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Most Colorado teachers feel safe in their classrooms, yet 39 percent might still carry firearms to school

Photo courtesy Wikicommons.

Photo courtesy Wikicommons.

Photo courtesy Wikicommons.

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By Lo Snelgrove
CU News Corps

In 2009, two teenage boys plotted to shoot the principal of Dove Creek High School and ambush the Dolores County Sheriff. They aimed to do serious damage. Law enforcement recovered seven rifles, some .22-caliber weapons and an M1 carbine from one of the boys’ homes.

The teenagers’ plan might have succeeded, had the school not been out of session for spring break. Four years later, Dolores County School District became the first in Colorado to arm school personnel.

If one Colorado legislator has his way, other schools may follow suit.

Should a Colorado House bill introduced by Rep. Patrick Neville (R-Castle Rock) become law, teachers — and anyone with a concealed carry permit, for that matter — would have the right to arm themselves on public K-12 school campuses. Yet even as legislators deliberate, some schools, like Dolores County, have already armed teachers, administrators and other personnel.

Nearly two out of five Colorado teachers surveyed by CU News Corps said that, if permitted, they would carry (22 percent) or consider carrying (17 percent) a firearm at school. More than 700 teachers from 61 cities and towns across the state responded to the February survey.

Neville’s bill brings ups several questions for legislators and Colorado residents:

  • Is the bill necessary if some schools have already armed personnel?
  • Who should be permitted to carry a gun at school?
  • Is there a rural-urban divide over the issue?
  • How effective are guns as a preventive and response tactic?

Is Neville’s bill necessary?

For Dolores County, the path to on-campus carry was not straight and narrow, nor did it come with a map. Superintendent Bruce Hankins and the Dolores County School Board spent months considering who would be allowed to carry, how to collaborate with law enforcement and even how to revise the district’s insurance plan to incorporate the addition of firearms to schools.

They decided that two people would be allowed to carry on school grounds: Hankins and Principal Ty Gray. The right to carry would not automatically be passed down to their successors. Any future personnel who want to carry at a Dolores County school must be reviewed and granted permission by the school board.

Bruce Hankins_Dolores County

Dolores County Superintendent Bruce Hankins is allowed to carry a concealed firearm at the schools he supervises. Hankins does not support a universal right for all Colorado educators to do the same. Photo by Lo Snelgrove.

Hankins, who grew up in the rural county, said parents and the school board were supportive because ”they know and trust the guy carrying a gun at school.” But the superintendent doesn’t preach what he practices, nor does he support Neville’s bill.

“I’m not in favor of people carrying guns on campus,” said Hankins, who believes the risk of accidents outweigh potential benefits. “I am 100 percent opposed to teachers having guns in their classrooms. I am 100 percent supportive of having a quick response time.”

Numerous Colorado schools currently allow teachers and administrators to carry at school. Neville’s bill would expand this allowance to all concealed carry permit holders, and it would not require permit holders to report a concealed weapon to administration or local law enforcement.

This doesn’t sit well with Hankins, who believes that he and his school board strategically prepared for the addition of firearms to their schools. He said what’s right for his district isn’t necessarily “one-size-fits-all” for every Colorado school, and that each district should create custom security plans which reflect their campus and community.

Do concealed carry permits warrant trust?

Since May 2007, there have been 28 mass shootings committed by concealed carry permit holders, according to a count conducted by the pro-gun control organization The Violence Prevention Center. Still, proponents of Neville’s bill are confident that if a person can obtain a concealed carry permit then they are trustworthy to handle a gun responsibly.

Colorado is currently a “shall issue” state, which means law enforcement officials must issue a permit to anyone who meets certain minimum requirements.

Harvard University Professor David Hemenway said these permits are rarely denied. Hemenway is the director of the Harvard Injury Control Research Center and author of the book “Private Guns, Public Health.”

“There’s this notion that people with guns will protect people,” Hemenway said, “but there’s no real evidence out there supporting this.”

