Armed staff rare, a local decision for Idaho schools


A week-and-a-half ago in Firth, Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter was answering questions at City Hall at one of his periodic “Capital for a Day” events. Someone asked what he thinks about letting teachers carry guns. Otter, a Republican, said he was open to the idea, although he doesn’t view it as the entire answer to school security worries.

“I feel like that may be one of the possibilities,” he said. “We have to harden our schools to protect our students.”

The question of how to keep our children safe from those who intend to harm them tends to receive renewed attention in the wake of mass school shootings that dominate the news for days or weeks. Would gun control help? Or is arming teachers the better route?

After 17 people were killed in a mass shooting at a high school in Florida on Valentine’s Day, President Donald Trump came out in favor of arming teachers. According to recent polls, the country as a whole is divided on the question, with a majority of Republicans in favor and a majority of Democrats against.

Many local schools have school resource officers, who are police officers that carry firearms. Idaho Falls School District 91, for example, has two police officers assigned to its schools, spending most of their time at the high schools and middle schools. There hasn’t been any talk of giving guns to any other staff, said Secondary Education Director Sarah Sanders.

“We have not had any conversations with the intent of arming anyone other than a police officer in our schools,” Sanders said. “That would be something our school board would need to have a conversation about.”

Bonneville Joint School District 93 officials took a look at arming teachers about a year ago. Superintendent Chuck Shackett, who favors letting teachers carry if they volunteer to and if they’re trained, said he is glad Trump has brought the question to the forefront.

“I’ve always felt if we had some people in the district with concealed carry (permits) and training carrying, and we made sure the community knew that, if they handled it well, I think it would be a great deterrent to individuals who would come in and do such a heinous crime, that ‘Hey, don’t go to Bonneville district, because they carry,’” Shackett said.

However, Shackett said a lot more would have to happen first if the district were to move in that direction. The district would have to figure out the ramifications for its insurance policy. It would have to see how the community reacts. And, it would have to discuss it more with law enforcement.

“It’s not something you just decide,” Shackett said. “You have to work with your community, bring people in, start discussing it.”

Dwight Richins, superintendent of the West Jefferson School District, said the idea of letting staff who have concealed carry permits keep guns in some accessible place on school property has been discussed by the school board’s safety committee.

“We’re in the discussions of that, I think like most everybody else,” he said.

If Idaho schools want to let staff carry guns, they can. Idaho law makes it a misdemeanor to possess a gun on school property, but it also exempts “a person or an employee of the school or school district who is authorized to carry a firearm with the permission of the board of trustees of the school district or the governing board” from this prohibition.

“Basically under Idaho law, it’s up to districts,” said state Department of Education spokeswoman Kris Rodine. “Teachers can be exempt from the prohibition on firearms, but it’s a local decision.”

Anecdotally, there are only a few schools in Idaho with any armed personnel other than resource officers. According to various media reports the Garden Valley School District in Boise County and Salmon River and Mountain View school districts in Idaho County all either allow some staff to carry concealed or have guns available on school property, as does the Blackfoot Charter Community Learning Center.

The Idaho Education Association, the union that represents the state’s teachers, has passed a resolution saying “schools should be a safe environment free of unauthorized guns and other deadly weapons,” but it hasn’t taken an official stance on the question of letting teachers carry.

“We are adamant that teachers and students should have a safe environment to work and learn,” IEA President Kari Overall said in a statement. “School safety should be the highest priority, and requires the efforts of teachers, administrators, school boards, communities, law enforcement, and the Legislature all working together.”

Donald Hammer, a teacher at Shoshone-Bannock Junior/Senior High School, favors letting teachers carry concealed handguns. He said he would oppose requiring it, but that they should be allowed to if they are interested and get training.

“Responding to an active shooter unarmed is a recipe for disaster,” he said. “I have nothing but admiration for the people down in Florida, the three … staff members in Florida protecting those kids, but basically that big burly football coach died shielding those kids with his body. And if he’d been able to face forward with a handgun, he could have still shielded them with his body but also put an end to … the shooter.”

Hammer has had a concealed carry permit for about 25 years. In that time, he has never pulled his gun on someone and has only reached for it once. He said it would be a nightmare to have to shoot someone, “but the only bigger nightmare would be to watch something happen and do nothing to stop it.”

Richins, who is a military veteran and also has a concealed carry permit, supports the idea of letting teachers have guns at school. However, he said there are issues with it that would have to be addressed.

“Most law enforcement don’t like it,” he said. “My personal opinion is yes, but I see the consequences.”

One problem, he said, is that law enforcement wouldn’t necessarily know who the bad guys are and who is a teacher.

“I think in a smaller community or school it could be fairly simple, because everybody knows each other pretty well,” Richins said.

Shackett said law enforcement did have concerns about the idea, one big one being the possibility that, in an active shooter situation, they won’t know who the bad guys are. One possibility, he said, would be for staff members who have handguns to also have a bright-colored hat or vest they could put on in that situation.

“There’s a real concern when the emergency responders come rushing into a building, whoever they see with a gun, they’re immediately going to think they’re a perpetrator,” Shackett said. “And what if it’s an administrator? What if it’s a teacher?”

Otter, too, said the size of a community could make a difference as to whether arming teachers would be a good idea or not. Law enforcement, he said, would have know if there are armed teachers in a school.

“You’ve got an active shooter in this school, but you’ve got three teachers who are armed,” Otter said. “You’ve got to know who they are. … There’s got to be protocols as well.”

Idaho State Police Director Kedrick Wills agreed that what might make sense for an urban district might not in a rural one. He told the crowd about a threat to a school in Ada County that drew dozens of police officers, and asked how long a similar response would take in Firth.

“Our answer has to be a local answer,” he said. “A statewide approach doesn’t work because the resources are not uniform.”

Reporter Nathan Brown can be reached at 208-542-6757. Follow him on Twitter: @NateBrownNews