8 Investigates: School districts arming teachers

PARAGOULD/NEWARK, AR (KAIT) – Lawmakers in Arkansas are reviewing legislation to increase security at public schools in the state. In the aftermath of the Sandy Hook tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut, the discussion about school safety has been renewed. School administrators, staff and parents want mass school shootings to end, but everyone doesn't agree on how to do it.

"Everybody watched Sandy Hook and I believe that principal did everything correct and she had that school as secure as she possibly could," said Superintendent Dr. Ann Webb of the Newark School District. "After Sandy Hook, we wanted to review our crisis plan again because that made me nervous. That made everyone nervous."

The Newark School Board voted in favor of a plan to allow one teacher to carry his police issued firearm on campus. The teacher will receive $3,000 per year and has been provided a special holster to hold the weapon during class. Webb said the district is working to increase safety in any way possible.

"All that I've heard from the community is relief, just a sigh of relief that okay, they're doing something. They've moved in this direction and they have protection for our students," said Webb. "In my research, I found that yes, we could have staff members carry a weapon if they have been through the course and they have 120 hours and were certified through that."

Webb said the band director, Billy Madison, started carrying his firearm in class in early February. Madison is a reserve police officer of about 20 years at the Newport Police Department. Region 8 News visited Madison on one of the first days he was allowed to carry the gun in school.

"When I was approached with the idea, I was very insistent that safety was first. If I'm going to carry a weapon, first I want a holster that prevents students or anyone else from taking the gun," said Madison. "It's not going to come out of that holster unless you know how to get it out."

Madison said his firearm is loaded while he teaches his students, but he's not worried about a student trying to take the gun from him.

"I believe that anyone who is going to be carrying a weapon on campus should go through the full training of a reserve police officer. I think (they can) also even spend some time riding with the officers. Actually go out and do some of the work, because that prepares you for a lot of things," said Madison.

Madison said the protection he can provide with a firearm is better than the alternative of hiding students.

"I always think about what would happen if something was to happen here. I've always thought, 'what would I do?' What would I be able to do?  Honestly, just get your kids to safety is all I could try to do in the past," said Madison. "If someone is coming here and they want to harm you, then it's my responsibility to do something to stop them."

"I guarantee that when I started teaching, the idea that I would be carrying a weapon someday never occurred to me," said Madison.

Arkansas legislators are working through a number of bills about school safety. Homer Lenderman of Brookland introduced House Bill 1231 to the House Education Committee on January 31st. His bill would allow school districts to select certain staff to become certified police officers. Lenderman told Region 8 News the bill could serve as a national guideline. Some items in the bill include a physical evaluation, psychological evaluation, training from a police academy and final examination for individuals who may carry a gun on campus.

Webb said other teachers have expressed interest in carrying firearms on campus.

"Unfortunately in the world we live in today, the danger is real and is there and a lot of times it's at the smaller school level," said Tim Cunningham, who teaches agriculture at Cedar Ridge High School.

While Cunningham said he would carry a weapon on campus if asked, he doesn't believe every teacher in the district should tote a gun.

"I think it's important the campuses do have some armed people available," said Cunningham. "It is a sad day in time where we have to worry about these things, but when this last shooting happened, my heart just bleeds for those people and for those families."

As with any hot topic, people feel differently on both sides of the debate. Among those who oppose arming teachers is Missouri Governor Jay Nixon.

Nixon reportedly said he has told superintendents across the Show-Me-State he is against any measure to deputize teachers. The democratic governor joins a number of republican lawmakers against such measures.

"Putting loaded weapons in classrooms is quite simply the wrong approach to a serious issue that demands careful analysis and thoughtful solutions," Nixon is quoted by a website.

During our investigation, we analyzed statistics from the Arkansas Department of Education Data Center. According to disciplinary infraction reports since the 2004-2005 school year, 529 firearms were reportedly brought on campus by students, mostly handguns. On average, 35 handguns, shotguns and rifles were reported on campus or confiscated from students. However, the Arkansas Department of Education indicated the statistics do not include the number of guns no reported.

Interestingly, the overall number of assaults on students and teachers has gone down significantly since 2004-2005.

Region 8 News asked law enforcement agencies about the prospect of arming teachers. Corporal Brad Snyder with the Paragould Police Department said teachers need to be trained as certified police officers if they carry a weapon.

"I think it's hard to answer it just for the fact there's no litmus test for this. There's no example for us to look at," said Snyder.

The possibly, according to Snyder, is that armed teachers could stop mass shootings in a timely manner. While they may not stop the attack overall, they could limit the damage done. However, Snyder also said the problems may outweight any action.

"Where's it going to be kept? Is it going to be kept on their person? Is it going to be kept in some sort of safe? Is that safe going to be able to be secure and not be breached? There's just a lot of questions that we don't have answers to," said Snyder.

However, even if an "active shooter" scenario is underway, Snyder said there's a certain element of luck for police in eliminating the threat quickly.

"Our SWAT team has gone to every school, every building and gone through with the administrators of those buildings. Basically, we have pretty much made the same protocol for every school district," said Snyder. "We can prepare all day long for every single possible outcome, and we still may not touch them all."

The Cedar Ridge School District also employs a school resource officer, who travels between all campuses throughout the day. Seargant Rob Leonard, who works through the Independence County Sheriff's Office, said his presence greatly increases safety.

"I really feel that a school resource officer in a school is a big time deterrent. Because if somebody wanted to come do something, they're going to see (us) and they may think twice about it," said Leonard. "If they (teachers) do get the chance to carry weapons or whatever they decide to do, they're going to have to go through some of the exact same training I had."

Webb said she's gotten nothing but positive response from teachers and parents about allowing Madison to carry his handgun, but she said every district is different.

"They send us their children and they know we're going to do the best we can to protect them. Just like people praised the teachers that hid the kids at Sandy Hook, all I can do is just pray every day that our school will be safe and the children will arrive safely and they'll get home safely."

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