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Why This Oregon School District Will Consider Arming Its Staff

More than two dozen school shootings have taken place across the United States so far in 2018. Now, an Oregon school district is considering arming its staff.

The Sherman County School District is working with the county sheriff’s office and other local agencies to decide whether to implement a number of safety measures before school starts next fall. One of the ideas includes starting a program where staff could volunteer to be armed and undergo firearms training.

Sherman County School District Superintendent Wes Owens said officials there are weighing what the best options are to prevent a school shooting.

In April, Owens visited an Idaho school district where staff have access to weapons in safes and receive regular training on how to use them.

“We were researching to find creative and proactive programs in or outside Oregon that were being implemented or discussed at a like-size school district that had potential 45-minute to an hour response times,” he said.

Calls to arm teachers have recently been part of the national conversation on gun violence. Last month during the annual National Rifle Association convention, President Donald Trump reiterated his view that teachers should be armed.

But it's not a new conversation in Sherman County — one of Oregon’s sparest counties, with a population around 2,000. Deliberations over arming staff there have been ongoing for more than two years. Owens said that members of the district’s multi-agency “safety committee” have been discussing a similar proposal since December 2015, two months after the Umpqua Community College shooting in Roseburg left 10 people dead.

Sherman County Sheriff Brad Lohrey said the committee’s members have concerns over the distance between the county’s only school and the nearest Oregon State Police station, located roughly 40 minutes away in The Dalles. As for his own department, Lohrey said they are too short-staffed to handle a school shooting situation. Despite having an office that is a three-minute drive away from the school, he said his staff are often out responding to calls in other parts of the county.

“Some days, I am the only one working for the county. I have no deputies on, and there is no state police,” Lohrey said. “We are a small agency, we only have one office, and sometimes we only have one person on. And so it could be up to a response time, worst case scenario, probably 45 minutes.”

Sherman County School District also does not have a school resource officer. Lohrey said funding such a position through the county sheriff’s office would be expensive, costing the school district around $100,000 annually in personnel costs.

But, Lohrey said, his agency would be willing to provide firearms training for “not even a fraction of that.” The department’s sergeant, a qualified firearms instructor through the Oregon Department of Public Safety Standards and Training, would be the one to provide the training.

“We already have an instructor who is getting paid to do instructions with deputies and everything else. So I don’t know why couldn’t train right alongside us,” Lohrey said.

As for providing guns and safes, the cost of that remains unknown without knowing how many staff would enroll in the program. But Lohrey said it should be a one-time purchase.

Owens, the Sherman County superintendent, said that expenses aside, a school resource officer may also not be ideal in making the school a “hard target,” when compared to arming staff.

“Everybody would know who the school resource officer is,” Owens said, “and when he is at school and not at school.”

Arming staff and conducting firearms training are not the only safety measures under consideration. Other ideas include bringing in first-aid, CPR and tourniquet training, and installing security film on windows — which could prevent someone from shattering glass to enter a building.

The district safety committee combined these measures with the idea of arming its employees into a safety proposal now before district leaders. When the school district distributed a survey to its staff last year to gather input on the proposal, it asked two questions: whether staff wanted to continue researching and discussing the safety proposal, and if they would volunteer to take part in any of the training being considered, including firearms training.

Out of 39 staff members surveyed, only one respondent selected “no” on whether or not to proceed with discussing the measures. And 25 out of 34 staff said they would be open to firearms training.

With significant support for the idea, Owens met with representatives of the Garden Valley School District in Idaho during a two-day visit in April.

Garden Valley has a program where its staff can access on-campus guns locked in a safe. Superintendent Greg Alexander declined to provide information to OPB on how many staff members have access to the guns or how much they spent on weapons — he said publicizing the information could compromise security. But he disclosed that more than five out of the district’s 40 staff have access to a weapon.

A National Rifle Association-certified trainer conducts firearms training at least quarterly, according to Alexander. The trainer charges $250 per training session. But Alexander said that the school district holds free sessions through an ex-military member among their staff, and they regularly go out to the range to practice.

According to Lohrey, the Sherman County sheriff, the party that accompanied Owens to Garden Valley included a representative from his office, a school district board member, first responders and a county commissioner.

Garden Valley School District board member Alan Ward said that they showed the Oregonians their weapons program and took them out to the shooting range where they train.

“We showed them the safes, the weapons, the strategic layout, the ammunition, the bulletproof vests,” he said. “Everything that is in the program, we showed them and shared with them, understanding that they are a remote school district like we are.”

The Sherman County and Garden Valley districts do have similarities: The populations in Moro, Oregon, and Garden Valley, Idaho, are within the 300 to 500 range, according to the 2010 census. Both schools have less than 300 students.

But the distance between Garden Valley High School and the county sheriff’s office is significantly larger; it takes an hour and a half to drive from the school to the Boise County Sheriff’s Office in Idaho City — the closest office to the school.

Still, Sheriff Lohrey said his office is unable to provide adequate protection to Sherman County students because of Highway 97. Roughly 50 miles of the road cut through the county north to south, and Lohrey said the sheriff’s office is stretched thin on patrols. With the Oregon State Police office located 40 minutes away from the school in Moro, Lohrey said state police rarely come through. According to him, his officers patrol Highway 97 at least 12 hours a day.

“I have a lot of traffic that’s not local traffic going right by our school. Garden Valley has more localized people,” Lohrey said. “So that’s the difference.”

Sherman County is unique among Oregon school districts, most of which aren’t having conversations about arming teachers. And in the few cases where other districts have considered similar proposals, arming teachers has ended up off the table. Last month, the Grant School District took a vote on whether they should try to arm teachers.

The school district circulated a survey that revealed 69 percent of students at Grant Union High School preferred to have their teachers armed. Most of the school district’s sixth graders and their staff also voted in favor of guns in the school for protection.

When Cindy Dougharity-Spencer, a social sciences teacher at Grant Union High School, distributed the survey in her history class, she said only one student out of 20 opposed armed teachers.

As for Dougharity-Spencer, she sided with the minority.

“I’ve owned rifles and pistols, but I — in no way — want to have one at school,” she said. “I don’t want to worry about where a weapon is every day at school.”

The Grant County district ended up going against popular opinion, announcing May 16 that they would not have any further discussions on arming teachers.

“Our teachers are already stretched thin with their time and academic and curricular commitments. Adding time-intensive training and certification requirements to their already incredibly demanding schedules would take away from instructional and preparatory time,” school board chairwoman Chris Cronin said before the board's decision. “I have heard from teachers that they want to be teachers, not law enforcement officers.”

But for some community leaders in Sherman County, where the school board plans to make a decision in the fall on whether to arm teachers: To each their own.

“I couldn’t tell you what’s right for any other county. I can only tell you what’s right for my county. What’s right for my county is potentially arming staff,” Lohrey said. “Whatever plan that we decide, I want to get it right the first time because I am not going to have a tragedy in our community.”

<p>Wes Owens is the superintendent of Sherman County School District. In April, he visited Garden Valley, Idaho &mdash; where school district staff can volunteer to keep weapons locked in safes.</p>

Courtesy of Sherman County School District


Wes Owens is the superintendent of Sherman County School District. In April, he visited Garden Valley, Idaho — where school district staff can volunteer to keep weapons locked in safes.

Copyright 2018 Oregon Public Broadcasting

Andy Field