Utah educators have mixed reactions to guns-in-schools proposals
Security • State educators express strong opinions in support of and against arming teachers, adding police.
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The National Rifle Association's call on Friday to put armed police officers in every school and a Utah lawmaker's assertion that more armed teachers would make classrooms safer are drawing mixed reactions from those who work in Utah schools.

The statements this week followed a massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut on Dec. 14, when a gunman killed 20 children and six adults before taking his own life — an event that's inspired much soul-searching about school safety, guns and mental illness nationwide.

Leaders of the nation's two largest teacher unions, the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association, said this week that arming educators won't improve school safety, declaring that "guns have no place in our schools" and the focus should instead be on bullying prevention, mental health services and gun control.

But those who work in schools in Utah — a conservative state known for supporting gun rights — expressed a range of opinions about the proposals this week.

Doug Stephens, president of the Ogden Education Association, said he supports the idea of having armed police officers in every school, though he noted "as with anything in government, if they want these kinds of things, they're going to have to be willing to pay for it."

He said it's a much better solution than arming more teachers, calling that idea "shortsighted and naive." In recent days Rep. Curt Oda, R-Clearfield, has said one of the best ways to keep schools safe is to train teachers to carry concealed weapons.

Utah is one of two states that already allows concealed weapons permit holders to carry firearms on school grounds. The other state is Kansas.

"I would prefer that there was somebody in the school, multiple people if possible, [that have guns] if they need to become the last line of defense," Oda said Friday. "Otherwise, the only thing they could use [to protect their students] is their bodies, like they did in Sandy Hook."

Several educators died at Sandy Hook trying to protect their students.

But Stephens, who teaches Advanced Placement U.S. History at Ben Lomond High in Ogden, said teachers are trained to teach, not chase criminals with guns. He said the idea of arming teachers reminds him of some of the militaristic societies he teaches students about in his classes.

"It requires a lot of training for someone to carry a gun in our society and try and enforce laws and rules," Stephens said, "and I'm not for lay people doing that."

The Utah Education Association (UEA) as a whole has not taken a position on the issue, said Mike Kelley, UEA spokesman.

Meanwhile, Bob Henke, principal at Mountain Crest High in Hyrum said, in his opinion, there are valid arguments on both sides of the proposals. Mountain Crest leaders canceled classes Friday after receiving a report that a student or students planned to bring a gun to class, possibly to commit a murder-suicide.

Henke said Mountain Crest already has a law enforcement officer at the school full time, something that's been helpful and would likely benefit every school. Mountain Crest's school resource officer has even started bringing a high powered rifle to school each day in addition to his handgun in response to the Connecticut shootings. Henke said the officer keeps the rifle in a locked safe at school during the day and brings it home with him each night.

But he said the school still canceled classes Friday, even with its armed officer, because it can take time for an officer to respond to shots fired. According to Reuters, an armed sheriff's deputy was unable to stop the shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado in 1999.

Henke said he can also see both sides of the argument when it comes to arming teachers. Henke said he understands why some people would like to see more teachers armed, but he said he personally won't be encouraging more teachers to arm themselves, though it's certainly their right.

"You're asking someone to make a quick decision without maybe a lot of training to make those kinds of decisions," Henke said.

Others, however, had a different take on the ideas Friday. John Balden, president of AFT Utah, A Union of Professionals, said he personally supports both having armed police officers in every school and encouraging more teachers to be trained to take up arms.

"If the administrator or principal, if any one of them had been a concealed weapons carrier that whole thing might have been stopped after the first shot," Balden said of the attack at Sandy Hook. "They could have taken him out."

Balden teaches at Utah Valley University, and AFT Utah represents about 1,000 educators and school workers in the state.

"We have a right to defend ourselves," Balden said, "and we can't count on having police defend us at all times because there aren't enough of them."

Carl Wimmer, a former Republican lawmaker who is now a school resource officer in the South Sanpete School District, also said he supports both proposals.

He said teachers are "very capable" of getting the training necessary to carry concealed weapons in schools. He said having armed officers in every school would be a "tremendous first step" and encouraging more teachers to carry weapons would act as a deterrent.

"Those who are opposed to good people being armed in schools will certainly have to face the fact that that decision will result in more deaths for children," Wimmer said.

Oda said he knows of several Utah teachers who carry guns to school but said most are careful about speaking publicly about it. He said teachers should be careful on sharing whether they carry a gun to school, because a potential gunman may plan a shooting at a school and try to shoot those known to carry a weapon first.

Tribune editor Melinda Rogers contributed to this report.

lschencker@sltrib.com

Twitter: @lschencker —