Expect the issue of arming teachers to start appearing on school-board agendas; in Yakima, it’s already happening, and some districts have administrators already carrying guns.
YAKIMA — Weeks after a massacre in a Florida high school left 17 people dead, some Yakima County school officials say the prospect of allowing staff members to carry guns on campuses will likely appear on board agendas later this year.
But whether such policies are necessary is up for debate.
In the Toppenish School District, where administrators have been allowed to carry concealed pistols since 2014, Superintendent John Cerna said he’s seen an outpouring of support for the district’s policy.
“I’m getting calls from (people) all over the country saying they support what we’re doing,” he said. “From the East Coast and from the South, it’s crazy, I don’t even know these people, and they’re calling me directly.”
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But at La Salle High School, a private Roman Catholic school in Union Gap, president Tim McGree said he hasn’t seen much support for arming school staff in discussions he’s had with community members.
“I can’t believe it’s come to this,” he said. “My daughter is going to be a teacher, and I can’t imagine she’s going to want to have a gun in her classroom. They’re there to teach kids; that’s what they’re trained for.”
At Toppenish, 19 administrators — about two-thirds of the district’s administrators — carry pistols. To get certified, they underwent 40 hours of combined classroom instruction and firing-range training. To keep that certification, they must participate in at least two hours of training each month and pass an annual skills test.
Cerna said the purpose of his district’s policy is to keep students safe from what he sees as a national increase in violent behavior.
“It’s an epidemic in this country; we’re in a crisis,” he said. “People don’t really think about it until it affects them, and now it’s starting to affect them.”
After the Toppenish school board approved its policy, Kiona-Benton School District, just east of Prosser, approved a similar measure a year later. In 2016, the boards at La Salle High School and in the Naches Valley and Granger school districts began discussing options to arm staff members, but they tabled talks after they couldn’t agree on any action.
But McGree said events like the one in Florida add a sense of urgency to talks about safety, and he anticipates the issue being discussed again this year.
“It’s kind of like a slap in the face,” he said.
Naches Valley School District Superintendent Duane Lyons said he also expects talks on the issue to resume in his district this year, but he said his board wants to implement more conventional safety measures, such as providing more security at front entrances, before taking any action on arming staff.
Katy Carver, whose son is a fourth-grader in the Naches Valley School District, said she supports the district’s allowing its employees to carry guns.
“I think it’s a great idea; the school is in the middle of nowhere; it’s so far away from any law enforcement,” she said. “And a lot can happen within the first few minutes of a shooting.”
Cerna echoed Carver, saying that not having to wait for police to respond to a school is critical for saving lives in the event of an active shooter.
Chris Weedin, a school-safety-technology coordinator with Educational Service District 105 — an agency that provides a wide range of services for school districts in the region — said the national response time for police is about 12 to 14 minutes on average. This, he said, could be a problem if a school were to come under attack.
“We don’t call (police) first-responders anymore because they’re not the first ones to respond in these situations; the teachers in the classrooms are,” he said.
While having an immediate, armed response to an active shooter is one benefit of allowing educators to carry firearms, Weedin said a drawback is that districts, in doing so, could be lulled into a false sense of security.
Schools need to continue to focus on training and making general safety improvements instead of just handing their employees guns and thinking they’re now totally safe, he said.
Ken Trump, the president of the National School Safety and Security Services, called the arming of school staff a “ridiculous, high-risk proposition,” and encouraged districts that want an armed response to threats to invest in a school resource-officer program.
“The vast majority of teachers want to be armed with textbooks and computers, not firearms,” he said.
Trump said that, even with substantial training, school staff members lack the experience and skill of commissioned police officers and would likely not perform well in a high-stress situation. He also argued that hiring school-resource officers makes more fiscal sense than trying to implement and regulate a program that would arm educators.
Yakima and East Valley school districts — both of which utilize school-resource officers — said they are not considering any policies for allowing staff to carry guns.
Kirsten Fitterer, the director of community and public relations for the Yakima School District, said the district’s seven resource officers make the need for any additional firearms in its schools unnecessary.
“We have an armed presence already,” she said, “And we’re concerned that, by having guns in schools with staff members, there’s potential for those to fall into the wrong hands. The cons outweigh the pros.”