A revised version of this work was published in The Berkshire View in March 2016. Below is the original copy, before a party or parties other than the author removed, added and altered content.
Philosophers say knowledge is power. In the formal world, the pursuit of knowledge is school. We trust the system, and we trust teachers equipped with this power to bestow it onto our children. Rudimentarily speaking, the notion is that school’s knowledge will empower the youth to survive.
These themes of power, trust and survival are challenged when a school is attacked. In modern America, this reoccurring tragedy has spawned national discussion and debate around defense, prevention, mental health and the Constitutional right to bear arms. A subset of debate reopens the philosophy of and poses an amendment to the educator’s role: where the teacher’s tool to empower is knowledge, does the teacher need and have a tool to protect?
That question was localized in the small town of Kent, Conn., Feb. 2, 2016. A month earlier, Town Selectman Jeff Parkin “shared a proposal for ‘FASTER Saves Lives’ … a two-part school safety program that is self-funded,” the minutes of a Jan. 5 meeting state. First Selectman Bruce Adams agreed to add the item to February’s agenda.
“For all I knew, it could’ve been to make fire trucks faster,” Adams recalled during an interview.
Such is not the case. FASTER Saves Lives is an Ohio-based non-profit sponsored by the Buckeye Firearms Foundation. The program has offered firearms safety and emergency response training to educators since 2013.
The initiative formed in response to the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting of December 2012, said Program Director Joe Eaton, where gunman Adam Lanza killed 20 children and six staff within five minutes in Newtown, Conn. The police call, dispatch, and arrival spanned in about the same time.
“Time in these events is the only thing that matters,” said Eaton. “The response time was as best as any school could do, and we lost 20 babies that day.”
So FASTER (long-form: Faculty / Administrator Safety Training & Emegency Response) resolved to action and drafted a plan. By spring, with the recruitment of area Police Lieutenant John Benner — “one of the first and foremost experts” — and other instructors, Eaton and his team launched their first class: 26 hours, or about three-and-a-half days, of handgun training and emergency medical drills.
“Within the first month, 1,000 [school staff volunteered] for training. We could only accommodate 24 at the time,” he said, adding that applicants are rejected if they’re not concealed carry-licensed and take an additional six-hour “primer course” for basic firearm skills if they’re inexperienced.
The course ran four sessions that year and in 2014, it expanded to include a second level for returning volunteers. Beyond that, as of 2015, the FASTER camp will go to participating schools for a weekend of integrated training in a district’s third year of enrollment. All program expenses — save for volunteer travel and meals — are paid for by donations, Eaton said, including $200,000 budgeted for 2016.
According to the director, “the medical part is huge” and each volunteer receives a “trauma kit” with $800 worth of emergency supplies and tools.
Despite this, Eaton said adversaries address only the topic of teachers with guns. “This isn’t about firearms, this is about doing everything you can to keep the kids safe.”
Selectman Parkin offered similar views when describing backlash that followed his proposal in Kent: the guns are overstated, the medical kits overlooked.
“The perception is that there’s going to be 30 or 40 teachers roaming the hallways with Uzis by their side,” he added. “If you walked into Kent Center School — if we adopted this program — or one of the schools in Ohio that adopted this program, you would have no idea.”
(An anecdote Eaton shared suggests that anonymity is not program-wide: Ohio’s Sidney City School District posts notice that it has armed staff for the protection of its students. Eaton said 63 out of 88 Ohio counties have participating schools; more from five outside states sum almost 500 staff volunteers altogether. So far, no educators have been brought to task against an active shooter, though in one case a stand-off led an armed student to concede, the director said.)
Discussion notwithstanding, adopting FASTER at Kent Center School (KCS) is not up to Parkin and the rest of the board. While a resolution went on to pass at the Board of Selectmen’s February meeting, these elected officials have no jurisdiction over the school. Rather, KCS is governed by its own Kent Board of Education (BOE).
In fact, Parkin’s resolution only requests that the Kent BOE “evaluate the ‘FASTER Saves Lives’ program,” according to meeting minutes. The selectman said he learned of FASTER while at a gun rights policy conference in Arizona.
The resolution passed 3-2, with Adams voting opposed. Adams and Selectman Michael Van Valkenburg are Democrats. Parkin, a Republican, was elected to his first term in November 2015; according to Adams, the state enforces a minority representation law among local government bodies.
The BOE, for its part, released a statement the same week denouncing the proposition.
