first responders with law enforcement being second-responders.

“Schools are far apart in the county,” says Thompson. “Unfortunately, we most likely wouldn’t be able to get there in a matter of minutes.”

At the meeting, some community members expressed hesitation to the idea. Wood addressed these concerns by saying while it seems like a good idea, he wants more community input on the idea and that maybe there are other options the school could explore. He emphasized that he would like to take several months to explore different options and hear different ideas. Wood said he was hoping to see more community members and educators at the meeting Tuesday night so the board could start to hear some of that feedback.

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