Iowa educators and residents are mixed on the idea of arming teachers, a suggestion prompted by recent school shootings.
Iowa educators and residents are mixed on the idea of arming teachers, a suggestion prompted by recent school shootings.

March 6, 2018

The shooter who killed 17 people at a school in Parkland, Florida, is 1,600 miles away, but his actions have school leaders and residents in western Iowa wondering:

How do we keep our students safe?

The question resonates even more strongly after at least a half-dozen “copycat” threats have been made toward Iowa school districts since the Florida shooting — and 670 nationwide, according to the Educator’s School Safety Network. The organization typically notes about 10 threats or incidents at schools in the United States each day, but it has seen more than 70 a day since the Parkland shooting, according to its website.

For some, including John McLaughlin, one answer lies in arming trained teachers.

McLaughlin, a certified firearms instructor and former KCCI meteorologist whose family owns New Way Ford in Coon Rapids and Scranton Manufacturing, has committed to providing up to 1,000 course certificates, worth $1,000 each, to Iowans — with priority given to school employees and church security officials — willing to travel to Nevada to take a four-day introductory defensive handgun course at the Front Sight Firearms Institute, located about 45 miles west of Las Vegas.

Almost 150 teachers and church members have contacted McLaughlin about taking part in the firearms training, he said.

But at school districts in the Carroll area, administrators aren’t sure arming teachers is the answer.

SHEEPDOG MENTALITY

One of the educators planning to take McLaughlin up on his offer is Wendy Arnburg, who teaches sixth- and seventh-grade special-education language arts at the Des Moines Public Schools.

Arnburg shoots recreationally, is a firearms instructor and regularly carries a gun — although not at school.

She plans to take the course in Nevada so that if teachers are eventually permitted to have guns in school, she can carry a gun and train other teachers as well.

She would keep the loaded gun with her, rather than in a drawer where a student could find it or in a safe that might malfunction, Arnburg said — and she doesn’t believe every teacher should carry.

“If it comes out of the holster, I have to have it settled in my heart and make peace that I may have to use it on a human. If that’s not in your heart, don’t carry a gun,” she said, adding that she’s thought about if she’d be able to pull the trigger if needed. “Would I do that? Yes. I’d have to have counseling and a good lawyer, but I’ve accepted that.”

McLaughlin concurred that not all teachers are mentally equipped to carry a gun, and those who don’t want to shouldn’t be forced to — but armed school officials could save lives, he said.

The people who should carry — and those McLaughlin is hoping will take the course in Nevada — are those with the “sheepdog mentality,” he said.

“In schools, it might only be less than 10 percent (of teachers),” he said. “You want to find those people that maybe have some past experience but at least have to have that mindset, the combat mindset, that they’ll go in and they’ll prevail no matter what. A lot of people don’t have it.”

Arming teachers should be a last resort, McLaughlin said, comparable to having a fire extinguisher in case all other fire-prevention methods fail.

Other measures — higher building security, secure access to schools, keeping an eye on who’s coming and going in parking lots — ideally will keep those who might be a threat outside, McLaughlin said, but they’re not foolproof.

“Once they get inside, whatever our politics are, there has to be somebody,” he said. “A book won’t stop rifle rounds. A desk won’t stop rifle rounds. The only thing would be someone waiting around the corner when the bad guy shows up that’s going to deliver lead in the other direction.”

AREA SCHOOLS

Mixed in with the re-upped discussion that educators should carry guns is a proposal from President Donald Trump that teachers should receive bonuses for doing so.

But at many Carroll-area school districts — most of which practice active-shooter and intruder drills and have various security measures in place — responses to the idea are lukewarm or downright negative.

Rob Cordes, Carroll Community Schools superintendent, said he doesn’t support arming teachers.

“That’s the stupidest thing I’ve heard in over 34 years (in education),” Cordes said. “I just don’t think that’s reasonable. It’s like having a police officer try to teach physics.”

Cordes complimented Carroll police officers for their occasional walkthroughs of school buildings and said the training the school conducts is vital.

“Unfortunately, sometimes it takes an event like that to be more (cognizant) that it can happen anywhere,” he said.

He added that implementing metal detectors and armed guards into schools could help, but there’s a bigger problem at play.

“The issue is mental health,” Cordes said. “We know some kids have some issues; we try to get them help. The state has closed down many of the mental health providers. It makes it very difficult to get the kids resources that they need.”