The release, authored by Chairman Paul Cortese, states that the BOE “is not in support of bringing firearms into Kent Center School and should [the board], in the future, wish to consider such a proposal [it] will approach the issue thoughtfully, fully engaging the public, and being sure to follow both the law and best practices. The security of [the] school and students deserves no less.”
Still, observers have a lot to say. KCS parents Doug and Christine Branson were surprised by the news.
“I think that arming teachers is unnecessary,” Doug Branson said. “Proper measures have already been taken.”
According to First Selectman Adams, a former KCS teacher himself, a school security system is in place. “I can’t go over and walk in — I have to be buzzed in and identified.”
“Altogether, I think schools need to ramp up their security,” said Christine Branson. “I don’t think arming the teachers is necessarily a solution. I think it’s reactive, not proactive. Ramping up our mental health facilities would be another answer to this whole situation, where people are untreated and undiagnosed.”
Briana Johannesen, a school-based therapist in Aurora, Colo., attended elementary school in North Canaan, Conn., in the same regional school district as Kent.
“I think this is such a complicated issue and first of all disheartening that these discussions are often about fixing what is broken instead of prevention programs,” Johannesen said. “But that’s a bigger issue.”
“I totally get the idea that having teachers armed with guns can help in case there is a shooting,” she added. “And maybe kids who are planning a shooting will be scared away by that and not follow through with their plan. But if you think about it, arming teachers is just putting more guns in schools.”
“I think it’s a really risky plan and no matter how much training teachers and staff have, you are still creating much more access to weapons in the schools,” she said, citing high statistics of accidental deaths in homes with guns. The therapist offered intensive drills as an alternative.
KCS alumnus Chris Lynch offered support for the concept, implying that teachers — given their implied morality and intelligence — are very qualified to bear arms.
“You’re basically giving someone the loaded gun of knowledge,” Lynch said of society’s design of teachers. “If you’re qualified to do that, you should be qualified to carry a firearm in the school.”
“They’re not going to be the problem, is more or less what I’m trying to say,” he added.
Lynch opined that gun licensing is too lax, but that if anyone should be trusted with weapons, it should be teachers who have already undergone levels of vetting to do what they do. Armed defense is warranted, he argued, as gun control would not eliminate the exchange of illegal weapons in America.
The citizen said properly trained adults should be able to protect and conceal their weapons from students.
In Parkin’s vision, the guns would be locked away and secured on site, accessible only by those trained. The selectman said the school would be empowered to implement the program as it saw fit.
“The only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun,” Parkin added, claiming other methods are “unsalable.”
“We live in a different world — an event like Sandy Hook could happen in Kent, it could happen in Great Barrington,” the Massachusetts town where this newspaper is published, he said.
Walter “Buddy” Atwood III, former teacher, school committee member, selectboard chair and current resident in Great Barrington, indicated situations he felt would work with a program like FASTER — for example, if volunteering staff were retired military.
Atwood contended that when police enter a school amidst open fire, they are prone to get shot.
“If you had a teacher that could handle a gun, and was armed, they could most likely stop this,” he said. “Have them work with police.”
“It’s a hard sell to school committees, I know that,” Atwood said, nonetheless.
Indeed, Parkin echoed, the proposal in Kent is “kind of in limbo at the moment … based on the statement from the [BOE] chairman, they’re not going to review this, they’re not going to put it on the agenda.”
The selectman, whose own children went through the school, said his proposal comes from concern for KCS safety and referenced Newtown, where police response was as quick as could be.
Joseph Erardi, Newtown’s superintendent since 2014, said he does not support arming regular staff, but instead enlists at least two resource officers per district school.
The superintendent did note that Kent is “having a courageous conversation” and went on that an informed community engaged in ongoing discourse is the way to build the best safety and security plan.
“You never cross the finish line,” he said. “If they ever want me to come in and talk about what is best practice, I would love to have that conversation.”
In the meantime, Adams asserts that KCS is safe.
“It’s a very secure place and people should feel safe going to school and working there,” he said.
While the discussion in Kent may settle, the discussion in America continues. Hundreds of volunteers, Eaton attests, have taken it upon themselves to redefine what it means to be educators. Has “knowledge is power” expired, in terms of equipping our youth to survive? Perhaps this power, in the context of education, is skewed in a climate where classrooms become warzones. But how is that climate caused and is it our teachers’ role to protect?