published Sunday, January 13th, 2013

Greater Chattanooga area parents take on guns in schools

In this photo provided by the Newtown Bee, Connecticut State Police lead children from the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., following a reported shooting there Dec. 14, 2012.
In this photo provided by the Newtown Bee, Connecticut State Police lead children from the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., following a reported shooting there Dec. 14, 2012.
Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

WHAT THEY'RE SAYING

Residents across the Chattanooga region were asked how they would feel about proposals to arm teachers or other staff or have armed school resource officers or guards in schools. Here are their responses.

"I'm OK with a resource officer, but just to let anyone inside the school have a gun makes me nervous."

-- Annette Rojas, mother of two, teacher at Dalton's Brookwood Elementary

"That's really not [teachers'] job."

-- Savannah Woody, senior at Murray County High School

"[Teachers] shouldn't have that responsibility. Hire a patrolman, someone who's experienced with it. [Teachers] don't get paid to carry guns."

-- Delores Strecker, Savannah Woody's grandmother

"I think it's a really bad idea, because if kids get ahold of the [gun], they could shoot somebody."

-- Mariela Rojas, a fifth-grader at Brookwood Elementary School in Dalton

"It might be a good thing, but I want the teachers to be stable because we've got teachers that's not stable ... I think they should have training, and then I'd be OK with it."

-- Ann Nunley, mother of a Grundy County High School student

"I would be afraid older kids might could take down a teacher ... I'm totally against teachers with guns."

-- Trudy Fick, mother of preschooler at Sequatchie County's Griffith Elementary

"I'm not real crazy about the idea of the teachers carrying the weapons, but I think somebody should be there with a weapon, an officer, or you know somebody that's had training. I feel like if the students knew, then you know they could possibly take it away from the teacher."

-- Marsha Nunley, mother of a Grundy County High School student

"I am not for gun control. The people who shouldn't have them will have them anyway. Anytime you have any kind of weapons, you should have to have it locked up, though. The problem is, anytime you have a gun on you, it has to be loaded, and with children, it's unsafe. We've got a really troubled society and these kids are troubled. If people can be in communities where people are really taking a stand and working to stabilize the families, I think we won't need guns in schools."

-- Sandy Culbertson, East Lake grandmother

"I don't like the idea of every teacher, but someone that was in the school I'd be OK with. Just because you go through training doesn't mean you're a good shooter. But definitely someone appropriately trained but not someone apparent."

-- Melissa Bradham, mother of two Normal Park Museum Magnet School students

"We've had crazy things happen. Some small child's going to think it's a toy and point it at somebody. Who's to say that these teachers aren't on pills that are going to make them flip out? But there should at least be metal detectors in all schools. Anybody could just walk in."

-- Renee Fults, mother of student at Grundy County's North Elementary School

"I think they should have a police officer. Who's to say a teacher's not going to psych out? I think they need to do a lot of screening. An officer would be the best one. Of course, Altamont and Grundy County's not a big city, but who's to say it's not going to happen here?"

-- Melissa Fults, mother of two students at Grundy County's North Elementary School

"I'm all for it. I have a handgun permit, I carry mine. I'm very careful with it, and I think that if they had the training that would be great because they don't jump on the people they know has a gun. You notice it's always kindergartens or someplace out in public where they think nobody's got a gun. There's been several times where if somebody had a gun, they would have saved a whole lot of lives. So I'm all for it if they're trained."

-- Violet Norris, grandmother of three students at McMinville Elementary

"I'm all for it, too. I mean, I think they should have an officer on the premises at all times, you know someone that is trained or whatever. I'm not all for all the teachers having one, but I am for an armed guard."

-- Kim Pickett, mother of two students at Grundy County's North Elementary School

"I don't think teachers should carry guns, but armed guards would be fine."

-- Kristi Byeres, mother of two students at Grundy County's Coalmont Elementary School

"I'm kind of debating that. I definitely would want them to have training. We have two armed officers at Grundy County High School. I definitely think they need that at every school. I can see the good and the bad side of it, though."

