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More than 150 Utah teachers and school workers took time off from their winter breaks Thursday to attend a free class on how to carry concealed weapons and respond to mass violence such as the recent shooting in a Connecticut elementary school.
It's a course that's been offered to Utah educators for more than a decade, but Thursday it attracted about 10 times as many people as usual, said Clark Aposhian, an instructor with Fairwarning Training and a chairman of the Utah Shooting Sports Council, which hosted the class with OPSGEAR. Aposhian said organizers had to turn away about 40 or 50 people for lack of space.
He credited the course's sudden popularity to increased media attention on the class and its timing, coming just weeks after a gunman's massacre at a Newtown, Conn., elementary school killed 20 children and six adults.
Aposhian said parents and school employees in Utah and across the nation felt "utterly helpless" when they saw the tragedy that unfolded in Newtown.
"We want to give school employees one more option to protect themselves and their students," Aposhian said of the class, which went over the basics of responding to an attack, carrying concealed weapons and applying for concealed weapon permits.
"You're never going to get all the mentally and criminally insane people off the streets, and you're never going to be able to disarm all the criminals, so logically what do you do?"
Utah is one of two states that already allows concealed weapons permit holders to carry firearms on school grounds. The other state is Kansas.
The class came about a week after the National Rifle Association called for armed police officers in every school, and at least one Utah lawmaker, Rep. Curt Oda, R-Clearfield, asserted that more armed teachers would make classrooms safer.
Those positions have garnered much controversy in Utah and across the country. The nation's two largest teachers unions, the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association, have said that arming educators won't improve school safety and that "guns have no place in our schools." The groups have instead called for a renewed focus on bullying prevention, mental health services and gun control.
But educators who packed a conference room at the Maverik Center on Thursday had a decidedly different view.
"When you are in a building full of kids all day anything can happen," said Kelli Stebbins, a technology teacher at East Midvale Elementary. She said it's not realistic to think that a attack like the one in Connecticut couldn't happen here.
"It can happen, and it will happen, and I'd rather be on the prepared side than the not-prepared side," Stebbins said.
Richard Summers, a sixth-grade teacher at Copper Hills Elementary in Magna, said after the shooting some of his students asked him what he would have done in that situation. He said he would have given his life to help them. Several of those who died in Connecticut were educators protecting their students.
"Certainly the incident in Connecticut," Summers said, "makes us want to be aware and know what to do."
Rachel Bateman, a fourth-grade teacher at Early Light Academy in South Jordan, said she also attended the class because she wanted to be prepared. Part of the course included instruction in awareness and other ways to respond to classroom attacks, such as gouging an attacker's eyes, choking an attacker and how to hide.
Bateman said she hadn't yet decided Thursday whether she would want to carry a gun in the classroom.
"I want to be able to protect my kids, my students, and people in the building, but on the other hand, different variables come with concealing a weapon," Bateman said, noting she might be worried, for example, that a student would feel a gun while hugging her.
Teachers weren't the only ones to take advantage of the free class Thursday. Administrators, bus drivers, secretaries and others were also among those taking notes.
"If anything were to happen, I've got a large responsibility," said Scott Huntington, a custodian at Shelley Elementary in American Fork. "I don't have just a single classroom. I've got the whole school to think about."
Alpine School District bus driver Greg Lewis said he's always wanted a permit, and he'd likely carry a gun on his bus if district policy allows it.
And Julie Wootan, a front office receptionist at Paradigm High in South Jordan, said she's also been wanting a permit for a while and the events of this month encouraged her to finally get it.
"We're the first place where they would walk by," Wootan said of her position in the front office. She said school employees should always be allowed to protect those around them.
Those who led the course Thursday emphasized that whether those in attendance pursued concealed carry permits or not, just by attending they were becoming more aware of how to protect themselves.
"This is definitely a message that you in the education program are definitely sending to not only our legislature, to our local government, but to all those around the states," Bill Pedersen, a board member with the Utah Shooting Sports Council, told those in attendance.
Aposhian said the class will likely be offered again during the next school break.