DENVER – As lawmakers across the country debate arming teachers and administrators to prevent another deadly school shooting, one Colorado school district has voted to let its superintendent and a high school principaal carry concealed semi-automatic pistols on campus – a move some say sidesteps laws meant to keep schools gun-free.
The seven-member school board in southwestern Colorado’s rural Dolores County voted unanimously in February to allow Ty Gray, principal of Dove Creek High School, and Superintendent Bruce Hankins to double as security officers, who under state law are allowed to carry guns on elementary, middle and high school campuses.
Hankins and Gray – both lifelong hunters – will receive an additional $1 per year for the extra responsibility after completing a concealed-carry course and receiving permits from the county sheriff before they can carry a gun on school grounds.
“We won’t live our lives in fear, but we realize the world we live in today and need to do everything in our power to keep kids safe,” Hankins told The Cortez Journal after the vote.
“If somebody comes into the building making threats or shooting, I’m not going to hide behind my desk. I’d prefer to have more than a chair [as a weapon].”
The superintendent of District RE-2J, which serves about 275 students, declined an Associated Press request to be interviewed by phone or in person, though he did respond to emailed questions.
“In most school shootings, they are over in just a few minutes,” Hankins wrote. “We will have immediate response capability.”
In New Jersey, Passaic Valley High School’s board of education voted unanimously last month to allow the school’s principal, a retired police sergeant, to carry a concealed weapon during the school day.
Before becoming principal, Ray Rotella spent four years as the school’s safety officer and carried a gun.
Rotella said the board proposed the idea for him to carry a concealed weapon.
He said he is licensed to carry one in the state of New Jersey and would have no problem doing so in school.
“It’s a unique situation. I’m not advocating administrators carry weapons,” Rotella said last month. “You don’t just give a gun to someone even with a little training. You’re talking about someone who was in law enforcement. I was a firearms instructor.”
In Colorado’s rural Dolores County, the Feb. 6 school board resolution argued that because of an average police response time of 40 minutes – and a limited budget – “it is necessary to rely upon existing staff to fulfill the function of the needed security personnel.”
Authorities say in the spring of 2009, a 16-year-old student plotted to kill Dove Creek High School’s principal, then ambush the county sheriff, take his weapon and continue shooting. Sheriff’s deputies recovered seven rifles, including .22-caliber weapons, shotguns and an M1 carbine, at the boy’s Dove Creek home, and three more weapons when the teen and a 19-year-old friend were arrested in New Mexico.
Authorities made the arrests after one of the teens told his family about the plot, which was delayed because the school was on spring break. The 19-year-old was not charged, and the district attorney’s office does not release information on cases involving juveniles.
“They had stolen the guns and it just happened that the day they planned we were not in session. So, it is real to our community,” Hankins said.
But some say the school board’s decision is merely a semantic argument that skirts state laws prohibiting guns at schools.
“I think it really does subvert the intention of the law, and I don’t think that is ever a good thing,” said Laura Cutilletta, a senior staff attorney for the San Francisco-based Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. “I think, unfortunately, this would probably make them less safe by introducing a gun into school.”
Cutilletta added that school administrators already are “swamped” by their primary duties and don’t have the experience of a security guard or a police officer.
“They’re not used to being in that type of stressful situation, not the type of stress that a police officer faces,” she said. “The likelihood of causing more death and injury is through the roof. Even police officers have a hard time hitting the target during a stressful situation, so how can we expect a superintendent or principal to do it?”
The school board’s resolution theoretically could allow any employee with an extra-duty security officer contract to bring a gun to school. It came a little more than a week after a Colorado Senate committee rejected a guns-in-schools bill that would have allowed local districts to decide whether their employees could carry concealed weapons on campus.
The decision, strongly backed by the National Rifle Association, is part of a larger debate sparked by the mass shootings in an Aurora, Colo., movie theater and at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.
Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper signed several bills into law last week, including requiring background checks for private and online gun sales and banning ammunition magazines that hold more than 15 rounds.
Figures compiled by the National Conference of State Legislatures indicate that most states ban guns on campus, unless they are carried by peace officers, security guards or by employees who have written permission from the schools superintendent.
But since the Sandy Hook shooting, lawmakers in almost two dozen states have introduced legislation that would make it easier for school employees or volunteers to carry guns on campus.
South Dakota’s Republican governor, Dennis Daugaard, signed a bill March 8 allowing districts to permit teachers and other personnel to serve as “sentinels” and carry firearms on campus. The law takes effect July 1.
Legislatures in a handful of other states, including Georgia, New Hampshire and Kansas, are working on measures similar to South Dakota’s.