LAURENS COUNTY, Ga. - The school shooting in Parkland, Florida, convinced school Superintendent Daniel Brigman that his plan to arm teachers and other Laurens County, Georgia, school personnel needed to go beyond the idea phase.
“I’ve had this discussion repeatedly with different boards of education for the last 14 years,” Brigman said. His school district is southeast of Macon and the first in Georgia to make the move. “What happened in Florida heightened the level of awareness and concern that we needed a procedure in place to protect the safety of our schools.”
As students across metro Atlanta and the country head to school each day, the adults in their lives grapple with how to keep kids safe. More police? More guns? Fewer guns? More locks? More cameras? More technology?
Laurens County’s school board approved arming teachers last month. The Florida shooting seemed to set the dominoes falling. Georgia made it legal for school systems to arm teachers in 2012, but this month the Fannin County Board of Education will consider a similar decision, and there are discussions in others, such as Floyd and Bleckley counties. Most metro Atlanta school system leaders have so far declined to consider it, though Clayton County Superintendent Morcease Beasley said after Florida that the issue was “more complicated than a simple yes or no (for or against); it will require a multifaceted response from more than a single entity making a decision.”
As for arming classroom instructors, teachers, parents and law enforcement are on both sides of the issue. And the conversation has gained volume with recent events, from school shootings to school walkouts and a school-violence and gun protest march in Atlanta that drew an estimated 30,000 people.
According to data compiled by the Washington Post, 210,000 students at 213 schools have experienced gun violence at school since the 1999 shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado. When you consider the tens of millions of schoolchildren, that number is tiny. But this year alone, there have been 13 school shootings, according to media reports.
Laurens is a rural county with a population of less than 50,000, with about 25 percent of those under 18. The spread of the county — its 807 square miles make it the third largest in the state — demonstrate a safety safety issue for it’s two high schools, two middle schools and four elementary schools.
It’s no secret that it can take more than half an hour to get from one of the high schools to the other, so emergency response times are an issue. The school doesn’t have school resource officers. It shares the cost of rotating Laurens County deputies among schools, but the officers also help police the rest of the county.
“Look at the shootings that have taken the most lives,” Brigman said. “The shooter was done in about 10 minutes.”
The sheriff’s department is working with Brigman to develop a training plan, but doesn’t want people to equate the teachers with what its deputies do.
Chief Deputy Stan Wright said, “We are the law enforcement, but arming the teachers is like giving them a tool that we hope will never need to be used.”
Not all police officers think it’s a tool teachers need.
Officer Donald Rene, a Fulton County Schools police officer, said he’d hate to add another duty to the long list already placed on teachers. “I don’t grade tests and (the teachers) shouldn’t carry guns,” he said.
The National Association of School Resource Officers and at least one of Georgia’s teacher associations are not in favor of arming teachers. But a recent poll by the Professional Association of Georgia Educators show that 53 percent of teachers would not carry a gun to school if permitted, but more than 17 percent said they would.
Katie Vanburen, who had a harrowing experience some years ago involving a gun in school, is for arming teachers.
“As long as it’s on a voluntary basis, with controls in place like requiring weapons to be holstered and secured with biometrics, agreements that use is for encounters with deadly weapons,” she said.
Biometrically controlled guns use technology to keep unauthorized users from being able to fire a weapon, though the technology can be expensive and is not widely developed.
She was a student at Etowah High School in Cherokee County when Brian Head came to school on March 26, 1994, armed with a handgun.
“He ended up killing himself in the classroom the period before lunch. But not before he attempted to shoot my boyfriend, Keith Herring. He was friends with Keith and both Keith and our history teacher, Coach Watkins, tried to talk him down with a gun pointed in their faces,” she said.
“That day was chaos. A lot of changes have been put in place since then, and parents and teachers are wholly unappreciative of the work that’s already been done since then.”
