By JOHN KLINE and SCOTT WEISSER
THE GOSHEN NEWS
Following the Dec. 14, 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School that left 20 children and six teachers dead, debate has been ongoing locally and nationwide on how best to keep schools and their students safe.
Among those leading the debate in Indiana is Republican state Sen. Jim Tomes, who has proposed controversial new legislation that would give teachers the option to carry concealed firearms while in the classroom.
As a backdrop for his proposal, Tomes points to a specific state statute which allows school officials to ban weapons from being brought onto school premises while also allowing an exemption for anyone who has been employed or authorized by education officials “to act as a security guard, perform or participate in a school function, or participate in any other activity authorized by a school.”
While Tomes’ proposal has been slowly gaining traction across the state in recent weeks — bolstered in no small part by a mounting public outcry surrounding the Sandy Hook massacre — response from local educators to the proposal has been decidedly negative.
A teacher’s role
Diane Woodworth, superintendent of Goshen Community Schools, is included among those local educators who have come out publicly in opposition to Tomes’ proposal.
“I guess I don’t feel like teachers are trained at this point, and even if they were trained, their primary role is not to be a police officer or a first responder, it’s to educate the children,” Woodworth said. “It seems like wherever there are guns, accidents can happen. Often it’s not intentional, but I would just worry about what might happen. I just feel like it would add another whole dimension of safety concerns.”
Barry Younghans, principal of Goshen High School, agreed.
“I think the best thing we can do to help our schools is to know our kids,” Younghans said. “I think knowing our kids and knowing the kinds of struggles they come with will help us identify the kids that are at risk. I think we need to start looking at the whole student. Our job is to help these kids become productive citizens both here in Goshen and in the world, so I don’t think arming our teachers is the way to go.”
The right of defense
Elkhart County’s sheriff, however, thinks teachers with guns may be in a position to halt an assault.
Brad Rogers highlights the same state statute cited by Sen. Tomes.
“Indiana code allows for teachers to be armed if the school authorizes it,” Rogers said. As with any Hoosier, they would have to legally be able to possess a firearm and have a permit.
The sheriff also quoted Article 1, Section 32 of the Indiana Constitution: “The people shall have a right to bear arms, for the defense of themselves and the State.”
“We’re not talking about militia, army,” Rogers said. “...It’s about defending themselves. I will defend people’s right not to carry a firearm. However, I’m also going to defend the right for citizens to carry a firearm.”
As for teachers packing guns in school, Rogers said that’s not a decision for law enforcement.
“It’s a school decision,” Rogers said. “...I’m never going to recommend this because it’s really their call.”
However, the sheriff also termed gun-free zones “kill zones.” And schools are gun-free zones, he said.
“(Homicidal shooters) know there’s nothing to stop them until the police arrive,” Roger said. “They can do a lot of damage in those few minutes. ... The bad guy doesn’t obey the law anyway.”
Rogers isn’t suggesting that everybody has to carry a firearm, but added, “When you have a gun-free zone, it’s a recipe for disaster because people can’t defend themselves.”
Rogers sees potential benefits to having armed teachers. Still, he feels school officials need to be concerned about how teachers would carry and store the weapons, and keep them out of pupils’ hands.
Another element that merits concern, in Rogers’ view, involves the police response to a school shooting.
“You have 12 teachers brandishing guns at a scene. (Police) arrive to go after the shooter,” he offered as an example. With multiple firearms displayed, Rogers said, officers may not know who the enemy is.
“There are logistic issues,” the sheriff said, “we need to partner with schools on.”
Rogers said he’s willing to work with school officials in talking about police response, armed teachers, more police officers on school premises or other security measures.
The sheriff also said that just because a firearm is present in a situation doesn’t mean someone’s going to be shot or killed. For a potential victim, according to Rogers, “oftentimes the presentation of deadly force stops the force.”
Rogers described himself as being very pro-firearm. He also said he has many liberal-thinking friends.
“I consider myself peace-loving,” Rogers said. And he believes in people carrying guns.
“Firearms will oftentimes stop the force and keep law-abiding citizens alive,” he said.
One alternative to arming teachers that is gaining traction among local educators is a bill being promoted by Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller. The proposal would provide more state dollars to local school corporations to put more police officers in schools.
According to Woodworth, Goshen Community Schools currently employs three school resource officers, or SROs, whose presence she says has been a godsend for the schools in which they serve.
“We have one at Goshen High School, one at the middle school and then one who kind of spreads his time out between all the elementary schools,” Woodworth said. “They have been just wonderful. They help us with all of our safety drills and lockdown plans. If there are any issues in the city they let us know. They are just a great resource, so I think all schools could benefit from more of them.”
Dennis VanDuyne, superintendent of the West Noble School Corp., said he also would have no problem throwing his support behind such legislation.
“I would be very supportive of any bill that provided funds for police officers in school,” VanDuyne said. “West Noble is fortunate that we already have two full-time school resource officers, one on each of our campuses. But we would be very grateful for a third officer, even part-time, to circulate among all buildings at random times. It is an option we will investigate even if additional funding is not provided.”
In Kosciusko County, Wawasee Community Schools Superintendent Tom Edington said he has already begun the process of setting up a meeting with local and state law enforcement personnel. The purpose will be to discuss what the corporation is doing right with regards to school safety, and what it can improve.
“We will consider ways to have an increased police presence and more emergency training for our employees,” Edington said. “Wawasee Schools has recently spent hundreds of thousands of dollars installing remote door locking/unlocking hardware and new security camera systems at each school. We have the services of a school resource officer through the Kosciusko County Sheriff’s Department and several school safety specialists trained by the state. An additional school resource officer paid through state tax dollars would be nice.”