A North Carolina school district made headlines over the weekend for its decision to place AR-15 rifles in every school in the event of a school shooting. It’s a high-profile and potentially controversial strategy that school safety experts say isn’t unheard of and can be effective if done right. But it requires serious consideration of the risks involved.
The Madison County, N.C., sheriff’s office decided to put an assault-style rifle in each of the county’s six schools as a safety measure in light of the Robb Elementary School shooting in Uvalde, Texas, the Asheville Citizen Times reported. A report to the Texas state legislature revealed that systemic failures and poor decision-making impacted law enforcement’s response to the shooting in which a gunman killed 19 students and two teachers.
Madison County Sheriff Buddy Harwood said each rifle has been stored in a safe within each school along with ammunition and breaching tools for barricaded doors, and all six schools have a school resource officer who would be responsible for the guns, the report said.
While there aren’t official databases with the numbers of districts that utilize such a strategy, it is becoming more common as school safety holds national attention, said Mac Hardy, director of operations at the National Association of School Resource Officers. Hardy himself once supervised a school-based policing unit in Hoover, Ala., that had rifles locked away in safes in SRO offices.
“SROs that are working the schools should have every tool that a patrol officer has at their disposal in the case of an emergency that may arise in the school,” said Hardy, who has since retired from the Alabama SRO position.
Saving time could mean saving lives, some experts say
In an active shooter situation, semiautomatic rifles, like the AR-15, could be more useful in stopping a shooter than a standard sidearm, such as a handgun that police hold in a holster, said Ken Trump, a school safety consultant and president of National School Safety and Security Services. Having them available provides officers with higher firepower and the ability to counter someone with a comparable weapon, he said.
Gunmen used AR-15-style guns during the Robb Elementary shooting, the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Fla., and the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Conn. Trump recalls people suggesting storing rifles in schools as a potential safety strategy following the shooting at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., in 1999.
Although they are devastating and often draw national attention, school shootings remain statistically rare events. There have been 119 school shootings since 2018, the year that Education Week started tracking the incidents. Of those 119, 27 have happened in 2022, according to the school shooting tracker.
In the North Carolina district, Harwood told the Asheville Citizen Times that having the guns in the school buildings rather than in SROs’ cars, where they are often held, will reduce the amount of time it takes for an officer to respond to an incident.
“It’s a valid point,” Trump said. “You have an officer in the building. It’s not logical [when] you have an active threat coming in the door and unfold in the hallway, and the officer goes, ‘Hold on a minute, let me run to my car.’”
But having the weapons inside a school doesn’t mean the rifles would be easy to access when locked in an SRO’s office. Hardy said his school-based policing unit in Alabama had a rule that officers would not leave the scene of an incident to grab the rifles and instead would use the handguns and other tools they had on their person to respond.
“If I’m out doing what I’m supposed to be doing in the schools—I’m out where the kids are moving around during the day and I’m out where they’re at—and an incident occurs inside the school, our policy was, ‘You do not go back to the office to get a rifle, you’re responding to a direct threat,’” he said. “If I’m in my office, if I’m in close proximity to that [gun] safe and a situation occurs, we did train on getting that weapon quickly, deploying it quickly.”
Hardy’s unit used biometric safes that required a thumbprint rather than a key or combination lock to secure the guns and ensure officers could quickly access them, he said.
The strategy comes with many risks
Although he sees the value in reducing the amount of time it takes to respond to an incident, Trump said the risks of having assault rifles in schools may outweigh the potential rewards.
It could be possible for students, members of the community, or school officials who aren’t properly trained to get hold of a rifle, especially if schools haven’t done thorough contingency planning when deciding how they’ll lock it away. Trump pointed to an incident in 2019 in which two former students broke into a school in Red Boiling Springs, Tenn., and stole an AR-15 rifle from an SRO’s office, according to reporting from News Channel 5 Nashville.
To avoid the most serious risk, schools would need to ensure the weapons are locked in a safe in an SRO’s office, and that the office is also locked, Trump said. The school safety consultant also recommended that schools avoid putting the weapons in a room with paneled or false ceilings that may allow someone to sneak in from above. Any room with weapons should also have intrusion alarms to ensure that school resource officers know when someone has entered and may have access to the gun.
“You want to work through a lot of these questions, and recognizing, generally speaking, that while it makes sense tactically and is a worthy conversation, that you’re also introducing a new higher risk for someone who has ill intentions,” Trump said.
The presence of AR-15s in schools doesn’t mean educators would be armed
If done right, Trump and Hardy say school resource officers should be the only ones with access to the AR-15, as is the case in the Madison County schools. Both school safety experts believe that every school should have an SRO, which would be especially important when an assault rifle is in the school. Madison County recently decided to put SROs in each school, according to reporting from the Asheville newspaper.
Not every school has an SRO and some districts have scaled back or completely removed funding for the police presence in schools out of worries of over-policing and profiling students with disabilities and students of color, especially Black students.
The concept of allowing other school officials, such as a principal or teacher, to access the rifles is troubling, Hardy said. After each high-profile school shooting, the idea of arming teachers and other school officials has risen in popularity. Education Week has published stories dating back to 2007 chronicling the debate over arming teachers in schools.
Nine states specifically list school employees as exempt from K-12 firearm bans, according to the National Conference of State Legislators. But the concept of arming teachers is flawed without extensive training that schools often don’t have the time, money, and resources to carry out, said Hardy, who was also a teacher before becoming an SRO.
“I have 30 kids and my job is to keep them calm and keep them safe in a stressful situation, that’s what they need to be focused on,” he said. “Let the SROs be focused on deploying direct to threat, getting there and stopping that threat in the best way possible.”