PORTLAND, Ind. – Most of the teachers in Jay Schools don’t know where each building’s handgun is kept. They also don’t know which of their co-workers are trained to use it.
Neither do the students nor their parents.
Here’s what they do know: There’s a gun in a biometric safe under camera surveillance somewhere in each of the district’s eight schools. It’s not in a classroom. In a life-threatening emergency, more than one trained employee in each of the schools is authorized to pull the trigger.
The details, school officials said, are purposefully kept confidential, the uncertainty serving as a deterrent.
Proponents of arming teachers say the approach could save lives. Detractors say they would rather see more firearms regulation than guns in classrooms.
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Jay Schools, through its approach, is trying to find a middle ground amid the often polarized and politicized debate, and its rollout is being watched closely.
Most of the district’s parents, students and teachers seem supportive of the approach. District leaders point to police response times of five to seven minutes in the rural district about 45 miles south of Fort Wayne.
But school safety experts reached by IndyStar raised some red flags over the district’s approach.
Creating policy around arming teachers has been legal for school boards in Indiana since 2013. Jay Schools is one of the first to do so.
“This is an unfortunate thing that we need to do it,” Teachers union President Paul Szymczak said. “But we need to do it.”
Why school officials want firearms
Ideally, students and their parents would never be affected by the addition of a firearm on campus, school officials said. But it could offer much-needed assurance after a 14-year-old Richmond Community Schools student entered a school with a pistol and rifle before taking his own life in December.
Richmond is about an hour south of Jay Schools.
For teachers, this is a drastic departure from how the district has responded to shootings around the country for 20 years.
Szymczak said that after the 1999 shooting in Columbine he remembers district leaders dusting off the crisis handbook and praying a shooting wouldn’t happen here.
“That was the cycle,” he said. “And that’s what we’ve done shooting after shooting after shooting.”
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Jeremy Gulley, who is in his third year as superintendent of Jay Schools, said he decided to create a more comprehensive school safety plan after 17 people were killed in the Parkland, Florida, school shooting on Feb. 14, 2018. In Parkland, 24 people were shot in two minutes.
Around the same time, President Trump pushed for arming teachers to prevent school shootings, a proposal backed by the National Rifle Association.
“As a dad, a parent of three kids, I just knew this was my watch now,” said Gulley, a retired lieutenant colonel from the Indiana Army National Guard. “That gap was something we were not willing to accept. … Otherwise those kids are absolutely helpless. And we’re just not going to permit that.”
Expert: ‘The whole concept is flawed’
Two nationally recognized experts in school safety said most schools nationwide are not considering training employees to use firearms because it generally isn’t the best response possible. Most schools in Indiana, for instance, have focused on other approaches, such as increasing the number of full-time, armed police officers on campus.
Ken Trump, president of National School Safety and Security Services, said keeping a single firearm in a safe wouldn’t help school employees respond quickly. Doing so is like giving a police officer a gun but forcing him to keep it in his car, he said.
“The whole concept is flawed,” he said. “Well intended, certainly, but flawed.”
Michael Dorn, executive director of Safe Havens International, said he has provided post-incident assistance for 17 active shooter and targeted school shootings in the U.S., Canada and Mexico, including the shooting in Parkland.
About 75 percent of the victims in those cases were shot within 90 seconds, he said.
For Jay Schools’ method to be effective, Dorn said, school officials would need to invest equally in training staff to recognize pre-attack behaviors. If a school is able to see a threat coming before the shooter opens fire, it would buy enough time for an employee to get to the safe. But Dorn said he would much rather buy time for police to arrive, especially if they can respond in under 10 minutes.
Arming school employees is a “high-risk, high-liability proposition,” Ken Trump said. He pointed out that police often are scrutinized for excessive use of force. Educators are trained to nurture and support children, he said, and lack the same skill and experience that police have at assessing threats.
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At Jay Schools, teachers could personally face lawsuits if they were to act outside the district’s policy, which only authorizes them to access the firearm if it’s “reasonably believed to include an imminent threat of death or serious bodily injury due to violence.”
Gulley acknowledges the responsibility his staff must bear, saying that’s why training is so important.
