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Gazette Premium Content Area educators cautious, but willing to discuss arming staff

GARRISON WELLS Updated: January 18, 2013 at 12:00 am

Not everyone agrees with El Paso County Sheriff Terry Maketa’s support for arming school personnel.

But just about everybody is willing to listen.

Kevin Vick, president of the Colorado Springs Education Association, said that while nationally and statewide his parent organizations have come out against arming teachers, “here, we’re still reviewing it.”

“We’re still waiting to hear details and things like that, and we’re open to discussion,” he said.

Maketa has offered to help train and waive the concealed weapon permit fee for districts that decide that arming school employees is the path they want to take to protect students in the wake of the December shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn.

Maketa is not alone. There is a bill in the state legislature that would give school boards the right to make their own decisions on concealed weapons and Gov. John Hickenlooper has said he is open to the idea.

A survey by Public Policy Polling shows the public leans the other way.

That poll showed that 50 percent of voters oppose the NRA’s proposal to put armed police officers in schools while 41 percent support it. And 64 percent of those polled were against arming educators, while 27 percent supported it. The remainder were undecided.

And though willing to listen, the education association has concerns, such as the unpredictability of a classroom setting.

“There are too many unanticipated events in a teacher’s day to completely guarantee that a weapon could be safe in their environment,” Vick said. “The idea of the best laid plans, you know, that kind-of typifies a teacher’s day.”

Students, he added, may be stressed to know teachers are armed.

“We want to guard against having the kids feel like they are in a permanent sense of lockdown,” Vick said. “We want to make sure that kids don’t feel like they are in prison instead of school.”

There’s also the concern, brought up by the National Association of School Resource Officers, that police responding to a call to a school where several people are armed might find it confusing to distinguish defenders from assailants.

“It could actually delay them in doing their work,” Vick said.

“As tragic as these shootings are, it would be equally tragic to have an accidental shooting in a classroom because of this sort of policy,” he said.

Training is the answer, said Jeff Kramer, spokesman for the sheriff’s office.

“It really does fall back to training,” he said.

For instance, when deputies respond to a call where a school has armed employees, there is a specific procedure both deputies and personnel will use when deputies arrive, he said. Kramer said each plan would be tailored to the school’s needs.

“Training would make sure there is a high level of understanding to what those expectations might be for the armed staff members,” Kramer said.

Training would also resolve the concern of an unpredictable environment, he said.

“Let’s face it, in any scenario we can dream up, there are endless number of variables,” Kramer said. “It just comes down to a very common sense approach to training, a good foundation to address concerns that folks would have and you move forward from there.”

And since weapons are concealed, they would not be visible to students, Kramer said.

“It’s something that is done discreetly,” he said. “It’s concealed carry. I would hope because it’s in that fashion the kids would never know.”

Kramer added that if funding were to become available for more staff and equipment, they would be open to staffing schools with deputies.

“If it becomes available, of course that’s an option that should be considered,” he said. “It’s certainly worth discussion.”

Either way, Maketa said he doesn’t want to send a perception that he believes every teacher or school employee should be armed.

“There are people who do not feel comfortable with weapons,” he said. “But those who are willing, and this is entirely the school district’s choice, could be assembled, trained and equipped to act as a security team, a response as a security agent of the school or my office.”

So far, a key piece of his offer, the county’s system for concealed weapons permits is working, he said. Last year, there were 6,784 permits issued; eight were revoked. In 2011, there were 4,514 concealed weapons permits issued and nine were revoked.

“Those odds are pretty good,” Maketa said. “And I think you’d see the same responsibility for people who work in schools.”

As it is, Maketa said his force is spread thin, especially when it comes to the potential of violence in schools. There are 43 elementary and middle schools in unincorporated El Paso County, he said.

“It’s unrealistic that law enforcement is going to be able to cover every school,” he said. “Right now I think schools are just so susceptible to violence. What we are trying to do here is to create a deterrent to reduce the fear of crime, whether it’s one person in a school that is carrying or 50, to make it well known by a person who wants to cause harm so they know someone is in there.”

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