Proposal to arm Kent teachers stirs debate
Published 10:44 pm, Tuesday, February 9, 2016
KENT — A proposal for a school safety program that includes arming teachers and other school staffers with guns has drawn sharp criticism from the governor and stirred a heated debate among local officials.
The Board of Selectmen voted 2-1 last week to recommend the “FASTER Saves Lives” program, which was developed by Ohio’s Buckeye Firearms Association in the aftermath of Sandy Hook and other school shootings.
The program pays tuition, and room and board for teachers and other school personnel while they are being trained to carry firearms in schools, and offers help to school districts with legal and other issues involved in implementing the program.
However, School Board Chairman Paul Cortese said the panel has no plans to consider the recommendation and condemned the selectmen for even suggesting the idea without first discussing it with school district officials.
“It is disappointing that the Kent Board of Selectmen have not sought to work cooperatively with the Kent Center School Board of Education, but have attempted to circumvent our process for addressing matters and adding items to our agenda for consideration,” Cortese said.
“The Kent Center School Board of Education is not in support of bringing firearms into Kent Center School and should we, in the future, wish to consider such a proposal, we will approach the issue thoughtfully, fully engaging the public, and being sure to follow both the law and the best practices.”
Selectmen Jeffrey Parkin, who proposed adoption of the program, said the selectmen did not intend to pre-empt the school board’s authority, but only to suggest it as a measure that warrants consideration.
“I find it unusual that they would not put the agenda item in place for some public discussion,” Parkin said. “There was no attempt to influence their procedures. It’s just a subject worthy of public discussion that we proposed be put on their agenda.”
Parkin and Selectman Michael VanValkenburg voted to present information on the program to the school board, but First Selectman Bruce Adams opposed the measure.
Cortese told two parents who raised concerns at last week’s Board of Education meeting the selectmen’s recommendation has “gotten blown out of proportion.”
Cortese assured parents, “The children are safe in this school.”
“We have a superintendent and administration that we pay a lot of money to decide on the training of our staff,” Cortese said.
Parent Susan Schullery told the school board she opposed the idea of teachers carrying guns.
“These are my neighbors,” Schullery said. “I don’t have guns in the house. I am careful about whose home my children go to regarding guns. I can’t imagine being a teacher and not a trained police officer and carrying a gun.”
Jessica Smeller told the school board she was upset that many people first heard about this through the media.
“The damage done by our kids seeing the news vans in town and coming home and having to have it explained to them, why this could happen,” Smeller said. “My concern is the breakdown in the system. Why we as parents had to hear this through the news.”
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s contributed to the media frenzy with his comments opposing the program.
“If any board of education would approve this, I’d be shocked, frightened and disappointed,” the governor said. “It makes no sense. And no school system in the state of Connecticut should be allowed to do this.”
Malloy said if school districts want properly trained security, such as former police officers, it’s their decision.
“The idea that we’re going to have a volunteer receive 26 hours of training or teachers and principals receive 26 hours of training, that’s just unacceptable,” Malloy said. “It puts children in more danger, not less.”
Parkin said he learned about the program at a conference and thought it might be a good fit for a small town like Kent, which lacks a police force of its own and relies for its safety on a resident state trooper and state police.
“It can take (state) police 25 to 30 minutes or so to arrive, given their proximity to Kent Center School,” Parkin said. “We have a resident trooper, but he can’t be everyplace all the time.
“If an active shooter shows up at a school, the way they are stopped is with a firearm,” Parkin said. “If someone on staff is properly trained, they have the ability to stop and neutralize the attack until police can arrive on scene.”
Parkin said reaction to the proposal has “gotten out of hand.”
“It’s being suggested that teachers would be walking around the school visibly packing guns,” Parkin said. “But if Kent went into this program, the gun or guns would be concealed. It would be up to the Board of Education how the gun would be kept, possibly in a safe with access for trained staff. It’s not for me to say. But the program would be totally opaque. No one would know staff had access to guns.”
Parkin said he dropped off a packet of information at school board offices and requested the board discuss the issue at its March meeting.
The FASTER Saves Lives program — FASTER stands for Faculty/Administrator Safety Training and Emergency Response — has been active in Ohio since 2013. The sponsoring Buckeye firearms group is an affiliate of the National Rifle Association.
According to the program website, training includes use of firearms, crisis management and emergency medical response.
Several Ohio school districts, many of them in rural areas, have adopted the FASTER program.
Jeff Staggs, superintendent of schools in Newcomerstown, about 100 miles south of Cleveland, said his staff was trained in the program three years ago.
“After the Sandy Hook tragedy, parents came to me asking to form a safety committee,” Staggs said. “They knew the Ohio Legislature allows teachers to carry firearms with a permit. We have had armed staff for three years now. It has worked outstandingly for our district.”
Another Ohio superintendent, who asked his district not be identified, said two staff members have been trained through FASTER Saves Lives to protect the community’s one school.
He said the gun is kept in a biometric safe in a secure area that is quickly accessible to two staffers. If there is reason to believe the school is at high risk, the staff members carry the guns.
The district hopes to have more staff trained soon, the superintendent said, and regular follow-up training is done with the local sheriff’s office.
“The FASTER Saves Lives organization has been a great resource to schools across Ohio in providing the highest level of training and resources needed to implement a program,” he said.
Po Murray, chairwoman of the Newtown Action Alliance, which was founded after Sandy Hook to push for stricter gun laws, said Thursday she is not surprised that an NRA affiliate would promote such a program.
“It’s alarming that they would push for teachers carrying guns in school,” Murray said. “I have spoken to a number of Newtown teachers, and they are not in support of guns in schools.“
The Associated Press contributed to this report. email@example.com; 203-731-3352