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Locked & loaded: Inside a Georgia school district with armed teachers

East Laurens High School in Dublin, Ga. (East Laurens High School/Facebook)

The bright yellow signs posted outside school buildings in Laurens County carry an ominous message, designed to protect students.

“Warning. Staff members are ARMED and TRAINED. Any attempt to harm children will be met by Deadly Force.”

The rural county, located 135 miles southeast of Atlanta, finds itself on the vanguard of a new school safety model in Georgia. The state adopted a law in 2014 that allowed local school districts to arm teachers and staff. Last fall, Laurens County became the first school district in Georgia to issue guns to teachers.

As the school calendar enters its final stretch, Laurens officials called the program’s first year a success as they granted The Atlanta Journal-Constitution exclusive access to staff and others who carried it out.

Many parents, students and educators in this Middle Georgia county said they approve of having armed teachers who they see as an extra layer of protection, but some parents and school safety experts have reservations about whether placing more guns in schools actually makes them safer.

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And while the issue of whether to arm teachers is controversial, Laurens’ officials say they are confident their model for school safety can work elsewhere and that other Georgia districts have already inquired about the program that allows teachers to carry firearms within certain school safety zones and at school functions.

The decision to arm teachers here followed the 2018 Valentine’s Day school shooting in Parkland, Fla. that claimed 17 lives and provided another horrifying marker for a nation shaken by school mass shootings dating back to Columbine High School where 12 students and a teacher were killed in April 1999.

“I came to the conclusion that the best way to preserve the safety of staff and students and prevent loss of life was to arm some of the school personnel,” said Dan Brigman, Laurens’ superintendent.

One Laurens teacher, who participates in the program, said the fact that she was required to run toward danger — something the school district emphasizes to those it has authorized to have the guns — didn’t sway her. The teacher, who the AJC has agreed to not identify in order to protect her safety and effectiveness in the event of an attack on the school, said the presence of the gun won’t change her role from educator to law enforcer.

“As a teacher, it’s my responsibility to keep my students safe as well as educate them,” she said. “I have kids in the Laurens County school system and I have faith that their teacher will protect them in the same way that I protect my students.”

She said even though she had prior experience with firearms — deer hunting and shooting at the local gun range — the training provided by the school system gave her confidence that she could use deadly force against an active shooter.

“Nobody made me do this,” she said. “But I believe in what the school district is doing and God forbid if something were to ever happen, I’m ready.”

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Staffers get trained

A road trip from Atlanta to Savannah runs through Laurens County — home to the Carl Vinson VA Medical Center in Dublin. The Veterans Hospital along with Fairview Park Hospital employ more than 2,000 of the county’s 50,000 residents.

Laurens is also one of Georgia’s largest counties in terms of land mass, covering more than 800 square miles. Even though the school system of about 6,000 students has never had an armed intruder at a school, the distance between schools means it can take 20 minutes for deputies to properly respond to an emergency at a school. This was a factor that led the school board last May to vote unanimously for the plan to arm its teachers.

Several teachers or school staff members at each of the county’s eight schools – two high schools, two middle, four elementaries and one alterntative school — either carry a concealed weapon during the school day or have the gun nearby, locked up. The system doesn’t have a school police force, but sheriff’s deputies patrol the schools.

“We moved beyond the typical ‘lockdown’ procedures because we came to the conclusion that we needed to be able to address the threat of an active shooter quicker,” said Brigman. “Studies have shown that most casualties occur in the first five or ten minutes.”

In compliance with the state law, Laurens sought volunteers for its School Response Team who were willing to undergo a psychological evaluation, background check and rigorous training — both physical and mental.

The school district contracted with Dr. Donald Meck, a licensed psychologist based in Warner Robins who has 23 years of military experience and conducts similar mental health evaluations for the military, law enforcement agencies and security firms.

Not everyone who volunteered received the gun-at-school authorization. Although he wouldn’t give the AJC exact numbers, Meck said it’s typical to reject about 20 percent of the volunteers.

Use of medication for depression or anxiety, for example, “would be an automatic disqualifier,” said Meck. “If you’ve been prescribed something like Zoloft to help you with stress, you don’t need to be placed in situations that are even more stressful.”

All volunteers attended a five-day training course over the summer. Besides firing the weapons on a gun range, they learned about developing the right mindset and attitude for being on the team: being mentally ready to act, and not second-guessing yourself to the point of inaction.

They also have committed to periodic training including time at the police gun range, team debriefings, drills and state requalification for use of semiautomatic pistols.

The school district purchased the guns its School Response Team carries to the classrooms. While the district would not disclose how many educators are armed or what type of guns they carry to ensure the safety and effectiveness of their program, they worked with law enforcement to get a bulk discount, according to Curtis Kersey, Laurens County Schools safety coordinator.

“Our staff is using the same firearms as local law enforcement,” said Kersey. “If anything were to happen to a deputy and the teacher would need to use his gun, it would be something they’re familiar with.”

‘Accidents happen all the time’

While Laurens is the first district in Georgia to arm teachers, it is not alone in the decision. As early as 2007 states began allowing school districts to allow teachers to carry guns. One rural district, Harrold Independent School District in Wilbarger County, Texas near the Oklahoma border is perhaps the pioneer. It started a program one year after a shooting at an Amish school in Pennsylvania for similar reasons as Laurens. It takes law enforcement 15 minutes to get from one end of the county to the other there.

