Page 2 of 2

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 4:00 AM PST
double door school security
Parents enter through a new double-door entryway at Monroe Elementary School, designed to slow a potential shooter. Nicholas Kusnetz/Center for Public Integrity

Law enforcement groups have spoken against arming school staff. Several have said that police could accidentally shoot a teacher holding a gun. Some insurers, such as EMC Insurance Companies, which covers most Kansas districts, have said they would decline coverage to any school that allows employees to carry guns.

Dossey has seen little of this opposition and speaks of his program in a confident tone. He and the board selected a few staff members for the program before buying them firearms and tapping the local sheriff to help with training. The district has kept their identities secret. Members of the program get together once a month for target practice.

The school district is also replacing old doors and installing a buzzer system for the front entrance, which is now unlocked. The work will cost about $50,000, Dossey said, and will come out of a broader $700,000 bond that voters approved in May. Dossey says arming a few staff will cost about $8,000 this year, compared to at least five times as much for a resource officer.

In 2011, the state legislature cut the education budget by more than $5 billion. While lawmakers restored about $3.3 billion this year, those cuts continue to loom large.

"The first thing I heard out of Lt. Gov. Dewhurst's mouth was about how we train teachers to carry guns. Well, welcome to Texas."

But even though Dossey would rather hire a school resource officer if he had more money, he told his state representative that he opposed a bill that would have allowed districts to levy taxes to pay for security measures, including the hiring of resource officers. Taxes are not popular in Texas. The bill never saw a vote.

Linda Bridges, president of the Texas affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers, opposes arming teachers, and she's skeptical of districts' claims that they don't have the money to hire a resource officer. "The issue really is, what are the priorities?" she said.

Bridges and other teachers' advocates say the push in the capital for arming teachers was as much about politics as it was about safety. Within weeks of the Sandy Hook shooting, Gov. Rick Perry voiced support for allowing more guns in schools. Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst went further, calling for state funding to train teachers to carry guns (Perry later vetoed a bill that would have provided up to $1 million for this, citing several shortcomings, including the cost).

"I didn't hear him talking about how we make our schools better," said Ken Zarifis, president of Education Austin, the city's main teachers union. "The first thing I heard out of Lt. Gov. Dewhurst's mouth was about how we train teachers to carry guns. Well, welcome to Texas."
 

Safety Trumps All

Nearly 2,000 miles away, Superintendent James Agostine is operating under different circumstances. Sitting at his desk in Monroe Elementary School, a two-story building perched on a rise above the Monroe Turnpike, Agostine can monitor dozens of security cameras across the district's five schools, with the images neatly organized on one of two monitors connected to his computer. The cameras are part of a technology upgrade the district purchased after the shooting in neighboring Newtown. The district also installed new door locks in many classrooms, replaced outer doors and added two school resource officers to the two it already had.

The district installed double-sets of doors to the schools' front entrances, so visitors must now get buzzed through consecutive locked doors, a level of security more common at banks. In case of an incident, the receptionist can now hit a red panic button that dispatches police to the school.

No one needs a reminder of what happened nearby. The Monroe district, in a heavily wooded community in southwestern Connecticut, is housing Sandy Hook Elementary at one of its buildings while Newtown builds a new school. And Agostine, dressed in a checked shirt and tie, seems to have embraced the role of protector.

"In my career, the top priority is safety," he said. "Safety trumps all."

Over the past year, Monroe has spent nearly $815,000 upgrading security at its schools, leaning heavily on those infrastructure changes. Like the state as a whole, Monroe can afford to spend more than most—median income here is about $108,000.

In April, the Legislature in Hartford passed some of the country's tightest gun controls—requiring background checks on all gun sales and expanding the list of banned assault weapons—along with a handful of school security measures. Lawmakers and the governor created panels and commissions on everything from mental health to security, including the School Safety Infrastructure Council, which is expected to release recommendations in January that will eventually be required as part of any state-funded school construction. In the meantime, the state has spread $21 million in grants across two-thirds of its districts, helping them upgrade facilities. Many districts added school resource officers, but no one talked seriously of arming teachers.

There's a powerful sense of before and after in Connecticut (school administrators refer to the day, like 9/11, by its date, 12/14). "It's becoming not only more acceptable but more of a public demand for security in schools," said Donald DeFronzo, commissioner of the state Department of Administrative Services and chairman of the School Safety Infrastructure Council. "Parents want to believe that when they drop their kids off in the morning that they're leaving them, next to home, in the most secure place anywhere."

DeFronzo said the council is working with the federal Department of Homeland Security to adapt a security assessment tool now used for federal buildings. Rather than prescribe blanket fixes, the tool will help districts identify security weaknesses while suggesting a range of corrective measures.

All this will come with a cost. DeFronzo said the requirements could add up to 15 percent to any given construction project. Connecticut schools have spent about $530 million a year on school construction over the past five years, with the state covering more than two-thirds of that. New security measures could tack on tens of millions of dollars annually. While the state budget office expects a surplus for the next two years, it recently projected a deficit of $1.1 billion for the year beginning July 1, 2015.

school door
In Jonesboro, students often leave open the door near the main school entrance, despite school policy. Dossey says the trust that comes with small-town life makes securing the school particularly difficult. Nicholas Kusnetz/Center for Public Integrity

While Monroe did not apply for state grants, the district was lucky. Administrators had already been looking at security upgrades before the shooting, and were prepared to spend part of the regular maintenance budget. Savings on medical expenses last year allowed them to devote an additional $240,000 to the work. They hired consultants, attended conferences, updated their emergency plans (the new law includes requirements for these plans). The preparation meant the district was ready to move immediately.

"Within months of Sandy Hook happening, everybody is getting busy," Agostine said. "You can't find a contractor now to come in and design a new system. They don't have the horses in the stall."

Still, the town of nearly 20,000 didn't avoid debate over the costs. In April, voters rejected an annual budget that included funding for three new school resource officers. After some residents questioned the need for additional officers, the town cut one of the positions from the budget, which was then approved in a subsequent referendum.

Agostine seems comfortable speaking about the security measures, some of which began before the shooting, but he acknowledges they come with a social price, too. "Years ago it would not be uncommon for a parent to come in with their child, walk down to the classroom, help the child at their locker, give them a kiss and send them into the classroom. Now we say, 'Leave them at the door,' " he said. Later, Agostine compared their work to the broader security measures Americans experience, like near-constant surveillance. "The cost of our society in terms of security is that we give up a little bit of that autonomy."

The Center for Public Integrity is a nonprofit, independent investigative news outlet. For more of its stories on this topic, go to publicintegrity.org.

 
Page 2 of 2

Front page image: Nicholas Kusnetz/Center for Public Integrity

Get Mother Jones by Email - Free. Like what you're reading? Get the best of MoJo three times a week.