Credit…Andrew Spear for The New York Times
Erica L. Green and
SIDNEY, Ohio — The 8-by-11-inch box sits atop a bookshelf in the district headquarters, as much a part of the office furniture as the manila folders, yearbooks and Webster’s dictionaries. Inside is a semiautomatic Glock handgun with extra magazines, equipment that education leaders here say will prevent this district from suffering the next schoolhouse tragedy.
Dispersed throughout the seven school buildings in this rural Ohio district outside of Dayton are dozens of biometric safes, tucked away discreetly in closets and classrooms, only accessible to a designated staff member whose fingerprint can open the box. A bulletproof vest is nearby, in an undisclosed location, fortified to protect against any bullet except one fired from an assault rifle.
“We can’t stop an active shooter, but we can minimize the carnage,” said John Scheu, the superintendent of Sidney City Schools.
After the latest mass shooting, at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., last month, President Trump amplified calls to train and arm educators, roiling the teaching profession and infuriating gun control advocates who see yet another inappropriate — and potentially disastrous — duty being heaped on teachers.
For all the outcry, though, hundreds of school districts across the country, most of them small and rural, already have. Officials like those here in Sidney do not see the weaponry scattered through their schools as a political statement, but as a practical response to a potent threat.
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The push for others to follow their lead has almost instantly ignited a backlash. A hashtag emerged on social media, #ArmMeWith, followed by a litany of suggestions from teachers other than guns: books, science equipment, computers and better pay. A cartoon depicting a teacher struggling underneath the weight of her responsibilities — social worker, drug detector, disciplinarian — was shared on social media more than 100,000 times.
While the president was talking up armaments and bonuses for teachers who volunteer for weapons training, dispirited educators in West Virginia walked out of their schools, seeking what they say would be simply a living wage.
“Doesn’t it get to be too much?” said Brianne Solomon, a veteran West Virginia teacher who supplies food for her students’ families, signs students’ permission slips if parents can’t and recently got one to the eye doctor. “On top of all the things we do, to have to remember when we’re supposed to use a gun?”
But the Trump administration has elevated the issue to something of an educational mission. The president insisted that he personally would charge into a school, even unarmed, to challenge a gunman. Frank Brogan, a former Florida lieutenant governor who has been nominated for assistant secretary of elementary and secondary education, carries an unusual credential: When he was an assistant principal, Mr. Brogan chased down an armed teenager, talked him into lowering his weapon, then grabbed his arm and wrestled it away.
But even many educators who have faced off with a school gunman oppose the president’s idea.
Every day for five and a half years, Jesse Wasmer said, he has thought about the moment that he tackled a student who had just fired a shotgun into the back of a classmate in the cafeteria of a suburban Baltimore high school.
“Never have I thought, ‘I wish I’d had a gun,’” Mr. Wasmer said.
Mr. Wasmer, who was a guidance counselor at Perry Hall High School when a student opened fire there in 2012, called the president’s assertions “simplistic and misguided.”
“I think as educators we’re trained to nurture kids and foster kids, and our first instinct is to not shoot or harm them,” he said. “What we need is more caring adults in these kids’ lives, not more guns.”
Officials here in this town of 20,000 do not swagger.
“I agree with those folks who say teachers should teach and cops should be cops, but we got a mess on our hands,” said Sheriff John Lenhart of Shelby County, who gave up his National Rifle Association membership in the 1990s. “If I have to wait on state officials, on the federal government, on psychologists to figure out why people hurt one another, we would have nothing in our school system.”
Since 2013, in response to the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., legislation in state capitals across the country has sought to arm school staff. At least 10 states allow staff members to possess or have access to a firearm on school grounds, according to an analysis by the Education Commission of the States. And local districts have varied their approach to arming educators — in Ohio, guns are kept in safes; in Texas, they can be worn in holsters or kept in safes within immediate reach.
A Florida state legislative committee approved a $67 million “school marshal” program this week to train and arm teachers — over the vocal opposition of Parkland residents.
In Texas, some public school systems have been quietly arming teachers and administrators for more than a decade. Teachers and other school personnel who volunteer to undergo specialized training receive approval to either carry a concealed firearm in school or have one within reach.
