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Pistol-Packing Teachers Becoming More Common in Arkansas


Coach Dale Cresswell is one of a handful of teachers across the state of Arkansas who have begun arming themselves, in Heber Springs, Ark., Dec. 11, 2018 (T.Krug/VOA News)

Dale Cresswell keeps his gun on his hip at all times: in his classroom, at sporting events, whenever he's at school.

Cresswell, head coach to the senior boys' track and cross-country teams, is one of a small, but growing group of teachers around the United States who are volunteering to carry a weapon. His employer, Heber Springs School District, just came online this semester.

"It was a no-brainer. I have a daughter still in school," said Cresswell of his decision, acknowledging that he might know any potential shooter. "I see it as, I'm protecting more than one person. I'm protecting all the other students."

Tests and training

In order to qualify, Cresswell and other faculty — including administrators and IT professionals who can move around more easily — underwent background checks and psychological tests. Each receive about 60 hours of training and goes through additional training three times a year.

"I know that last summer there was a big movement here. We were fortunate that we had made the decision early, and we were able to secure trainers and get our time slot locked in," said Heber Springs School District Superintendent Alan Stauffacher, noting that some other schools are "struggling" to get set up.

A semester in, the novelty of Cresswell carrying a weapon has worn off. He said that when asked, the students tell him they don't even notice his gun anymore.

FILE - A makeshift memorial with crosses for the victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting massacre stands outside a home in Newtown, Conn., on the one-year anniversary of the shootings, Dec. 14, 2013.
FILE - A makeshift memorial with crosses for the victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting massacre stands outside a home in Newtown, Conn., on the one-year anniversary of the shootings, Dec. 14, 2013.

Sandy Hook

While there appears to have been no law prohibiting it, guns were rarely carried by teachers in Arkansas schools before a 20-year-old gunman killed 20 young children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in the northeastern U.S. state of Connecticut in 2012.

That incident prompted David Hopkins, superintendent of the Clarksville Public Schools in Clarksville, Arkansas, to begin searching for more effective ways to protect his students.

"It was just so terrible. Something like that, it makes you really pause," Hopkins said. "I started getting calls from parents and grandparents asking, ‘What are you doing to protect our kids?'"

At that time, Hopkins wondered whether what he had in mind — arming faculty across each school in the district — was even legal. Since then, he has counseled other Arkansan schools as they follow suit.

"It's not like we want to be cowboys, but if you stop and think about the reality of someone coming into your business or your school, don't you want to be prepared?" he asked.

Hopkins said the local school board was enthusiastic and he didn't receive any notable pushback at the time. Cathy Koehler, president of the Arkansas Education Association, said that she knew of a few teachers who were uncomfortable with the decision to arm faculty. She noted that it's easier to speak in opposition to this policy in some parts of the state, but not in others.

"There's so many issues that educators have to address, so they have to balance, 'Is this the issue where I want to plant my flag?'" she said.

About 7,000 pairs of shoes, one for every child killed by gun violence since the Sandy Hook school shooting, were placed on the Capitol lawn by Avaaz, a U.S.-based civic organization, on Capitol Hill in Washington, March 13, 2018.
About 7,000 pairs of shoes, one for every child killed by gun violence since the Sandy Hook school shooting, were placed on the Capitol lawn by Avaaz, a U.S.-based civic organization, on Capitol Hill in Washington, March 13, 2018.

Protecting schools, students

Protecting schools from future shootings has increasingly occupied administrators and lawmakers' time. Just this year, 113 people were killed or injured in school shootings in the U.S.

After the Parkland, Florida, school shooting in February, Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson tasked a committee with studying how to prevent future school shootings.

Their report, released earlier this month, stressed that individual schools need to make decisions for themselves, but recommended that "no campus should ever be without an armed presence when staff and children are attending class or a major extracurricular activity."

A study published by Vice News in March found that at least 14 of the 50 states arm teachers and another 16 allow local school boards to decide on the issue.

Many Arkansan schools have begun arming faculty in hopes of preventing a future school shooting. Coach Dale Cresswell stands outside a Heber Springs, Ark., school, Dec. 11, 2018 (T.Krug/VOA News)
Many Arkansan schools have begun arming faculty in hopes of preventing a future school shooting. Coach Dale Cresswell stands outside a Heber Springs, Ark., school, Dec. 11, 2018 (T.Krug/VOA News)

But while Cresswell and Hopkins believe arming teachers serves as a deterrent for gun violence, not everyone agrees.

Following the Safety Commission report, Moms Demand Action stated that "putting guns in the hands of teachers is not the answer..." and that "research indicates that arming teachers will make children less safe."

"As a general rule, I don't think anyone believes that it is preventative. I think that most thoughtful individuals know that if a person sets out to do harm to themselves or someone else, they're not gonna stop and think ‘Oh, there might be someone armed,'" said Cathy Koehler, president of the Arkansas Education Association.

Koehler stopped short of saying that faculty shouldn't be armed, recognizing that it can take 20 minutes for police in some rural counties to respond to a situation. She stressed that schools should gain community buy-in, which superintendents in both Clarksville and Heber Springs said they did.

"Our preference is always going to be that the investment is made in the mental health services that are so desperately needed and are underfunded," Koehler said.

Westside Consolidated School District Superintendent Scott Gauntt demonstrates how to apply a U-lock bolt, which is standard in every classroom, Dec. 4, 2018. The school in Jonesboro, Ark., was the scene of a deadly school shooting in 1998. (T.Krug/VOA Ne
Westside Consolidated School District Superintendent Scott Gauntt demonstrates how to apply a U-lock bolt, which is standard in every classroom, Dec. 4, 2018. The school in Jonesboro, Ark., was the scene of a deadly school shooting in 1998. (T.Krug/VOA Ne

Scott Gauntt, a member of the Safety Commission and superintendent of Westside Consolidated School District, said he has received no pressure to arm teachers.

Westside was the site of a deadly shooting 20 years ago, so it is often invoked in conversations about school safety. Like other superintendents interviewed, Gauntt takes his role as protector of students very seriously.

"Just about every time we hear of another shooting, we look at how that took place. How would we have combated that? Could we fix that?" Gauntt asked.

Over the years, the school has installed dozens of surveillance cameras and stronger classroom locks. Teachers undergo survival training to apply a tourniquet, for example, in order to prevent kids from bleeding out from bullet wounds. Students as young as those in elementary school are taught to be a "partner in [their] own survival." Instead of hiding quietly under their desks, they are now taught to make loud noises and throw things.

"It's mind boggling that I've gotta go down and tell a kindergartener that if a man comes in and tries to shoot you, that you need to run around and scream," Gauntt said. "That's not why I got into education."

When it comes to arming teachers inside the classroom, he's reluctant to take a hard stance but admits that he worries about guns getting loose.

The legacy of the 1998 school shooting in Jonesboro, in northeast Arkansas, has contributed to stricter security. Photo taken Dec. 4, 2018 (T.Krug/VOA News)
The legacy of the 1998 school shooting in Jonesboro, in northeast Arkansas, has contributed to stricter security. Photo taken Dec. 4, 2018 (T.Krug/VOA News)

Ultimately, most parties agree that despite all precautions, a motivated shooter will find a way to do harm.

"School safety is an illusion," Gauntt said.

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