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Surrounded by educational material and Ohio State ephemera, a biometric gun safe is mounted to the wall in superintedent John Scheu's office at the Board of Education Office in Sidney, Ohio. [Photo: Andrew Spear for The Trace]

Gun Policy

Five Years After Sandy Hook, Push to Bring Guns Into Ohio Schools Gains Strength

Educators are training to repel mass shooters in districts across the state. But policies vary widely, and parents don’t always know whether their children's teachers are armed, or not.

One of the guns inside Sidney Middle School, the only one visible to the 1,000 students who stream through the glass-paneled doors each day, is kept holstered on Rick Cron’s belt. The others are kept out of sight.

Cron is the security officer at the western Ohio school. He was hired in 2013 after a 35-year career in law enforcement. Hanging above his station just past the school’s entrance is a sign, black with yellow letters: “Deputy Sheriff and First Responder Team Present on Premises.”

That team is made up of teachers and administrators — the school will not say how many there are, or who they are — who have completed a 16-hour training course in firearm safety, active-shooter preparedness, and emergency first-aid. Each member has access to an undisclosed number of small black safes that are tucked away in janitors’ closets and other out-of-the-way spaces throughout the sprawling building. Inside each safe is a loaded Glock, along with extra magazines.

The team drills monthly, sometimes in the school after hours, using airguns that shoot plastic BBs.

Cron’s daughter played the shooter once. Retired firefighters have volunteered, too.

There is nothing especially dangerous about Sidney, Ohio, a small community of 20,000 residents about 40 miles north of Dayton. The violent crime rate is half the national average, and officials in the seven-school district that includes Sidney Middle say they are not aware of any incident in which an attacker posed the kind of active-shooter threat they’re trained to stop.

Five years ago, the school district’s security measures were minimal. There were no safes, no Glocks, and no staff had been trained to use deadly force. The entire district shared a single security officer.

But then a gunman, armed with an AR-15 rifle, walked into Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, and massacred 20 children and six educators.

For Superintendent John Scheu, the attack — the nation’s deadliest mass shooting at a K-12 school — was a wakeup call. “It shocked the conscience of a lot of educators and law enforcement,” he told The Trace. “We could not even come close to being an effective deterrent” against the same thing happening in Sidney. 

With school board approval, Scheu put in place a new, more aggressive security plan. There’s now an officer in each school building, from bell to bell. The district installed hundreds of security cameras and 40 biometric gun safes across the schools. Each is programmed to be opened by fingerprint, with only trained staffers able to access them.

Superintendent John Scheu at the entrance of Sidney Middle School on December 5, 2017. [Andrew Spear for The Trace]

Each staffer authorized to access the safes has completed the 16-hour training course operated by the local sheriff’s department. Some other Ohio teachers authorized to bring guns into schools have completed a separate program run by the Buckeye Firearms Association in a wooded enclave on the edge of the Appalachian Mountains. That program, known as “FASTER,” was developed specifically for educators. It is run by John Benner, a former police commander and Marine.

“I believed in this [armed response training] for a long time,” Benner said. “I never frankly believed in this world that we would get an opportunity to do this until Sandy Hook.”

The FASTER training program is funded in part by unnamed private donors, and is provided free of charge. In 2017, the Ohio Legislature allocated $200,000 in taxpayer dollars to subsidize the program over the next two years. So far, nearly 1,100 educators from 225 school districts in a dozen states have completed the course.

Scheu described the changes made in his district, which has cost more than $1 million so far, as relatively modest, and said he would consider doing more. “I think what we have is a pretty conservative approach,” Scheu said. “It’s not like we have our teachers walking around with guns strapped to their waists.”

It isn’t just Sidney schools that have sought to grapple with the question of how to keep children safe from a determined mass shooter. Sandy Hook’s horrors have had a profound ripple effect nationwide, with administrators, lawmakers, lobbyists, and parents often coming to sharply different conclusions about what new security measures, if any, to take, and whether guns should be allowed inside school buildings.

The highest-profile, and most influential, advocate for arming school staff and security guards has been the National Rifle Association.

A week after Sandy Hook, Wayne LaPierre, the gun group’s CEO and executive vice president, called on authorities to “erect a cordon of protection around our kids.” Stationing “qualified” armed guards in every school, he said, was the first step they should take.

The NRA and its allies in state legislatures have also pushed schools to allow teachers, staff, and even parents to carry guns into classrooms, under the rationale that even the most responsive law enforcement can’t always act quickly enough to save lives. Officials in other states have continued to maintain that the risk of accident or a misplaced weapon falling into the wrong hands outweighs the odds that any individual school will be targeted by a mass shooter.

That states and districts have a say over whether to allow guns in schools is a function of the decentralized nature of the American education system, and of a federal law governing the carrying of firearms in schools — the Gun-Free School Zones Act of 1990— that comes with significant caveats.