Lawmakers, educators and advocates for gun rights said Texas’ school marshal and school guardian programs have eased fears of armed intruders and have not led to any firearm accidents or mishaps. The state’s programs could serve as a model for schools around the country, advocates say.
One rural district, Harrold Independent School District, has been allowing armed personnel to carry concealed firearms on school grounds as part of its guardian program since 2007, one year after a shooting at an Amish school in Pennsylvania.
“This clearly is the solution to the problem that we’re seeing around the country, and I think the president has recognized that,” said State Representative Jason Villalba, a Dallas Republican who wrote the law that established the school-marshal program.
At a meeting at the White House with other governors on Monday, Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas, a Republican, told Mr. Trump that in more than 100 school districts in Texas, teachers and other personnel carry a weapon and are trained to respond to an attack.
“Candidly, some school districts, they promote it,” the governor told the president. “Because they will have signs out front — a warning sign: ‘Be aware, there are armed personnel on campus’ — warning anybody coming on there that they — if they attempt to cause any harm, they’re going to be in trouble.”
In Ohio, which allows local school boards to decide who can possess or have access to firearms on school grounds, Gov. John Kasich, a Republican, also supports arming teachers.
Ohio’s teachers’ unions have mobilized against the widespread arming of teachers in schools, arguing that gun control, not armed clashes, will protect students.
“We appreciate that there are teachers that are willing to take this extra step. It comes from a good place,” said Melissa Cropper, the president of the Ohio Federation of Teachers. “But when you start thinking about all that could go wrong in that situation, there are too many risks involved.”
Like many districts, Sidney City Schools was shaken by the slaughter of 20 first graders and six staff members at Sandy Hook in 2012. In the following days, Sheriff Lenhart presented Mr. Scheu with an equation: Every 17 seconds after the first shots are fired and the first 911 call is made, somebody gets hurt or dies.
“Even in the best-case scenario, we could get here in four to five minutes,” Sheriff Lenhart said. “You do the math.”
Within a year, Sheriff Lenhart had led what he calls a “layered” approach to school security and a “conservative” approach to arming teachers in the 3,400-student school district.
The district spent about $70,000 on safes, bulletproof vests, cameras, guns, radios and ammunition. Uniformed, armed officers cost $200,000 a year, and an insurance policy of $100,000 a year includes coverage for its staff with access to firearms. Those are negligible costs for a school district with a $36 million budget, the superintendent said.
“We’re buying time, and it’s of the essence,” Mr. Scheu said.
Windows and doors are numbered in the district’s schools, and visitors have to be buzzed in. Each school has a panic button and security camera system that feeds to the sheriff’s office. Every school has a uniformed, armed guard, mostly retired sheriff’s deputies, every day from bell to bell. The high school has a specially trained officer and a bulletproof window between the secretary and visitors.
And if all else fails, there’s a secret group of 40 educators — teachers, principals, custodians, secretaries — called a “first responder team” that can retrieve firearms in under a minute.
The team was vetted by Mr. Scheu and Sheriff Lenhart, and completed a 16-hour training course that includes firearm safety, unarmed defensive tactics and basic gunshot first aid. Its members are required to attend a concealed weapons course, as well as additional monthly trainings at either the firing range where they practice marksmanship and in school-based simulations where they practice in the hallways, identifying threats and eliminating them with air guns.
Since the team was created, it has responded to one incident, this past August when a student brought a gun to school in his backpack. It did not require a member to retrieve a gun.
The measures here met some opposition at first, from the town’s teachers union and police chief, who were concerned about gun safety.
But Rick Cron, the armed guard at Sidney Middle School, said he would put members of his team up against any law enforcement officer in Ohio. The state requires that officers fire 25 bullets a year; his team members shoot at least 600.
“It’s the teacher’s responsibility to protect the kids, no matter what, and they do it already,” Mr. Cron said, “but without the tools.”
Nicki New, the parent of three students in Sidney City Schools, said she felt safer dropping off her children knowing there were staff members equipped to respond to a parent’s worst nightmare.
“God forbid, if something would happen, knowing that not only a law enforcement officer is there, but there are teachers in that building who can give my child a fighting chance, is even more reassuring,” Ms. New said.