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District hears plan to arm teachers

One proposal calls for gun vaults in classrooms; Clark County will add deputies.

Two separate plans to protect local students are being debated in Clark County, highlighting the decisions districts face in the wake of shootings like Sandy Hook Elementary and Columbine High School.

Last week, Clark County commissioners approved a plan to hire two deputies whose primary job would be to work closely with local schools, reviewing school safety plans and getting to know staff members and teachers.

At the same time, Greenon School board members are considering several options for enhancing student safety, including a proposal that would arm staff members and teachers.

The county program will cost about $96,000 in its first year and $118,000 the next to hire deputies to help boost school security. The plan is a proactive approach to help enhance school safety, said Chief Deputy Carl Loney of the Clark County Sheriff’s Office.

“We want to do whatever we can to help enhance this program,” Loney said.

Greenon board members recently listened to an hour-long presentation by Richard Pitzer, a retired engineer who developed what he called “The Ohio School Protection Plan.” The proposal advocates seeking teacher volunteers who would be trained and licensed to carry concealed weapons. The firearms would be stored in a locked fingerprint-style gun vault in some classrooms and removed from the school at the end of each day.

In the case of a school shooting, Pitzer said teachers would lock down the classroom, retrieve the firearm and position themselves between the classroom door and students.

Arming faculty members and staff has become a popular idea in recent months, Loney said, but he does have some reservations about those types of proposals.

“Let’s face it, that seems to be a school of thought at this time,” Loney said. “We’re just not advocating it.”

In an incident such as a school shooting, officers from several departments, including plainclothes officers, would likely converge on a scene, he said. Even for faculty and staff who have been trained, it could be a confusing situation.

“It’s kind of like all hands on deck at that point,” Loney said.

In the program approved by the commissioners, the deputies would split up the county’s schools and spend time at each location throughout the year, educating faculty and staff on how to react to a variety of scenarios, including lockdowns. They could also help educate faculty on other options, including escape, barricading rooms or fighting back if necessary.

“We really want to push the education part of it,” Loney said.

For his part, Pitzer said any scenario that attempts to protect students is worth considering.

One of the benefits of his plan, Pitzer said, is that it would be relatively inexpensive. A fingerprint safe to hold a firearm could cost as little as $150.

Greenon Local Schools already has a safety plan in place, said Dan Bennett, superintendent. But the district is also developing a safety team that will eventually make additional recommendations to the school board to enhance plans that are already in place, he said. While the school board has not approved or rejected Pitzer’s proposal, it helped start a conversation about ways to protect students.

Pitzer’s proposal will be under consideration.

“Our stance is we wanted to get out and really talk about the best way to keep our children safe,” Bennett said.

After the recent school shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, Pitzer began to research school shootings and school safety plans in his spare time. Along with conducting research online, he also spoke to school district staff and local law enforcement officials.

Many of the plans he found online advocated locking down classrooms or hiding until police arrived. But few included realistic plans to deal with the situation in the meantime, Pitzer said. So he developed his own. In addition, a speech by Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine shortly after the Sandy Hook shooting also advocated training and arming school volunteers.

Pitzer eventually added a portion of DeWine’s news conference into the conclusion of his own report.

“He came to the same conclusions as I did,” Pitzer said.

One of the concerns that arises in other proposals to arm teachers, Pitzer said, is that they could be placed in a situation in which they would have to decide whether to fire a shot in a hallway or other crowded setting. In his plan, the teacher would be in a defensive position only, locked in a classroom with the firearm trained on the door.

“They don’t have to think about shoot, don’t shoot scenarios,” Pitzer said.

In Urbana, district officials have faced a handful of cases this year in which schools had to be locked down due to threats written on bathroom stalls.

The district has worked closely with the Urbana Police Division and Champaign County Sheriff’s office, and two individuals have been charged in relation to the threats in separate cases. Like Greenon, Urbana City Schools have safety plans in place. But Charles Thiel, superintendent at Urbana, said he’s not necessarily comfortable with the idea of arming teachers.

“The role that a teacher has does not necessarily include that job as a security person,” Thiel said.

Districts nationwide have been grappling with the best way to handle the issue, especially since the shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado in 1999, Thiel said. While no district can prepare for every situation, he said the district is constantly evaluating its plans to make students as safe as possible.

“The biggest thing you always have to think about is you have to consider safety every day of the year,” Thiel said.

With any proposal, Bennett said, board members, staff and community members would have to consider its effectiveness, risks to students and staff, and the types of training that might be involved. But he also said it’s important to have those discussions soon.

“At this point, we’re just having those conversations rather than just jumping in and saying yea or nay,” Bennett said.

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