It’s a common question raised after high-profile school shootings in the United States: Should teachers carry guns and act as a first line of defense against active shooters?
While experts and advocates debate the benefits and potential costs of arming school staff, one superintendent in Ohio has taken action, standing up “armed response teams” in not one, but two districts over the past decade.
John Scheu, now superintendent of the Benjamin Logan Local School District, about an hour northwest of Columbus, has led the charge in creating the district’s first-ever team of 17 staff members who are trained to carry or handle firearms on campus and intervene in the event of an active shooter.
Scheu led a similar effort in 2013 in nearby Sidney City Schools. The program, under which participating staff keep firearms and bulletproof vests in specialized safes at school that only open with their members’ fingerprints, is still in place today.
Arming teachers and other school staff is a controversial measure, with advocates saying having staff on site who can respond in emergencies can cut the amount of time those in the school have to spend waiting for first responders—time that can save lives.
Opponents argue having more guns on campus could lead to accidental discharges, get stolen by students or other staff, or create even greater confusion when there’s an active shooter.
There’s little data researchers can use to evaluate the effectiveness of the approach, though surveys over time have shown some growth in support for the concept from teachers.
In several interviews with EdWeek between May and September, Scheu spoke at length about his experience forming and maintaining teams of armed staff members in the two Ohio districts. Those interviews have been edited for brevity and clarity.
Where did the idea of arming teachers in your districts come from? Was there a specific event that triggered the formation of the armed response teams?
The impetus for starting the program in Sidney was shortly after the Sandy Hook massacre. At the time, districts all over the country were instructing teachers that in the event of an active shooter, turn your lights off in your classroom, lock your classroom door, pull the shades on the windows, and huddle with your kids in the corner of the room away from the windows. But in the Sandy Hook massacre, the shooter simply shot his way into a very secure building and shot his way into the first classroom that he came to where the teacher was huddled with 1st graders in the corner of the room and killed nearly all of them.
So with that as a backdrop, our sheriff called me because my school district was the biggest district in the county. And he said, “I’m losing sleep over this. We need to do a better job to safeguard your kids and your teachers.”
We put hundreds of thousands of dollars into better securing our buildings, making them safer, making them more secure—like security camera upgrades, making sure all the doors locked properly and were secured, and so on. But the Sandy Hook situation showed us that we can have the most secure buildings in the country, and if an active shooter wants to come in and do that kind of carnage to students, they can, so that’s when we sat down and came up with the plan that had an armed presence trained by the sheriff’s department.
The Sandy Hook situation showed us that we can have the most secure buildings in the country, and if an active shooter wants to come in and do that kind of carnage to students, they can.
In the Benjamin Logan district a while back, when the sheriff of the county spoke to the board, the board members asked him how long would it take law enforcement officials to arrive in the unlikely event of an active shooter. And he said he can have someone there in 10 to 15 minutes. The essence of time is of paramount importance, so that really touched a chord with them. And they went ahead and gave me the permission to start an armed response team.
What exactly is an armed response team?
The policy we came up with is one to train volunteers—secretaries, custodians, teachers’ aides, principals—to either conceal carry or have an assigned firearm that’s securely stored and available to them in the event of an active shooter.
They go through intense training and are the first line of defense if there’s a shooter. They don’t help the police once they arrive—they’re instructed to put the threat out as soon as possible and retreat as soon as law enforcement identifies themselves.
What are the training requirements for staff members who participate?
The required training encompasses a total of 24 hours over three days.
It consists of simulated drills for how to react during an active shooter situation, when to engage and when not to engage, first aid, firearms training at the shooting range, target practice, and so on.
Most of the employees also participated in additional training at the firearms range and participated in a self-defense class.
Before starting these armed response teams, what was your experience with firearms? Did that influence your feelings about the program?
I’m not even a gun person. When I first did this in 2013, the most I ever shot was a BB gun. I’m not a member of the NRA or anything like that. This all started with just sitting down with our sheriff and talking about the needs. We watched some film of some active shooter situations and I thought to myself, “My goodness gracious. We have to do something different than what we’re doing.”
So I went through the training, and I felt very good about it. I’m much more comfortable with handling a gun, and with what a gun can do and what a gun can’t do.
What has the reception been like from your staff and broader community? How have you tried to calm any fears and concerns?
We’ve had some pushback. There’s some in favor and some opposed in the ranks of the teachers, but the parents overwhelmingly have supported the armed response team, so we feel pretty confident that the community in general is supportive of having a trained and qualified armed response team to back up our school resource officers and the police. That doesn’t mean it’s 100 percent support.
We had a big community forum, where we had people stand up and give their opinions in terms of what we were proposing to do, and probably 75 percent were in favor and 25 percent were opposed. Some of those opposed were teachers in the district who were very concerned about the fact that teachers are taught to teach, not to be policemen.
I understand that, but what I go back to is no one is being forced to do this, and every one of these people are very, very committed to protecting their fellow teachers and students in the unlikely event of an active shooter.
The best strategic move that I feel that I have made as superintendent is that I had the employees who volunteered to be part of the armed response team, they talked to the teachers’ union and said, “Look, this is something that we want to do. We feel committed about protecting our fellow teachers and our students, so please don’t interfere on our behalf because this is something we’re very, very passionate about doing.”
Some of the pushback to programs like these is the argument that having more firearms on campus increases the chances of accidental discharges or a gun ending up in the wrong hands. Is that something you worry about?
Those are very real concerns, and, yes, I’ve given much thought to that. There’s no way to really 100 percent eliminate that. That is a concern any time you have an armed presence in the building, if something could go astray. But the flip side of that is if you don’t have any plan, and that shooter comes in and just kills innocent kids that are hiding under tables with no way of putting out that threat, how much sense does that make?
You’ve acknowledged the risk of having an active shooter event is relatively low. So, in what other ways is a program like this potentially beneficial?
In my opinion, just having the armed response team serves as a definite deterrent because these active shooters will always seek out soft targets. And suddenly we had a sign on the front door that warned anyone that the premises are protected by an armed response team, which I feel very strongly is a deterrent. By putting up signs telling people, it’s not that we’re bragging. It’s just a matter of telling people we’re not a soft target. Do not pick us to do your carnage.
By putting up signs telling people, it’s not that we’re bragging. It’s just a matter of telling people we’re not a soft target. Do not pick us to do your carnage.
I just feel that parents should not have to worry about sending their kids to school and having them come home safely at the end of the day. You have to make sure that the kids feel safe and secure and supported, otherwise learning is not going to occur. So I think the parents appreciate the fact we have done everything humanly possible to ensure that their kids come home safe at the end of the day. I think that’s the least that we can do.
After more than a year of preparation, the Benjamin Logan armed response team is finally underway—how are you feeling about your program as it becomes a reality?
We’ve heard about shootings in various places just within the past couple of days, so I feel good about the fact that we have done, I think, everything humanly possible to make the schools as safe as possible for the students and staff here.
I appreciate that we’re trying to show parents that we’re very serious about making schools as safe as possible so they don’t have to worry about having their kids come home safe.