A recently proposed senate bill sponsored by Sen. Vicki Marble (R-Fort Collins) and Sen. Kim Ransom (R-Douglas County) aims to abolish current carry requirements, allowing adults over the age of 21 to carry a concealed weapon without a permit. The bill has already made it through the senate and is now under review of the Democratic-led House.

The stringency of Colorado gun laws is steadily debated. Neville’s bill would retain current permitting requirements but allow on-campus carry, while the Senate bill would axe permits entirely but keep schools as “gun-free” zones.

And so the parley persists: Who should — and shouldn’t — be permitted to carry a gun at school?

In the CU News Corps survey, 317 of 733 teachers said they own a firearm, but a 2013 study published by the Center for Homicide Research revealed that even teachers with concealed carry permits are capable of committing gun violence at school.

The study examined cases of firearm discharges by teachers between 1980-2012. The majority of these cases occurred on school grounds.

“A person primarily occupied as a teacher is in no way different from any other shooter,” the study reported. “Teachers suffer from mental illnesses, commit acts of domestic violence, and make mistakes like a person from any other profession.

Is there a regional divide?

High school teacher Lee Robinson wants the right to choose to carry a gun at school, despite the improbability of having to use it.

“In the very rare circumstance that we have an active shooter at our school, I want the ability to defend,” Robinson said. “While whisking kids into a supply closet and wrapping arms around them in an attempt to shield them is loving, it is hardly a way to protect them from a deranged person with a gun.”

Robinson lives in the small mountain town of Buena Vista. Though the labels aren’t perfect, Colorado can be divided into three geographic categories: the mountain west, the Eastern Plains and the Front Range.

The state is also sharply divided politically. Last year, 11 counties considered seceding from the state. The CU News Corps survey, however, did not reveal a geographic divide in response to the question, “Would you carry a firearm at school?”

Teachers who said they would carry a firearm at school replied from cities in all three geographic categories. Seventy-five percent of “yes” responses were reported by teachers on the Front Range. Conversely, the Eastern Plains and mountain towns represented one-third of those who said they would not carry a gun at school.

Though the survey did not reveal a connection between location and teachers’ opinions on carrying a gun, some rural teachers hold fast to the idea that their needs differ from those of suburban and urban schools, and that state law should reflect this.

Margaret Chouinard of Yuma, a rural town in the Eastern Plains, supports Neville’s bill and teachers’ right to carry at school.

“If [the bill] passes, there are going to be people in Denver and Boulder screaming bloody, black-and-blue murder,” Chouinard said. “But the kids in Douglas County don’t need the same thing as our population.”

Margaret Chouinard_Yuma

Margaret Chouinard, a teacher in Yuma, practices her shooting. Chouinard supports teachers’ right to carry a concealed weapon in school, should they choose. Photo courtesy Margaret Chouinard.

Clayton Johnson of the Front Range town of Firestone is on the same page as Chouinard. But 20 miles away, in Boulder, Odette Edbrooke swears she will leave the classroom if Neville’s bill becomes law. Abby Loberg, who teaches in the small mountain town of Granby, expressed similar sentiments.

“If Colorado passed a law like that,” Loberg said, “I would not only quit teaching, I would also pull my own children out of school and probably move to another state.”

Would guns make schools safer?

The FBI reported that mass shootings have been on the rise in the last decade, but less than a quarter of these events between 2000-2014 happened at schools or universities. Almost half of the shootings occurred in commercial places like shopping malls or grocery stores, making it statistically more likely for a gunman to show up at a workplace, not a school.

Of the 733 teachers surveyed by CU News Corps, 35 percent said they support Neville’s bill, and 53 percent said they do not.

Neville, who witnessed the 1999 Columbine High School shooting, has said that if teachers had guns the day his school was attacked, things would have played out differently.

“[Schools] are just easy targets … for a criminal, a terrorist or anyone intent on doing harm,” Neville said.

There is no evidence that gun-free zones are less safe than other places, and survey results showed that an overwhelming 89 percent of teachers feel safe at school. Even teachers who reported feeling safe, though, said they would arm themselves or consider it.

