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Inside a School Where Teachers Pack Heat

A year after Newtown, schools still debate whether guns in the classroom make kids safer.

| Mon Dec. 16, 2013 7:00 AM EST

Superintendent Matt Dossey launched a program to arm a select group of staff at the Jonesboro Independent School District in central Texas.

This story first appeared on the Center for Public Integrity website.

It wasn't quite cold enough to need a vest on a recent Texas morning, but Matt Dossey was wearing one anyway. Made of heavy canvas, the vest might have concealed a pistol. There was no way to tell. Perhaps that was the point.

Dossey is superintendent at Jonesboro Independent School District, which serves a tiny community in the rolling Texas scrubland north of Austin. In January, the district decided to arm a select group of staffers with concealed weapons.

Jonesboro straddles the border between Coryell and Hamilton counties; it's more than 15 miles to the nearest sheriff's department. The town is unincorporated, and has no government or police. If someone were to attack the school, Dossey said, no one's coming to protect the kids—not quickly, anyway.

Dossey was standing inside the school cafeteria, where students motored around a room decorated with harvest-themed paper cutouts. The district was hosting a pre-holiday Thanksgiving dinner, when parents join kids for a school lunch of turkey and stuffing. Looking around the room, Dossey, who hadn't taken off his vest, said the new policy adds a layer of security that most everyone in town is happy with.

"If somebody walked in that door and opened fire," he said, "we would have a chance."

Ever since Adam Lanza killed 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, last December, school districts and state governments have searched for better ways to protect students. Lawmakers introduced hundreds of school safety bills. Many called for arming more security guards or for arming teachers. Others went the opposite direction, tightening gun laws.

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In Monroe, Connecticut, just nine miles from Sandy Hook, residents supported a range of expensive measures. The town, which spreads out from a village green between two white-steepled churches, spent hundreds of thousands of dollars upgrading buildings and hiring school resource officers, town cops who are posted at schools. The move is largely in step with what happened statewide. Lawmakers passed sweeping legislation in April that included gun controls, such as expanded background checks and mandates for school security. The Legislature also funded millions of dollars in infrastructure grants and tightened state law covering guns in school so that only active or retired law enforcement officers can serve as armed guards.

"I don't believe a teacher would just kill a kid right there. I've walked up in front of a kid who had a gun. I know how it feels."

Texas, on the other hand, has not appropriated money to school security and is not creating mandates. Jonesboro is one of about 70 districts to arm staff since Sandy Hook. This year, the Legislature encouraged more to do the same, passing a bill that created a state-run training program that will allow districts to designate staff as "school marshals," an entirely new class of law enforcement (districts must pay the costs).

At first glance, the disparate approaches appear simply to reflect a stereotypical divide between two regions of America with their own closely held views of guns and their place in daily life. But a closer look shows that what's happened in Jonesboro and Monroe also reflects a broader set of beliefs about the role of government, about local control, and perhaps most importantly, about taxes.

A Flurry of Activity

Just after 9:30 a.m. on December 14, Lanza, 20, arrived at Sandy Hook Elementary School armed with a Bushmaster rifle and two pistols. Staff had just locked the front door, but Lanza shot his way through the entranceway glass. Down the hall, the principal, school psychologist and another staff member heard the shots and came to investigate. Lanza shot all three, killing the principal and the psychologist, before making his way to two first-grade classrooms, where he killed the children and four adults.

A staff member had called 911 at 9:35 and police arrived within four minutes. Within a minute, Lanza shot himself. The entire episode lasted no more than 11 minutes, according to a recent report by the local state's attorney (PDF).

Residents and victims' families soon formed groups, some supporting stricter gun controls. Several parents created Safe and Sound, an organization that offers tools for districts to improve security through planning and training.

In Washington, much of the debate focused on guns. Wayne LaPierre, executive vice president of the National Rifle Association, called on Congress to fund an armed police officer in every school. "The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun," he said.

"If somebody walked in that door and opened fire, we would have a chance."