Under the act, which was approved by Congress and signed into law by George H.W. Bush, guns are banned from school property. But some states allow schools, or districts, the freedom to grant exemptions. California adopted a law in October that instituted a true ban, but the rules are looser in many states, meaning that local school boards and superintendents have wide discretion to set their own policies.

After the Sandy Hook shooting in 2012, the school district in Sidney revamped its security protocols. [Andrew Spear for The Trace]

The ability of local officials to set gun policy has created an unsettled landscape, where school boards face intense lobbying from gun-rights and gun-control advocates amid their usual budgetary and curriculum duties, some teachers train in close-range combat during summer break, and parents don’t always know whether the schools they send their kids to have armed staff or not.

In Ohio, decisions about whether to allow guns in schools are up to school boards in the more than 600 districts across the state. Some districts, like Sidney, voluntarily acknowledge the presence of guns on campus, but haven’t said who has access to them. Other districts haven’t said anything at all about their policies.

There is no centralized repository of information about gun policy across Ohio school districts. School safety plans include details about security measures that have been put in place, but those plans are exempt from state open-records laws.

Earlier this summer, the superintendent of Ohio’s Mad River School District told the Dayton Daily News that 63 out of 88 counties in the state have a district with an armed-response team. The Trace sought to confirm that number, but the state official in charge of school security plans said that her department doesn’t track it.

“I’m not aware of any state law or regulation that provides oversight in this area [of gun policies within schools],” said Kimberly Nagel, the administrator of Ohio’s Center for P-20 Safety and Security.

Two Glock handguns kept in a safe at the Board of Education office in Sidney. [Andrew Spear for The Trace]

Susie Lane is a first-grade teacher in Middletown City, between Dayton and Cincinnati. She leads the Dayton chapter of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, an advocacy group that opposes arming school staff. (The group is part of Everytown for Gun Safety, which has provided funding to The Trace).

“It’s hard enough for a trained person, like a police officer, to stay calm and be accurate in an active-shooter situation,” Lane said. She points out that, statistically, schools remain very safe places and that adding guns to the environment opens up opportunities for accidents.

The Trace emailed every school superintendent in Ohio and received responses from more than 50. All but five said they still don’t allow anyone who isn’t a member of law enforcement — not school safety officers or staff — to carry guns in schools.

Randy Cotner, the superintendent in rural Walnut Township, about a 45-minute drive east from Columbus, said he was concerned that if one of his staff had an accident with a firearm, help might not arrive until it’s too late. “Things can go wrong even if you have the best of intentions,” Cotner said. “Even with training, none of us know how we’re going to respond.”

Brian Rau is the superintendent of a rural school district in Manchester, in the southwestern part of the state that borders Kentucky. He came to the job, he said, promising to allow teachers and staff to carry guns in schools. He was an elementary school principal when Sandy Hook happened.

“We are so vulnerable,” he said. Rau is already restructuring his district’s safety protocols and, with school board approval, will move forward with arming staff in some form. “It’s not a matter of if [a mass shooting] is going to happen, it’s when,” he said. “If we were to have a shooting situation, it would take about 20 minutes for police to get here.”

Rich Seas, the superintendent of the Adams County Ohio Valley School District in West Union, two towns over from Manchester, said his schools feel very safe with an armed school resource officer in each building and reconstructed entrances that funnel all foot traffic through the schools’ main offices.

But he acknowledged that, when it comes to student safety, all options — including arming some staffers — have to be on the table. And the districts’ decisions on the matter don’t exist in a vacuum.

“It’s the Joneses effect,” he said. “As you see schools around you doing it or considering it, you have to pay attention because pretty soon it will be a pressure point for us, too.”

School Resource Officer Rick Cron came to Sidney Middle in 2013 after a 35-year career in law enforcement. [Andrew Spear for The Trace]

The primacy of local school boards in making decisions about whether to allow guns in schools was driven home in Sidney, where the policy had a friendly audience. Of the five members on the school board when the security plan was passed, four of them had concealed-carry gun permits, Scheu said.

The district’s teachers union opposed the new policy and filed an unfair-labor-practice motion with the State Employment Relations Board. The union argued that the school board’s decision violated state law by “unilaterally implementing an armed first responder team consisting, in part, of teachers in the bargaining unit.”

The state board dismissed the grievance in 2014. Scheu said he knows of some students who’ve open enrolled from other districts that don’t allow staffers to be armed, and figures he’s lost some students whose parents don’t like the presence of guns in Sidney schools, too.

Several parents and caretakers interviewed outside Sidney Middle on a recent school day said they weren’t aware of the gun policy.

“I had no idea,” said Angie Clark, who occasionally drops off and picks up her 9-year-old grandson at a Sidney elementary school and works at High Grounds Cafe across the street. But it didn’t take her long to come around to the idea.

“Our world shouldn’t be so bad that it’s come down to killing our little ones,” she said. “But if it has, I guess it’s better to have someone trained other than just the police department.” 

Sean Campbell and Elizabeth Haq contributed reporting to this story.