-- Sherri Nance, mother of students at Grundy County High School and Swiss Elementary

"I'd like to see more security. I don't think just anybody should walk in. But a gun would be way more peace of mind."

-- Carrie Garrison, mother of three, two of whom attend Tracy Elementary

"They really need to lock it down to where they don't have as many entrances into the school and you can have an armed guard at one entrance to check people when they come in. That's what it's coming to at every school. I think it would be safer."

-- Matthew Meeks, father of three kids, who attend Swiss Memorial Elementary School and Grundy County High School

"I don't think that would solve anything. I don't think that's getting to the root of the problem. I think school counselors can be very powerful tools for [troubled] children. I believe in counseling -- even more so than [psychiatric] drugs.""

-- Jennifer Purser, 24, of Calhoun, Ga.

— Compiled by staff writers Kevin Hardy, Tim Omarzu and Lindsay Burkholder

A rush to find solutions and prevent another Sandy Hook Elementary School has marked the days and weeks since the massacre.

Pass gun control. Arm teachers. Ban assault weapons. Put a gun in every school.

The president, the NRA, lawmakers and educators have all weighed in.

Now some of the people closest to the issue across the Chattanooga region -- parents and students -- are weighing in on the recommendations with strong yet divided opinions on how best to ensure the safety of our children.

Especially when it comes to giving teachers guns.

"If she's doing it for protective reasons, I don't see a problem with it," said Sheila DeMotta, who has one child at Grundy County Academy. "If she's got a license to carry, more power to her. I'd rather have my child protected."

"I would not give an already stressed-out teacher a gun," said Chattanoogan Stephanie Combs, who has a 1-year-old son. "Teachers already aren't paid enough. Guns in schools are just bad. Period."

Many parents suggested other security upgrades for schools -- like adding more armed officers and restricted access for visitors -- whether in addition to or instead of teachers carrying guns.

But some administrators and security experts think parents may not be considering the full scope of danger to our schools. A lone madman or an outcast teenager with a gun may be the least of our worries.

Massacres on school and college campuses in Newtown, Conn., Virginia Tech and Columbine became notorious in the United States as innocents were senselessly slain.

As tragic as those killings were, this country has yet to experience the horror of a large-scale terrorist attack on a school, which some believe is the real nightmare scenario that school officials should worry about.

As far back as the 1960s, terrorists have attacked school buses in Israel with land mines and rockets. In more recent years, students in Afghanistan, Thailand, Iraq and Norway have been injured or killed by guns, bombs and gas and poison attacks.

The single most deadly school attack occurred in 2004 in Beslan, Russia, where 334 people -- more than half of them children -- died at the hands of terrorists.

Some believe such a catastrophe in America could be this nation's next 9/11.

"They will hit us like this," said John Miller, a California security consultant and advocate for arming teachers.

Miller, a former deputy sheriff, wants all classrooms equipped with handguns in biometric safes that only trained teachers can access. His group, Arm the Teachers, believes that requiring intensive training and locking the guns behind a fingerprint scan that sets off silent alarms when opened is much safer than letting teachers keep guns on their persons, in purses or in desk drawers.

Miller believes such a plan could have saved at least some lives in Newtown.

And in the case of a terrorist attack, he said, teachers in multiple classrooms with access to guns would prove far more effective than one or two armed guards or officers.

Dade County, Ga., Superintendent Shawn Tobin said the county's 911 center is connected to school radios so law enforcement can hear what's happening at schools in an emergency. And he hopes soon to upgrade video surveillance systems to have the same capability.

He has researched the Beslan massacre and believes schools can prepare for a terrorist attack -- however unlikely that might be -- through such safety measures.

"I'm not saying it's going to happen here," Tobin said. "I'm saying it may happen in the United States of America and we should think about it."

•••

In Altamont, Tenn., a town with no stop lights or chain restaurants, parents in favor of arming teachers want them to have plenty of training.

And some citizens are wary of armed teachers who may overreact or "lose it" at school.

