Education • School massacre reshaping issue of whether firearms for self-protection are appropriate in classroom.
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It wasn't unusual for Kevin Leatherbarrow to hear gunshots during the school day while teaching at an inner-city high school in Buffalo, N.Y.
Counseling students who lost classmates or relatives killed by violence on the city's tough east side was part of his job description. He witnessed fights on school grounds between students who'd come to school armed. One day, when a student threatened to kill him after becoming angry over a routine classroom issue, Leatherbarrow decided it was time to arm himself: He obtained a permit that allowed him to carry a gun.
Two years ago, Leatherbarrow accepted a job at a charter school in Utah, where he signed an agreement stating he wouldn't carry a weapon to school as part of his teaching contract.
But there's discussion among him and his colleagues and administrators that maybe that policy needs to change, especially in the aftermath of a mass shooting at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn. earlier this month where 20 children and six teachers were killed by gunman Adam Lanza before he killed himself.
Leatherbarrow, whose job at a high school so far comes with much less violence than his prior career in Buffalo, is among Utah teachers who favor the idea of carrying guns to school. He is encouraging his co-workers and other Utah teachers to attend training in West Valley City on Thursday offering free concealed-weapons permit courses and mass-violence response training to educators.
"We're trapped. We're just fish in a barrel," said Leatherbarrow of feeling vulnerable to a potential situation like that which unfolded in Newtown. "After this shooting, it's not unreasonable to say we are all looking at this [school security] as 'We really have a problem.' It's being brought to our higher-ups and even though [administrators] are sending out emails saying "we are safe" ... the schools are not safe. They're just not."
Instructors with the Utah Shooting Sports Council (USSC) are offering Utah's concealed weapons course to school employees at noon at the Maverik Center in West Valley City. David Burnell, CEO of OPSGEAR, will instruct teachers how to respond to an attack and tactics to disrupt an attacker and save lives.
Clark Aposhian, chairman of the Utah Shooting Sports Council, said he is optimistic the class may reach its limit of 200 people, although the event is scheduled in the middle of a holiday break for most districts.
Utah is one of two states that allows individuals with concealed-weapons permits to carry their guns in schools. Kansas is the other.
Leatherbarrow said recent events in Connecticut have changed the discussion among Utah teachers on whether carrying guns in school is appropriate. He said some of his colleagues who were staunchly opposed to the idea are reconsidering a notion they once dismissed as unnecessary.
Others, however, say guns in schools aren't the answer.
Leaders of the nation's two largest teacher unions, the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association, said last 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.
The Alliance for a Better UTAH, an advocacy organization, spoke out after a recent National Rifle Association news conference calling for better-armed teachers.
"Keep the NRA out of our schools. Qualified professionals in public safety are better equipped to make plans to protect our children, not the gun-selling, gun-toting National Rifle Association that is more interested in making sure its clients maintain good market share than whether or not our children are safe and protected," Maryann Martindale, executive director, wrote in a statement. "Whatever steps we take over the next couple of weeks, this much should remain true: Keep [guns] out of our schools."
Some educators who plan on attending Thursday's training are conflicted about whether to bring a weapon on campus.
Spanky Ward, a substitute teacher in the Granite School District, said he has been thinking about getting a concealed-weapons permit and plans to attend Thursday's event. Although he has spent most of his life in Utah, Ward said he hasn't thought about carrying a weapon until recently.
"I would probably not take it [a concealed weapon] with me because I bounce around a lot [as a substitute]," Ward, 39, said. "I think I would if I were a permanent teacher."
Ward said he thinks it's a good idea for possible shooters to know teachers could be packing. He pointed out that staffers at Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut threw themselves in front of bullets to save lives. Perhaps the outcome could have been different had they been armed, he said.
"If they value their life, [a possible shooter] would think twice about walking into there if they know a majority of people are armed. The police can't be there instantly and seconds means lives."
Chris Doe, a University of Utah employee, plans to attend Thursday's training but said the Connecticut shooting isn't his prime motivation: He's long thought about carrying a gun and sees the course offered to educators for free as a good deal.
Doe said he still doesn't know if he'll bring a gun to work with him and he isn't entirely sure why it's not an easy decision.
"That's a question I've been asking myself: When I get the conceal-carry permit, will I actually carry it on campus? A couple professors I know have carried for years; they carry every single day," said Doe, who is also a student at the U. "But I don't know."
Ray Parker contributed to this report.
If you go
Instructors with the Utah Shooting Sports Council (USSC) are offering Utah's concealed weapons course for free to public school teachers Thursday at the Maverik Center in West Valley City.
David Burnell, CEO of OPSGEAR, will instruct teachers on how to respond to an attack and tactics to disrupt an attacker and save lives.
Friends or family of school employees can take the course for $35, with the money being donated to charity. Participants will be responsible for their own $46 application fee to the state to obtain the concealed weapons permit. The class starts at noon and has a limit of 200 people.
Participants do not need to own a firearm, but if they bring a weapon it must be unloaded.