Dale Cresswell keeps his gun on his hip at all times: in his classroom, at sporting events, whenever he’s at school.
Cresswell, head coach to the senior boys’ track and cross-country teams, is one of a small, but growing group of teachers around the United States who are volunteering to carry a weapon. His employer, Heber Springs School District, just came online this semester.
“It was a no-brainer. I have a daughter still in school,” said Cresswell of his decision, acknowledging that he might know any potential shooter. “I see it as, I’m protecting more than one person. I’m protecting all the other students.”
Tests and training
In order to qualify, Cresswell and other faculty, including administrators and IT professionals who can move around more easily, underwent background checks and psychological tests. They continue to go through rigorous training.
“I know that last summer there was a big movement here. We were fortunate that we had made the decision early, and we were able to secure trainers and get our time slot locked in,” said Heber Springs School District Superintendent Alan Stauffacher, noting that some other schools are “struggling” to get set up.
A semester in, the novelty of Cresswell carrying a weapon has worn off. He said that when asked, the students tell him they don’t even notice his gun anymore.
While there appears to have been no law prohibiting it, guns were rarely carried by teachers in Arkansas schools before a 20-year-old gunman killed 20 young children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in the northeastern U.S. state of Connecticut in 2012.
That incident prompted David Hopkins, superintendent of the Clarksville Public Schools in Clarksville, Arkansas, to begin searching for more effective ways to protect his students.
“It was just so terrible. Something like that, it makes you really pause,” Hopkins said. “I started getting calls from parents and grandparents asking, ‘What are you doing to protect our kids?’”
At that time, Hopkins wondered whether what he had in mind — arming faculty across each school in the district — was even legal. Since then, he has counseled other Arkansan schools as they follow suit.
“It’s not like we want to be cowboys, but if you stop and think about the reality of someone coming into your business or your school, don’t you want to be prepared?” he asked.
Protecting schools, students
Protecting schools from future shootings has increasingly occupied administrators and lawmakers’ time. Just this year, 113 people were killed or injured in school shootings in the U.S.
After the Parkland, Florida, school shooting in February, Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson tasked a committee with studying how to prevent future school shootings.
Their report, released earlier this month, stressed that individual schools need to make decisions for themselves, but recommended that “no campus should ever be without an armed presence when staff and children are attending class or a major extracurricular activity.”
A study published by Vice News in March found that at least 14 of the 50 states arm teachers and another 16 allow local school boards to decide on the issue.
But while Cresswell and Hopkins believe arming teachers serves as a deterrent for gun violence, not everyone agrees.
Following the Safety Commission report, Moms Demand Action stated that “putting guns in the hands of teachers is not the answer…” and that “research indicates that arming teachers will make children less safe.”
“As a general rule, I don’t think anyone believes that it is preventative. I think that most thoughtful individuals know that if a person sets out to do harm to themselves or someone else, they’re not gonna stop and think ‘Oh, there might be someone armed,’” said Cathy Koehler, president of the Arkansas Education Association.
Koehler stopped short of saying that faculty shouldn’t be armed, recognizing that it can take 20 minutes for police in some rural counties to respond to a situation. She stressed that schools should gain community buy-in, which superintendents in both Clarksville and Heber Springs said they did.
“Our preference is always going to be that the investment is made in the mental health services that are so desperately needed and are underfunded,” Koehler said.
Scott Gauntt, a member of the Safety Commission and superintendent of Westside Consolidated School District, said he has received no pressure to arm teachers.
Westside was the site of a deadly shooting 20 years ago, so it is often invoked in conversations about school safety. Like other superintendents interviewed, Gauntt takes his role as protector of students very seriously.
“Just about every time we hear of another shooting, we look at how that took place. How would we have combated that? Could we fix that?” Gauntt asked.
Over the years, the school has installed dozens of surveillance cameras and stronger classroom locks. Teachers undergo survival training to apply a tourniquet, for example, in order to prevent kids from bleeding out from bullet wounds. Students as young as those in elementary school are taught to be a “partner in [their] own survival.” Instead of hiding quietly under their desks, they are now taught to make loud noises and throw things.
“It’s mind boggling that I’ve gotta go down and tell a kindergartener that if a man comes in and tries to shoot you, that you need to run around and scream,” Gauntt said. “That’s not why I got into education.”
When it comes to arming teachers inside the classroom, he’s reluctant to take a hard stance but admits that he worries about guns getting loose.
Ultimately, most parties agree that despite all precautions, a motivated shooter will find a way to do harm.
“School safety is an illusion,” Gauntt said.