"Who's to say a teacher's not going to psych out?" said Melissa Fults, who has two children at Grundy County's North Elementary School.

Like many parents interviewed, Fults said she would prefer that a guard or officer be the one to carry a gun in school.

Hunter Stoker knows the criticism of arming teachers, but the Grundy County High senior trusts that his teachers would be responsible with weapons in school. An armed staff, he said, would have at least some level of protection against a school shooting attempt.

Otherwise, he said, he would "feel powerless in that situation."

More than 100 miles away in Calhoun, Ga., a pair of grandparents think there are still too many unanswered questions.

Though she has her own concealed carry permit, Peggy House doesn't like the idea of giving teachers guns. House, owner of Huckabee Bonding Co., thinks officials would have to set a high bar of training and psychological screening before allowing it.

Her husband, Robert, thinks teachers' guns could too easily find their way into students' hands.

"I think there's too many young boys that could take them away from them," he said.

On Signal Mountain, one of Chattanooga's most prosperous suburbs, one mother thinks security is already too lax. She says arming teachers may be a good step toward more protection.

"If they're trained to use the weapon, I think that's fine," said Jean Reifinger, who has three children from elementary age to college. "I wouldn't want them holstering it in class. That's probably a little bit too alarming for children. But if it's in their room or it's concealed, that would be fine."

When her family moved to Signal from Southern California two years ago, Reifinger said she was surprised by the lack of security at schools. She found the car pickup procedure alarmingly relaxed and was disturbed that anyone can seemingly walk right into a school building.

"I think that everybody wants to believe they live in a very safe town," she said. "Sometimes it's kind of a bubble effect."

•••

Of dozens of parents interviewed for this story, few had qualms with the presence of guards or school resource officers. That, too, has been a common prescription in the wake of Sandy Hook. The National Rifle Association even called for an armed officer in every American school.

Tracy Pourfrazib isn't keen on teachers carrying weapons. But she likes the idea of having a law enforcement officer at her two children's school, North Hamilton County Elementary. It could even help with other social issues like bullying, she said.

"Start young and maybe there won't be so many problems as they get older," she said

Though Hamilton County commissioners have approved funding up to 25 school resource officers, the sheriff's office has only 16 officers in local middle and high schools, with two overseeing them. Four other officers are provided by municipal police forces. The sheriff has blamed the recession for forcing him to move SRO funds into other operations.

Hamilton County currently has no officers in elementary schools. That's something local parents would like to see changed, said Scottie Goodman Summerlin, vice president of communications for the Hamilton County Council of Parent-Teacher Associations.

She said the organization, a collection of dozens of PTAs, would like to see county, school and law enforcement officials work together to put an SRO in every school.

"It would ease a lot of parents' minds to know there was a police officer or a sheriff's deputy in their child's school," she said.

SROs have proven effective against school attacks in this part of the country.

In 2010, a school resource officer at Blountville's Sullivan Central High School helped stave off an attack from a man who entered the school and pointed his gun at the principal. The officer and other deputies shot and killed the intruder.

"It could have been really bad," said Sullivan Central Principal Mark Foster.

Foster, who wasn't working at the school at the time, said the incident greatly affected the attitudes that students and staff members hold toward safety and their SRO.

Members of this year's senior class were freshmen when the armed intrusion took place, so next year no students there will have a firsthand memory of the 2010 event.

But Foster says drills at Central High are taken much more seriously nowadays.

Staff writers Tim Omarzu and Lindsay Burkholder contributed to this report.

about Kevin Hardy...

Kevin rejoined the Times Free Press in August 2011 as the Southeast Tennessee K-12 education reporter. He worked as an intern in 2009, covering the communities of Signal Mountain, Red Bank, Collegedale and Lookout Mountain, Tenn. A native Kansan, Kevin graduated with bachelor's degrees in journalism and sociology from the University of Kansas. After graduating, he worked as an education reporter in Hutchinson, Kan., for a year before coming back to Chattanooga. Honors include a ...

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