Officials at the Kuemper Catholic School System have not yet formally discussed implementing higher security measures, Kuemper President John Steffes said.

Although school board members have discussed metal detectors and armed guards, Kuemper is waiting to see what other schools in the area decide to do, he said.

Kuemper schools practice ALICE active-shooter training — Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter and Evacuate — to prepare students for a threat. Counter is a new part of the training and involves fighting back by throwing books or distracting the attacker, Steffes said.

He added that a requirement that all teachers be armed would cause problems at the school.

“I heard one teacher say, ‘If I had to be armed, I would quit,’” Steffes said. “I know a teacher that said that.”

Larry Lesle, Carroll High School’s coordinator of student support services, served in law enforcement for 20 years in both Carroll and Manning and does not believe teachers should be carrying guns.

“We need to leave it up to law enforcement,” he said, adding that it would be worth looking into metal detectors and armed guards.

That is exactly what schools in Jefferson are doing.

At a recent Greene County school board meeting, school leaders spoke about having an armed officer from the Jefferson Police Department present at their school buildings at least one day a week.

“It has been mentioned to the police force,” said Tim Christensen, the superintendent at Greene County Community School District. “To me, it would be nice to have an officer in the building one time a week. We’ve got three buildings. To have an officer in every building every day — I don’t know if the police force has that ability.”

Christensen said he would want the officer at the school to work at a front office, patrol the building and occasionally have lunch with the students.

“There’s a presence there to help with security,” Christensen said. “Also, I believe it’s important to build relationships between an officer and some students.”

At South Central Calhoun, a public vote to approve a new property tax that would generate nearly $6 million over the next decade for school building improvements is set for April 3. Part of that money would be used to change the way visitors enter the high school in Lake City so that they would be required to go through the main office.

“We haven’t spent a great deal of time discussing training, arming teachers or having security guards,” Superintendent Jeff Kruse said.

And at Ar-We-Va, security has been upgraded at the school building in Westside to force visitors to signal someone inside the building that they would like to enter — a common security feature at Carroll schools. Kruse, who is also superintendent for Ar-We-Va, said the district might update its surveillance systems and has considered joining staff in Carroll for safety training.

The Glidden-Ralston Community School District has beefed up its security in the past few years, adding a buzz-in system and remaining on total lockdown all day, Superintendent Kreg Lensch said.

Select members of the staff have undergone active-shooter-response training and have passed on the knowledge to other staff members.

As for arming teachers, Lensch has reservations, he said.

“You’d be asking a lot of staff members, and there’d have to be a lot of extensive training that’d go on,” he said. “I’m just not sure adding firearms into a building is going to solve the problem.”

He doesn’t see metal detectors or an armed guard coming into play at Glidden-Ralston soon but believes the school is as safe as possible with the security measures it currently undertakes.

“I’m not sure you can have all the preventative measures you want,” he said. “I’m not sure what’ll stop someone who’s intent on carrying something like this out.”

‘TOUGH PILL TO SWALLOW’

Carroll Police Chief Brad Burke, who has met with Carroll Community School officials recently to discuss school security, said he isn’t convinced it’s a good idea to arm teachers.

Even for police officers, who train extensively to carry and use a gun, it’s impossible to know ahead of time if they would be able to shoot a person if the situation arose, Burke said.

“No one in our department has ever had to come to that situation,” he said. “We train for it, we talk about it, and everyone understands it could be a point in their career. If it was a teacher, that’s the last thing I’d think about — being put in a situation to have to take a person’s life. Could they do it? It’s a tough pill to swallow.”

Carroll’s schools are secure, Burke said, and the district’s employees and students should continue to conduct and regularly repeat drills and training for active-shooter responses before considering pricier options such as metal detectors or armed guards.

“It depends on what taxpayers want to take on as the burden for expenses,” Burke said. “You can create a school which is a fortress, but how much do you want to spend to do that?”

He complimented the students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, who are speaking out to legislators and the National Rifle Association in favor of stricter gun laws after a gunman entered their school and killed 17 people.

“Hopefully the actions of the students will continue longer than in the past,” he said. “With other shootings, like (at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut), there was a lot of gun debate, and then it dropped off after a few months. Hopefully this will spark some change.”

However, Burke said, he is unsure what that change might be.

Trump talked about banning guns till you’re 21,” he said. “The thing is, there’s a million guns in the state of Iowa and probably a billion guns in the U.S. How do you go backwards? There’s really no good answer.”