Hamilton County sheriff, school superintendent consider arming teachers

Tennessee state legislation also would allow some educators to carry firearms

Hamilton County Schools Superintendent Dr. Bryan Johnson speaks about plans for progress over the next several years during an editorial board meeting at the Chattanooga Times Free Press on Tuesday, Jan. 23, 2018, in Chattanooga.

Hamilton County's sheriff and school superintendent have discussed the possibility of arming teachers in county schools.

"We're all looking for resources and ideas for the best way to protect Hamilton County," Sheriff Jim Hammond said. The "least expensive of all the choices," Hammond said, would be to ask faculty members who are familiar with guns to carry on campuses.

These teachers would serve "only as a stopgap measure to keep the shooter at bay until the police arrive," he said.

The local conversation about how to ensure schools are safe and whether teachers should be armed has taken off in light of the shooting at a Florida high school earlier this month and a situation in which a teacher barricaded himself inside a classroom with a gun in Dalton, Ga., on Wednesday.

photo Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Hammond speaks during a legislative breakfast Thursday, Jan. 4, 2018 at the Doubletree Hotel in Chattanooga, Tenn. Hammond addressed several issues including impact fees, felony charges, criminal summons law and more.

In addition to meeting with Superintendent Bryan Johnson, Hammond has met with Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger, county commissioners and Chattanooga City Council members in recent weeks about school safety. County school board Chairman Steve Highlander confirmed the school district is considering allowing some teachers to carry weapons to school, in addition to other increased security measures such as facilities improvements and a new visitor identification check-in system launching March 5 at all Hamilton County public schools.

"Since the tragedy in Florida, we have worked closely with law officials to ensure we are prepared for any unfortunate situation that may arise," Johnson said in a statement.

The superintendent said schools officials also are reviewing legislation in the Tennessee General Assembly that would allow school districts to designate teachers trained by private firms to carry firearms. A Tennessee House panel approved that bill Wednesday, but many educators feel such a proposal would be inappropriate.

"The measure to arm teachers is almost like giving up, it's saying, 'This is our reality and there's nothing we can do about it,'" said Jaime Peterson, educational assistant at Brainerd High School. "We bypass so many other options and so many other steps. This is a discussion that was made almost completely without teacher voice ... Lawmakers aren't reaching out to teachers and principals and SROs and asking us what we want to keep us safe."

The bill passed the Civil Justice Subcommittee in a 5-2 vote despite objections from parents, teachers, a gun-reform group and officials from Gov. Bill Haslam's administration who warned it might backfire.

Longtime school board member Rhonda Thurman, of District 1, she said she supports the idea in Hamilton County.

"I've been advocating for that for years," she said. "We need someone in the schoolhouse. ... Every school has very responsible teachers and it would be on a volunteer basis and there would be rigorous training."

The incident on Wednesday in which Randal Davidson, a teacher at Dalton High School, allegedly barricaded himself in a classroom and fired a handgun through a window has encouraged many of the counterarguments against teachers packing heat.

"That tells you right there we don't need to arm teachers in the schools," Hammond said, an opinion counter to the conversations he has had with school district officials.

Many educators agree.

"I think the biggest issue in solving this problem with guns is a very reactive position; there are so many areas that need to be addressed," said Shelley Higgins, a middle school teacher in Cleveland. "I find it ironic that all of a sudden we'll have money for guns but not for school resource officers, school counselors, smaller class sizes."

A national social media campaign, #ArmMeWith, took off after President Donald Trump's comments following the Parkland, Fla., shooting that left 17 dead on Valentine's Day.

"I rather be armed with more opportunities for my kids to gain knowledge," said Kendra Harris, a sixth-grade social studies teacher at East Lake Academy. "I am a supporter of kids being safe and I want them to be safe. ... Parents send them to school alive, and they want them to come home, and I want to send them back home the way they came, except for with more knowledge."

Harris called for more school counselors, psychologists and other social services in schools to address the problems that lead to school shootings.

Hamilton County Schools now have 96 counselors and 41 psychologists shared between 79 schools.

"The resources that would be allocated to arming teachers could definitely be better used to fund education," said Tad Russell, a teacher at Soddy-Daisy Middle School. "If you say, 'Mr. Russell, you have $1,000 and would you use a handgun and a shooting class or laptops?' - I would choose laptops."

"I think the solution is to kind of front load what we're doing, things like making sure students don't slip through the cracks, making sure our buildings are secure yet inviting places ... those things we can do to prevent these tragedies," he added.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. David Byrd, R-Waynesboro, allows school boards and school directors authority to let designated staff carry concealed firearms at school. It's a dramatic expansion of a bill he passed last year that impacted only two counties - Wayne and Pickett - and required staffers to undergo state Peace Officer Standards Training Commission training standards, which law enforcement uses.

Byrd said the legislation is intended to help rural counties that can't afford to hire school resource officers. Hamilton County has 31 SROs in 29 schools.

"Here's my concern. When we have an SRO in [29] schools, I think our elementary schools are primarily not covered," said House Civil Justice Subcommittee chairman Mike Carter, R-Ooltewah.

Terry Ashe, executive director of the Tennessee Sheriffs Association, told Carter there is interest in increasing the number of SROs in Hamilton County.

"Chattanooga's one of those very unique large cities that maybe could do a little better," Ashe said. "I've heard from the sheriff there last night who said he's been contacted by the city and there's a willingness to maybe help him fund some more."

State lawmakers also unveiled a bill Wednesday that would divert a portion of civil-asset forfeiture funds to help pay for more off-duty officers to work as school resource officers. The proposed School Safety Act of 2018 would provide funding for two more officers per school.

Mac Hardy, director of operations for the National Association of School Resource Officers, said giving guns to teachers is a heavy burden to put on educators.

"We want teachers to be able to teach. That's a very hard task for that teacher to concentrate on and to add the extra burden and the extra stress in being asked to carry a concealed weapon ... that should be left to a properly selected, specially trained sworn law enforcement officer," Hardy said.

Community members, teacher unions, parents, students and national school safety experts have all also weighed in on the conversation.

"Wearing a gun and thinking about using that gun has to be your top priority when you put it on," said Bill Bond, school safety specialist for the National Association of Secondary School Principals. "I honestly believe more kids would be killed accidentally than their lives saved."

Local activists with the group Chattanooga Moms for Social Justice, who organized a roundtable of concerned parents and community members Monday, are also adamant that arming teachers is not the answer.

"As parents, we feel that it is completely counterintuitive to our schools being a safe haven," said Taylor Lyons, community outreach director for the organization. "The irony does not escape me that we are having this conversation on the very same day that shots were fired at a local school from the hands of a teacher [who] is in custody."

Many affected by that teacher's action at Dalton High felt the same way.

"It's a bad idea. After the experiences I've had today, I'm very against anything that goes for that," said Andrea Magana, a freshman at Dalton High School. "It's not in their profession, their only requirement is to teach children and educate children. They shouldn't be in charge of carrying a gun."

Hamilton County Schools will continue to consult with the sheriff's department and area public safety officials, Johnson said.

Staff writers Judy Walton and Andy Sher contributed to this story.

Contact staff writer Meghan Mangrum at mmangrum@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6592. Follow her on Twitter @memangrum.