Hemenway said this isn’t a surprise. The chances of getting into a car accident are slim, he explained, but people still buckle up. It’s about having a “safety mindset.” Still, he insisted that the addition of guns to the classroom would lead to a higher number of firearm accidents.

“The answer is not more guns in more places,” Hemenway said. “If the world was post-apocalyptic, then you’d want to be armed, but guns have not made us safer.”

The addition of firearms to schools would also charge teachers with added safety responsibilities, specifically the duty of being a first responder on an active shooter scene. While 94 percent of teachers responded to the CU News Corps survey by saying they already feel a lot or complete responsibility for students while they’re at school, protecting others with a weapon is historically a duty foreign to educators.

Charles Elliston is a member of the Bromley East Charter School Board, a Vietnam veteran and a concealed carry permit holder. Elliston carried a concealed weapon in public for many consecutive years, but he isn’t sure how he’d vote on the issue if it were ever introduced to his board. He said if school personnel are permitted to arm themselves, they should undergo the same training as law enforcement officials.

“A concealed carry permit is simply not enough,” Elliston said. “It’s basic firearm safety. Many of the courses are purely academic and don’t involve going out to fire.”

However, training does not eliminate the possibility of gun accidents. Even law enforcement and military members of law enforcement and military make mistakes. Last year, a Utah elementary teacher with a concealed carry permit shot herself in the leg at school when her handgun accidentally fired.

“Unless the person carrying the weapon has had combat or law enforcement experience with real life simulation, there is a strong possibility that they will miss with several of their shots,” said John Nicoletti, an Aurora police psychologist who was on scene of the 1999 Columbine High School shootings, responded to the 2006 Platte Canyon shooting and contributed to an assessment at Virginia Tech after a 2007 shooting spree left 32 students and faculty members dead.

“This lack of accuracy increases the probability of bystanders being hit,” Nicoletti added. “Shooting at a paper target is a lot different than shooting at a human who may be firing back.”

The bill teachers would write

Ten different teachers and administrators from across the state responded to the CU News Corps survey by saying  that if they could write a bill aimed at preventing school shootings, it would focus on mental health. Some also added that they would increase school funding for counselors and social workers.

Last year, Colorado launched a statewide mental health crisis system for adults and youth. In Gov. Hickenlooper’s State of the State address, he emphasized the importance of providing “schools the resources to identify and support kids at risk for serious mental health issues before they lead to suicide or violence.”

The 2015 fiscal budget proposal didn’t directly allocate spending on mental health or social services in schools or for school-aged youth, although there was a slight increase in general funding for K-12 education. It’s not abnormal for the counselor-to-student ratio at Colorado schools to be one-to-300 or more. High school counselors are primarily responsible for guiding students with graduation requirements and college preparation, not mental or emotional issues.

Like Hankins, Principal James Long, who leads an alternative high school in Thornton, believes that classroom climate and culture, and the addition of counselors and psychology professionals to schools are topics that merit more legislative attention.

“When you talk about school reform and the bills that are in front of state legislature or federal legislators, nobody’s talking about mental health,” Long said. “How about we just create schools that are engaging and we help kids so that they want to come to school because that’s their safe place?”

The same group of educators who emphasized the importance of mental health services unanimously agreed that their highest priority is to teach kids, not to police their school.

“Tragic things happen. Sad things happen. Life happens,” said Robinson, who favors well-regulated, on-campus carry, “But I think that a school’s sole purpose is still to educate… Now it’s almost like learning is an afterthought. We have to meet the safety and security needs first, and then we get to teach.”

Click on an icon to listen to and view teachers discuss their opinions on Rep. Neville’s bill.

CU News Corps is an explanatory/investigative news project housed in the College of Media, Communication and Information at the University of Colorado Boulder. Lo Snelgrove is a first-year graduate student in the Journalism Department.

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Explanatory multimedia reporting from CU Boulder journalism students
Most Colorado teachers feel safe in their classrooms, yet 39 percent might still carry firearms to school