TEACHERS AT ARMS
Schools in a small town in Ohio have been training their teachers to use guns - to take out a potential shooter. The trainees are volunteers. And like their students, many are conflicted about this.
Published in FRANKFURTER ALLGEMEINE ZEITUNG
"I do not like guns," says Nicki New, an attractive blonde in her late thirties with an alert gaze and a captivating smile. We are sitting in the administration building of the Sidney Schools in Ohio, where her three children go to school. "I feel uncomfortable in the presence of weapons. But I´ll tell you one thing: When I drop off my little one at the school and I see the armed guard at the entrance, I'm kind of reassured. "Jeffrey New is in third grade, and in Sidney´s elementary, middle, and high schools it is not only armed guards keeping the kids safe. A number of teachers are also trained in armed response, and they have emergency access to firearms in the school building.
The emergency is a scenario which, terribly, is a recurring one in America: An armed gunman enters a school and kills students and teachers. Here in Sidney, people don´t want to face such an attack helplessly. So Shelby County Sheriff John Lenhart and school district superintendent John Scheu teamed up to provide handguns to the seven schools in the district.
Sidney is a pretty little town near Interstate 75 which links Detroit with Cincinnati and, further, Canada and Florida. Historic buildings adorn Court Street, including the 1917 bank building, which advertises "thrift" in an ornate mosaic framed by two winged lions. South of downtown, a seventy-meter stone railway bridge from 1923 spans Main Street and the Great Miami River. The plaster is crumbling, and the splendor of the early years of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when a north-south channel and later railroads connected this fertile area on the Great Miami River with the major trading centers in the north and south, has faded. The average income of more than 21,000 inhabitants is below the national average, but here, in the heartland of America, robust American values persevere. People attend church on Sunday and go hunting on the weekends, and every morning before classes start, Sidney´s schoolchildren swear allegiance to the flag.
"We do not walk around with our guns on our hips"
For almost five years, teachers here have been training to protect their students with weapons. The program was initiated after, in December 2013, a young man in Sandy Hook, Connecticut, shot and killed twenty-seven people and himself. The elementary school where he raged had one of the most sophisticated security systems of its time - the front doors as well as the classrooms were locked. "But the shooter shot down everything and nobody stopped him," Scheu says. The next day, John Lenhart, the Sheriff of Shelby County, called Scheu and asked, "Are we prepared for this?"
"We do not walk around with our guns on our hips, people have that wrong," says Scheu, a former basketball and baseball coach who has been heading the schools in Sidney since 2011. "We've chosen a conservative access." Scheu is a beefy man full of nervous energy, and his office is adorned with team and class photos from the past. A baseball sits on a shelf of files, a box of candies on his desk. "Follow me," he says, and a few moments later he opens a black, rather inconspicuous safe with a tap of his finger. Inside is a Glock handgun, a spare magazine and a pack of cartridges. This gun is one of several dozen available in an emergency in Sidney's school buildings. They can be accessed via biometric sensor by a couple of dozens of members of the local Response Team, comprised of the security guardswho patrol the school corridors, as well as of teachers. They regularly train under Rick Cron's guidance. Cron, a serious man with a gray schnauzer and an athletic appearance, is the middle school resource officer, a retired cop with SWAT team experience, who recruited the response team. Cron says there were far more applicants than jobs, a waiting list exists. Some, he says, he had to turn down because he thought that they would not be up to the task in an emergency. One member was excluded from the team after having made it, because of an attitude that was "a bit too sharp," as Cron says – this too would be unhelpful in an emergency.
No one is compelled to take up arms
Bill Davis teaches social studies in Sidney and is one of the teachers who volunteered for the Response Team. "I had just started my career in education when Columbine happened," says Davis. In April 1999, two heavily armed teenagers shot thirteen classmates in their high school in Colorado and killed themselves. "If someone had told me then that one day we would have weapons at school, I would have said, you're crazy." But now Davis, who does not want his real name used for security reasons, is one of several dozen colleagues who are training weaponry and tactical response. They include many women, but all of them are volunteers. Nobody is compelled to take up arms. Davis says that he wants to be able to protect his seventh-graders. Like all members of the team, he has completed a sixteen-hour course with the sheriff's department, and he participates once or twice a month in a so-called paratus training (from Latin semper paratus, always ready). He also takes part the so-called ALICE training during summer vacation where American schools play through an active shooter scenario. ALICE stands for alert, lockdown, inform, counter, evacuate. Davis also regularly goes to the shooting range.
The arming of teachers seems insane to many Americans. The Ohio Teachers' Union resisted plans to arm teachers, but their lawsuit failed. "The whole thing was pretty controversial," says Sheriff Lenhart, "and that's understandable." Lenhart, 73, is a lanky guy with a paternal air, a man who proudly looks back on fifty years of law enforcement experience. In the 1990's he renounced his membership in the arms lobby NRA, in 2015 he was elected US Sheriff of the Year. "I wish we had no weapons in schools," says Lenhart. "I would like to have another solution. But before we will have stricter gun laws in America, unfortunately, a long time will pass. "And so, in the meantime, people feel compelled to help themselves as best they can.
The response team´s training is funded by the Sheriff's Department, but Scheu´s program is far from free. The resource officers at his schools cost $ 185,000 a year, and another $ 65,000 was invested in guns, bulletproof vests, and biometric safes. A mere drop in the school district´s budget of $ 36 million, says Scheu. "Of course I'd rather buy lesson materials," says Scheu. "But I have to set priorities. In an unsafe school, you can´t learn well. "
And yet, those who are the subject of all these safety measures sometimes feel too protected. When Scheu barred his students - "for security reasons" - from taking to the streets on March 24, the day that students nationwide marched against gun violence, he drew the ire of many students. "We wanted to voice our anger and express our solidarity," says Hailey New, 16, in the corridor of the high school, "instead we had to listen to a lecture by Scheu and the sheriff in the auditorium. It angered a lot of people. "Addi Hudgins, 18, also looks at things with mixed feelings. She just graduated a few days ago and is working in the "Smokin'Jo's BBQ", a barbeque diner well-known for its ribs. She feels like appropriate measures have been taken, she says. But if it really came to a shooting? "You never know how things will turn out," she says. "It could also backfire." Until a few years ago, Addi says, disaster drills were mostly welcome breaks from the classroom routine. But when she was in sixth grade, the security guards showed up, and during her eighth grade year, they brought in the guns. Now the drills are really scary - the school locks down, everyone has to be quiet. "The other day, after the shootings in Florida," she says, "we had a practice announcement: A shooter is in Hall C. What to do?" The class had to work out a rescue plan.
According to FBI statistics, it is ten times more likely to be assassinated in a restaurant or bar than in a school. Superintendent Scheu admits that he often asked why he puts so much time and energy into a very unlikely scenario. But the worst thing many here can imagine is to have to watch helplessly as their charges fall prey to a gunman. Almost everyone here says that arming teachers is far from ideal. Many students think there should be stricter gun laws. People also seem to agree about the necessity of investing more money in the detection and treatment of mental disorders. But in the meantime, something must be done.
Addi puts the last ketchup bottles back into place, it's past 9 pm and "Smokin' Joe's" closes. She wants to know where I am from, and then tells me how she talked to some German exchange students about the safety drills at school last year. "They thought it was weird that we need weapons in schools," she says, "and that was a real eye-opener for me. Ever since, I´ve been thinking: This could all be different."
c Nina Rehfeld