The Georgia Association of Educators, along with many other education organizations in the country, has come out against arming teachers.

“Nothing has changed to make use believe that putting guns in the hands of teachers is a good idea,” said President Charlotte Booker.

Even though Laurens County has run through many scenarios and has a process to keep guns away from the children, Booker said nothing is fool-proof.

“That’s putting too much responsibility on the teachers,” she said. “Accidents happen all the time.”

And many school security experts do not believe arming educators is the best way to keep schools safe.

“Despite the headlines, American schools are among the safest in the world,” said Michael Dorn, director of Safe Havens International, a Georgia-based nonprofit and the world’s largest K-12 school safety center. “Even though active-shooter events are on the rise, the most credible threats are the non-custodial parent bent on revenge or a kid fed up with being bullied.”

Dorn, who has written 27 books on school safety, said if schools must have armed personnel, he advises against those being teachers.

“I’d hate for them to have to make the decision to leave the kids to track down a shooter,” he said.

Several parents and students interviewed said they are comfortable with an armed force of educators in schools.

Kristi Graham has a child in elementary school and she said the new program puts her somewhat at ease.

“As long as the teachers are well trained, it can be a good tool for safety,” Graham said.

For students, many who watched the searing footage from school shootings last year in Florida and Texas, said they welcome the extra security.

“I say give the teachers AR-15s, too,” said Roy Huggins, a student at West Laurens High School referring to the weapon used by the Parkland shooter.

Ashley Boland, a student at West Laurens, said it was a “great decision” to allow teachers to carry guns.

“Personally it makes me as a student feel safer to know that if a situation was to happen at our school we wouldn’t be unprotected,” Boland said.

But not all local parents are convinced arming teachers is a good idea. The validity of the mental health evaluations and the effectiveness of the weapons training are cause for concern for Natasha Richards.

“My main concern is how much patience can they have,” Richards said worried that a gun-toting teacher could have a mental episode. “I don’t know a better solution, but I’m against gun violence of any kind.”

Worried about threats

Laurens officials say the only mishap so far in its program was a gun being stolen from a staffer’s car. It occurred off campus and the gun was quickly recovered.

And they are aware of concerns about students potentially being left alone if a teacher has to leave the classroom to confront a shooter. Laurens officials said their program is designed to ensure that never happens.

Brigman said the school has spent about half a million dollars of SPLOST funds, grant money and school budget allocations to get the teams up and running. That figure also includes three additional school police officers (a cost shared by the county) and security cameras.

“There were a lot of start-up costs that we won’t accrue year over year,” he said. “We don’t need to purchase guns every year, and that was a significant portion of the budget.”

The volunteers are paid a “token” stipend, he said, which comes from the school budget, but he wouldn’t tell the newspaper how much they receive.

Federal, state and local law enforcement officials donated their time to train school staff, so those costs were minimal.

“We had an eclectic mix of volunteers. Everything from past military experience to those who’d never touched a gun,” said Lt. Sidney Harris of the Laurens County Sheriff’s Department. “I saw it as my duty to make sure they had the proper tools and proper training to carry out the duties they signed up for.”

Harris is a professional firearms trainer who teaches courses for both beginners and advanced weapons users. He has volunteered to lead the school system’s initial training program as well as the ongoing training for the team of armed educators and school staffers.

“We want them to build up muscle memory so if they ever need to draw their weapon it will be instinctive,” he said. “We don’t want someone to shoot themselves in the knee because they weren’t properly trained.”

Arming teachers doesn’t bother Latoshia Taylor. She served in the Army during Desert Shield and Desert Storm and she understands that sometimes the least likely people are called on to protect and serve.

“I have two daughters at East Laurens high school and I worry about threats to the school,” she said. “It’s a comfort to know that law enforcement has a backup.”

Why it matters

Though we all want schools to be safe, whether or not it’s a good idea to allow teachers or other school staffers carry guns is a controversial issue. Though no metro Atlanta school districts have taken the step to arm teachers, one Georgia district has. Officials in Laurens County, where there’s never been a gun-toting intruder in a school, said having armed personnel in addition to its school police officers will improve response times and protect students. They also said their rigorous program should be a model for other school districts.

But what if …

The AJC asked Laurens County Superintendent Dan Brigman what would happen in a series of potential situations in schools:

Q: What if kids are fighting. Would a teacher or other staffer be authorized to brandish or fire his/her weapon to keep the peace?

A: No. School personnel are authorized to use their weapons against a threat against someone’s life.

Q: What safeguards are in place in case a person authorized to carry a gun has some sort of mental breakdown and threatens to take his/her life or that of someone else on campus?

A: Every person authorized to carry a weapon on campus has undergone an extensive mental health evaluation. Of course, we can’t guarantee that won’t happen, but we’ve put every safeguard in place against something like that happening.

Q: Are armed school personnel considered deputies? If they are off campus and see a crime being committed are they authorized to step in?

A: No. The armed staffers aren’t law enforcement officials. They are school employees. They don’t have arrest powers and aren’t certified as officers of the law.

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© 2019 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (Atlanta, Ga.)

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.