President Obama announced a broad plan in January encompassing gun control and school security. But his signature initiative, calling for background checks on most gun sales, died in the Senate in April. The security measures fared better. The Justice Department gave $46.5 million in grants in the 2013 fiscal year to fund 370 school resource officers, who are being stationed in schools nationwide. Districts have added thousands of such officers on their own, said Mo Canady, executive director of the National Association of School Resource Officers—augmenting the 10,000 or so already in place. In June, the Education Department published a how-to guide for schools to create emergency plans.

But federal funding for several school safety programs has dropped steadily since receiving a boost in 2009. The COPS program, which pays for community police efforts including school resource officers, saw funding cut by more than 80 percent, to $178 million in fiscal year 2013, for example.

State legislatures have acted as well. Lawmakers sponsored bills on school safety in every state, introducing more than 500 this year, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL). Dozens became law.

While most focused on emergency planning or safety grants, South Dakota in March became the first state to explicitly allow schools to authorize their staff to carry guns. Lawmakers introduced similar bills in 34 states, according to NCSL, passing them in six others. In several states, including Colorado, Oregon, and Ohio, districts have used existing laws to arm staff.

Nearly every state generally bars guns from school grounds, but many give districts some wiggle room. Texas, for example, has for years allowed schools to authorize people to carry weapons on campus. Other state laws are open to interpretation. But few if any districts had armed teachers before Sandy Hook, other than one in rural Texas.

Over the past few years, however, gun groups began pushing to expand the exceptions, according to the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. In April, an NRA panel published a model bill for states that would allow districts to make their own decisions on arming staff. The organization did not respond to an interview request.

A Different Culture

Matt Dossey stands tall with a genial demeanor, and at 40, he's as close as Jonesboro has to a town leader, serving not only as school superintendent, but also as minister at the Baptist church. Dossey grew up in Gatesville, about 15 miles southeast. And aside from attending college in Abilene, he's spent practically his whole life within a 15-mile radius. His wife, Emily, and mother, Mildred, each graduated from Jonesboro High School. His older son, who's 6, attends the kindergarten.

"We live in a place where our kids are familiar with guns…It's a different culture out here."

He's not the only one to stay close to home. Standing in the cafeteria, he could point to the children of his childhood friend, or to a young teacher who was his student years ago. While the small-town feel engenders trust, he said it makes securing the school a maddening task. Parents expect to go where they please. Closing doors isn't foremost on kids' minds.

Dossey had first proposed the idea of arming teachers to the school board after he came to the district in 2011, citing Harrold, a rural district in north Texas that adopted a similar plan in 2007. Some board members were hesitant. "Anytime you put weapons in an atmosphere where you've got a bunch of kids, you've got to be careful," said Keith Taylor, president of the school board.

Sandy Hook convinced Taylor and other trustees that it was worth that risk. On January 17, all seven members voted to adopt the plan.

"We live in a place where our kids are familiar with guns," Dossey said, describing how students camp out with their guns by the football field each summer, when irrigated grass creates a green oasis amid the dry landscape. "Armadillos love to come to our football field and dig up holes rooting for worms and grubs. Well, our kids go down there armadillo hunting," he said. "It's a different culture out here. Everyone has guns in their home, if not for skunks or whatever, then for intruders."

Despite the culture, some have resisted arming teachers. Most of the state's larger districts have their own police departments and have said they will not arm other staff. In Austin, district police hired six school resource officers this year to patrol the city's 79 elementary schools—they already had officers at each high and middle school.

Bill Bond, school safety specialist for the National Association of Secondary School Principals, doubts that an armed teacher would actually stop a student bent on killing peers. He was the principal at a high school in West Paducah, Kentucky, in 1997 when a student killed three classmates. "I don't believe a teacher would just kill a kid right there," he said. "I've walked up in front of a kid who had a gun. I know how it feels. I think you'd hesitate." More likely, he said, is that an armed teacher would lead to a deadly accident.

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