“If someone operates or makes a decision with a firearm that is outside of the policy, then they are individually going to be liable for that, and they’d be subject to discipline,” Gulley said. “That’s exactly what happens in law enforcement and the military. You can not use force unjustifiably.”
If a teacher acts within the policy, Gulley said, the school’s insurance will cover the teacher. The schools’ insurance costs have not increased, he said.
Rather than arming school employees, Ken Trump said districts should hire police.
“If you feel that strongly that your school faces a threat of an active shooter, that you need to have an armed presence, then you should invest your resources in a trained professional resource officer,” he said.
Gulley said he is working with local police to get a full-time officer at the high school, but police likely would not have the resources to put an officer in every building.
How teachers, employees are trained
Within 48 hours of asking staff for volunteers for the school’s new safety initiative, Gulley said, Jay Schools had 48 people step forward – about 10 percent of the district’s employees.
Volunteers included teachers and other staff, both male and female. They receive a $1,200 stipend per year to compensate them for the hours of training.
But not everyone made it through. Gulley said some voluntarily dropped out.
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One male teacher, who spoke to IndyStar anonymously to keep his identity confidential, said the process was grueling.
“This is very hard, psychologically, to make it through all of this,” he said, “but what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”
By school policy, volunteers had to have a handgun license, pass a psychological screening and drug test, complete 33 hours of training and score 90 percent or above in handgun accuracy – a higher standard than the 80 percent requirement for police officers.
They also had to face computer simulations meant to test their decision-making under extreme pressure. In one, an armed employee ran into the library to find a man holding a gun to the head of a student. There’s a split second to decide: Does the employee shoot?
In another, an employee walks into a classroom and finds a student holding a gun. Does the employee shoot?
The correct choice for this one was no. The student had pulled the gun away from another student, stopping a suicide attempt.
That one was the most difficult, the male teacher said. He was in the military but said this is different because it’s about his own community.
“It’s a little more visceral when it’s your neighbors,” he said.
Asking lawmakers for funding options
Gulley is now asking lawmakers to allow schools to use the state’s safety grant program for this training. He is testifying in support of HB 1253.
Lawmakers added $5 million to the Secured School Safety Grant Program, bumping the allotment to $19 million each year. Currently the matching grant can be used to hire a school officer, conduct a threat assessment or buy equipment.
Firearms training for a single employee costs $1,000 to $1,500 per year, Gulley said.
The district also paid about $300 per gun safe, Gulley said, allocating money that would otherwise pay for operation costs, like building maintenance.
To fund other aspects of the safety plan – including cameras, door buzzers, and a visitor management system that instantly searches the sex offender registry – Jay Schools used $500,000 from the state’s Common School Loan and a $100,000 Secured School Safety Grant.
Other measures include ballistic film on outdoor windows, an anonymous reporting app and metal detectors. Each school will have a mental health counselor through a partnership with Meridian Services.
Jay Schools faces little local opposition
Despite the controversial national discussion about arming teachers, the firearms policy didn’t face much local pushback or organized opposition.
In February 2018 Gulley posted a simple survey, asking whether the district’s plan as presented moved school safety in the right direction. Of the 109 respondents – mostly students and parents – 97 percent said it did.
The school board approved the new policy eight months later in October, then installed the safes earlier this year.
Parent Jennifer Langekamp said she believes most parents are supportive of the plan. She said she is grateful for the “proactive approach.”
“With our superintendent’s military background, I have no doubt that he will make sure everyone is properly trained and educated for all situations, including the students,” she said. “As far as the actual guns in schools, I believe not only will it make a shooter situation possibly end before it begins but also will hinder many from even trying knowing that the school is fully prepared.”
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Teachers whom IndyStar spoke to said they hadn’t heard concerns from students, even when the district started doing random searches using metal detectors.
Szymczak, the teachers union president, said he had frank discussions with his high school students. They are aware of recent school shootings and the national and local conversations about school safety that followed, he said.
“That’s an uncomfortable conversation to have with 25 children sitting in your classroom,” he said. “That idea that, hey, if the shooter comes to our door first and we’re the starting point, we don’t have a lot of options.”
Szymczak said only one teacher voiced that they were uncomfortable and didn’t think the firearms were a good idea when the idea was first brought up.
But he said that was the one and only criticism he heard.
Follow Emma Kate Fittes Twitter: @IndyEmmaKate