Technology alone isn’t enough, in the mind of the school chief whose district pioneered arming teachers.
While horrific school shootings in Colorado, Connecticut and most recently Florida have become wake-up calls for community action, the so-called “Amish school massacre” in 2006, was the clarion call for a school superintendent 1,500 miles away in rural Texas. A delivery man who was known to the Amish community shot 11 girls in a one-room schoolhouse, killing five.
“I tried everything – bean bag guns, tranquilizer guns, cameras. I’ve got more cameras per square foot than probably any other school district – you name it,” said David Thweatt, superintendent of Harrold Independent Schools. In 2008, it became the first in Texas to arm teachers.
“The only thing that’s going to be 100 percent fool-proof is arming teachers with lethal force,” he said.
The identity of these so-called “guardians” are known only to the superintendent and the school board, who approve each individual.
Harrold hasn’t had an “active-shooter” incident, nor any weapons discharged on campus.
Both Brigman and Thweatt believe arming teachers is an effective use of resources. For the cost of one full-time police officer, Thweatt said he can have about 20 people armed and trained to protect the school.
But some argue that it won’t save money in the long run: expenses such as insurance and training costs will eat short-term savings. Any school employee who carries a gun on campus raises insurance rates. Those who determine those costs say the presence of guns, no matter who carries them, makes any place susceptible to injury or death. Who pays for the insurance depends mainly on who that person works for — the school district, an independent law enforcement office such as city police or county sheriff or an independent security firm.
With Laurens being the first in the state planning armed teachers, the Georgia School Boards Association didn’t have figures available. “We are still exploring this to determine what the actual costs will be,” said spokesman Justin Pauly. “We anticipate it could be the same or similar to insuring School Resource Officers.”
Safety itself is another argument. Opponents fear authorizing guns for teachers will lead to innocent people getting hurt or killed.
No schools in the U.S. with armed teachers have had active-shooter events, but there have been gun mishaps.
A few weeks after the Parkland shooting, a teacher in a Northern California school accidentally discharged a firearm while teaching a public safety class. One student was injured by a bullet fragment or debris.
A third-grade boy in Minnesota was able to snake a finger into a school police officer’s holster earlier this year, firing one shot from the department-issued Glock 22 into the floor of the school gymnasium.
Closer to home, two Georgia teachers in the last 12 months brought guns to school illegally. One fired off a shot and the other tried unsuccessfully to commit suicide.
Even those who’ve been face to face with a gunman don’t agree on the best course of action.
Antoinette Tuff, the bookkeeper at Ronald E. McNair Discovery Learning Academy who talked an armed man at the school into surrendering on Aug. 20, 2013, has become a national school safety advocate.
At the March For Our Lives Rally on March 24 on downtown Atlanta’s Liberty Plaza, she recalled telling the suicidal 20-year-old: ” ‘It’s going to be all right sweetie. I just want you to know that I love you…OK?’ “
She’s adamant that if she’d had a gun the situation wouldn’t have ended peacefully.
Michelle Haberland, a volunteer with the Georgia chapter of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, agrees.
“Arming educators is a bad idea, period. In fact, research shows that the presence of guns in schools will actually increase the risk to students,” she said. “Instead of doing dangerous things like arming teachers, our elected leaders should focus on passing policies to keep guns out of the hands of people with violent intentions.”
But eighth-grader Tatiana Jones said she understands the benefits and the dangers.
“Having more people to help if a shooter comes to the school is a good thing, but teachers are human,” she said. “What if they snap and pull that gun on a student or someone else. If it came to my school I don’t think I’d be against it, but it would give me one more thing to worry about.”
A recent poll by the Professional Association of Georgia Educators of 7,204 members across the state show:
— 53 percent of teachers would not carry a gun to school if permitted
— 20.8 maybe would carry a gun
— 8.7 percent probably would carry a gun
— 17.5 percent would carry a gun
*numbers are rounded and may not add up to 100 percent.