NEW PALESTINE — Two weeks ago, the county’s school superintendents gathered at the Hancock County Sheriff’s Department for a private meeting on bolstering security in the schools.
Similar talks have ensued across the nation since the Connecticut school shootings, and the suggestions vary for making schools safer. But local law enforcement officials called the meeting with a specific proposal in mind: Giving teachers guns.
To some, the idea sounds preposterous. Teachers – and, for that matter, anyone who works in a school – have enough challenges without having to worry about becoming a crack shot.
But to others, training well-qualified school employees to handle weapons and confront assailants is a practical response to the sense of vulnerability now sweeping schools all over the country.
In recent weeks, Sheriff Mike Shepherd and Greenfield Police Chief John Jester decided it was time to have that conversation on the local level.
“Right now, schools are no-gun-zone places, and I think that’s one of the reasons that they are chosen to go in and shoot up,” Shepherd said. “They’re easy, soft targets.”
The four superintendents agree safety is a top priority, but there’s no consensus so far as to whether arming teachers decreases the danger or presents an additional risk.
Teachers and parents are also divided.
When New Palestine High School English teacher Caroline Clayton closes the door to her classroom for instruction, she locks it to keep out intruders.
Clayton and other educators know a locked door is often not enough to keep out evil intent. For Clayton, however, it’s a black-and-white issue. She doesn’t want to carry a gun, nor does she want one of her colleagues to do so.
Besides, Clayton said, what if the intruder were a student?
“I wouldn’t hesitate to take a bullet for one of my students, but I could never shoot a student,” she said.
Administrators at county high schools already hire police officers to roam halls and have a presence in buildings and at sporting events, but security is not in all schools, all the time.
Mt. Vernon Superintendent Bill Riggs said his school board will call for an executive session next week to discuss sending out a survey to parents dealing with guns in school and other safety concerns.
“My first reaction when we discussed guns in school was ‘no way,’” Riggs said.
After thinking further on the issue, he relented some.
“The bottom line is we have to do what is best for the kids,” he said.
Amber Rankin of Greenfield, mother of two young children in Greenfield-Central schools, said she supports having more protection in schools, even if that means asking an educator to carry a weapon.
“As a gun owner, I’m 100 percent in favor of it,” she said.
Angela Phillips of New Palestine isn’t so sure that’s the safest route. She said she would rather have an armed police officer or security person protecting her child than a teacher or administrator.
“I don’t think just anybody should be carrying a gun in a school,” she said. “I think you’d be putting a lot on a principal, a secretary or a teacher to have that responsibility.”
But it wouldn’t be just anyone carrying a weapon or having ready access to one should school corporations give the go-ahead for teachers to be armed, Shepherd said.
Shepherd said he and Jester would take the lead on training the teachers, who would be specially selected.
Training, including active-shooter scenarios, would be held alongside law enforcement officers several times per year to ensure the teachers keep their skills sharp. Officers regularly go through exercises in empty school buildings to learn their layouts and to drill on how they would deploy in the event of a crisis.
“If this goes forward, and we’re the ones that train it, they will come out of there, I feel, trained as good as a new policeman would,” Shepherd said.
Jester added he would request the teachers selected not be identified to the public.
Greenfield-Central School Corporation safety specialist Devon Marine said while it would be ideal for every school to have a highly trained, armed security officer on the grounds during school hours, it is cost-prohibitive. He is open to other options.
“I would not be opposed for an administrator to be armed,” he said, “but I can see how it would be a concern for many of our community members.”
One of those concerned is his boss, G-C Superintendent Linda Gellert, who said while schools must continue to be proactive when it comes to school safety, the idea of allowing a teacher or administrator to carry a gun sets off alarm bells.
“I would have real reservations about having someone on staff armed,” Gellert said. “What if I don’t have anyone in one of my buildings who wants to do this?”
The issue opens a can of worms, she and other educators say, including whether or not it is fair to ask a teacher or administrator to take on the role of a police or security officer who has gone through years of specialized training.
“What if a teacher accidentally shot a student?” Riggs said. “They’d never be able to recover from that.”
Regardless of how many educators would be armed per building, police say just having signs posted about armed personnel could serve as a deterrent.
Southern Hancock Superintendent Jim Halik agreed schools need a way to spread the word they are not an easy target for violence.
“You want people to think twice before they cross a school’s threshold,” Halik said. “Based with what happened at Sandy Hook Elementary School and what has happened at other schools, it would be wrong not to talk about guns in school.”
Eastern Hancock Superintendent Randy Harris agreed.
“It’s a discussable item,” he said. “It’s an idea that is out there when you do brainstorming sessions where you throw everything out there.”
The G-C School Board is meeting in executive session Monday to further discuss the corporation’s safety options. One option is spending money on hiring police officers to patrol the schools.
Last week, a state Senate committee announced it was backing a proposal to offer grants to Indiana schools to hire police officers and buy safety equipment. It would set up a two-year matching grant program allowing some 200 districts up to $50,000 a year.
Local administrators say that’s not enough.
Gellert said a matching grant would still require a significant local investment that would put a dent in the school system’s general fund. She’s also concerned about sustainability beyond the two years.
Jester said the conversation two weeks ago was just the beginning of talks on school safety, and he is open to considering other alternatives to arming teachers.
He added he is unsure whether school boards will be receptive to the idea of having guns in schools. For now, Jester said he is awaiting word from the superintendent on what comes next.
“It’s still in the preliminary stages,” he said. “It’s an option we can look at. Is it the number one option? I don’t know yet.”