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Should schools arm their staff? This district has trained administrators to carry guns for four years


TOPPENISH, WA (Circa) - While politicians, activists, teachers and students debate the benefits and risks of arming educators, there is one school district in Washington state that has been doing it for four years.

Toppenish School District in central Washington has a program to train its administrators - though not its teachers. The program was begun four years ago by Superintendent John Cerna after the tragedy in Sandy Hook where 20 children and 6 school employees were shot and killed.

"I had people when I first started say 'I don’t agree with you,'" said Superintendent Cerna. "And I said, 'you don’t have to agree with me, your kids aren’t in my school district. Are your kids safe in their schools?'"

"I can tell you, right now," Cerna added, "in Toppenish, our kids are pretty safe."

Superintendent John Cerna drives to one of the elementary schools he oversees in Toppenish School District

Toppenish is a town of just under 9,000 people about 160 miles southeast of Seattle. It is the largest town on the Yakima Indian Reservation and its main industries are farming, fishing and forestry, according to Data USA.

Technically in Washington state, concealed carry is prohibited completely on k-12 school campuses. However, there is an exception for school personnel who are certified to carry a weapon -beyond a general concealed carry permit- like school resource officers. The training Cerna's team undergoes is extensive enough to fall under this category.

In order to get the program up and running, Cerna needed the approval of his school board. Once he received that, the initial group of 14 administrators spent about six months training before they were allowed to carry a weapon into the schools. They started carrying on campuses in August of 2014.

The training, which is run by a private company, includes a the final marksmanship test on an 8-by-10-inch sheet of paper, said Cerna. He also explained that the training also took place in the classrooms, where administrators learned how to clear a room or a building of students and secure it.

Once certified, the educators have to still practice twice a month, and need to renew their certification every year. As of March 2018, Toppenish School District has 19 armed administrators - or 60 percent of its administrative team. There are enough armed admins to ensure three armed personnel at each school every day.

"That makes a huge difference, when you’re not by yourself," explained Cerna, citing the single school resource officer at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland during the shooting there in February.

He went on to explain that the minutes it takes police or sheriffs to show up at a school during an emergency can mean lives - and having armed personnel already on scene is a way for him to ensure that time of unfettered violence by the shooter can be diminished.

Critics, however, argue that arming educators introduces an entirely different set of potential complications.

"It's not just training for how you safely use a gun, its combat training," said Chelsea Parsons, Vice President of Gun Violence Prevention Policy at the Center for American Progress - a left-leaning policy institute in Washington , D.C. "I think that's a kind of training that even highly trained military professionals and law enforcement don't receive."

Historically, armed educators on campuses have a mixed track record.

In 1997, for example, a school principal in Mississippi retrieved a pistol out of his car and was able to stop a school shooting in progress. He held the shooter at gunpoint until police arrived.

But in 2014, a Utah teacher legally carrying a gun shot herself in the leg while using the faculty restroom.

A similar case occurred on March 13th, 2018, less than a month after the Parkland shooting. A teacher in Northern California accidentally discharged his weapon at the ceiling while demonstrating to students how to use it safely. Nobody was killed, but a few minor injuries were reported. CNN reported that the teacher, Dennis Alexander, is a reserve officer with the local police department.

Aside from the somewhat anecdotal data on the success of gun-toting teachers stopping school shootings, Parsons argues that protecting students with a deadly weapon is not a teacher's job. She says that many of the teachers the Center for American Progress has spoken to recently don't want the burden of also defending their children in addition to education.

Many of these teachers came to Washington, D.C. in March for the March on our Lives, a protest organized by the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Candace Robinson Onyebueke, a special education teacher from Chicago, said she did not think teachers should be armed.

"If we were to give teachers the right to bear arms within a school building, that would be once again another situation where you can cause a possible mistake of someone being harmed," Onyebueke said.

We spoke to March for Our Lives participants who experienced gun violence. Here are their stories.

A recent Gallup poll asked current teachers to suggest things that could possibly solve the problem of a shooting on campus. The most common suggestion was gun control legislation, which 33 percent of the teachers polled suggested. Comparatively, seven percent of respondents suggested arming teachers.

"Empowering individuals in school environments to use lethal force against students is a really serious conversation," said Parsons, adding that in some areas, school disciplinary measures can dis-proportionally affect students of color.

A school resource officer stands watch while students are at recess in Toppenish, Washington.

Back in Toppenish, Superintendent Cerna agreed on the gravity of the decision.

"I’ve got grandkids, my son... and my daughter in law both work in the district," he said. "So I’ve got a lot to lose, because my kids are here."

And, candidly, Cerna said that he wishes there were a better solution.

"I would love to not have to wear a gun to school. But give me some other recourse," he said. "Until that happens we're going to do what we do."

At least one other school district near Toppenish has followed in Cerna's footsteps, using his proposal and training program to with their own administrators. But Cerna doesn't think that means the federal government should make every school district arm its educators - in fact, he thinks it should completely be up to local school districts to do what's best for their students - something Parsons echos.

What Cerna does wish the federal government would do is something that President Trump and the NRA have already suggested: he wants them to fund his program.

"It's expensive to do what we do," said Cerna. "It costs over $40,000 a year."

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