CINCINNATI — Teachers could be carrying guns in an Ohio school near you, and there may be no way for you or first responders to know it.
There’s no state law that requires a school board to go public with its plans to arm school faculty, which often leaves parents — and occasionally local law enforcement agencies — in the dark.
“I just can’t imagine local law enforcement responding to a threat in a school, walking into a building and not knowing if the person standing in the hallway with a gun is a first-grade teacher or an angry gunman,” said Ken Trump, a national school security consultant based out of Cleveland.
School boards must give certain employees approval before they carry guns. Those employees must have a valid concealed carry weapons permit. Otherwise, weapons are generally banned from school grounds.
While people have been talking about arming school employees for decades, the school safety measure is new frontier nationwide. There is little mention of armed teachers in the Ohio Revised Code, and several legislative proposals that sought to regulate or clarify the law have not passed.
The debate came back into the spotlight after a school shooting last week at Madison High School left four students injured and the 14-year-old male suspect facing felony charges. Supporters say it’s critical to have armed school employees ready to take down an active shooter in seconds, instead of waiting minutes for police to arrive. Opponents say the measure poses an added safety risk for the students and the faculty carrying guns.
But within the argument over armed teachers, another debate is brewing: How much information should a school be required to share about its safety plan — and with whom?
Do Your Child’s Teachers Carry Guns?
There’s no way for the public to find out which school districts have armed staff — or even how many Ohio schools do — because there’s no state agency that tracks it.
"I'm not surprised. I'm appalled. I just think it's totally irresponsible," Trump, the school security expert, said.
Educational issues in Ohio are largely decided at the local level. That’s why some experts said it doesn’t make sense for the state to track it.
“I’m a firm believer that if you’re going to gather the data, then there has to be a reason to gather it,” said Dick Caster, a school safety and security consultant at the Ohio School Boards Association. “Just keeping numbers that there are 100 school districts in the state of Ohio that have someone armed in the school may be nice information, but I just don’t see what you’re going to do with the data.”
School officials often have those conversations about armed staff behind closed doors under the umbrella of a school's safety plan. While the school board must enact its safety protocol at a public meeting, the specifics, like the presence of armed staff, are often not revealed.
“We leave it up to each individual school to decide how public or private they want to be about it,” said Joe Eaton, director of Faster Saves Lives, an Ohio nonprofit that provides firearms training to school employees.
Just north of Dayton at Sidney City Schools, possible active shooters receive a warning on the front door: Some staff inside are armed.
Superintendent John Schue said the district wanted to be transparent with the community, and the signs are a deterrent for possible intruders.
At other school districts, teachers within the same building could be left in the dark.
“We’ll have other schools where two teachers are sitting at a lunch table. One of the teachers is armed, and the other teacher does not even know they have armed staff in the building,” Eaton said.
More Laws Needed?
Most school safety experts and law enforcement officials agree that it’s important for schools to inform police and sheriffs' departments if teachers in school buildings have access to guns.
“It’s a good idea because law enforcement is coming into an already unknown situation so giving them as much information as possible just makes everybody’s job easier,” Eaton said.
But experts differ on whether it should be required by law.
Doug Hale, who oversees school resource officers at the Butler County Sheriff’s Office, knows what it’s like to respond to a school shooting.
He pulled up to Madison High School just a minute after officials caught the shooting suspect, James Austin Hancock. He said he knew that the only employee legally armed in the school building was School Resource Officer Kent Hall.
“It was extremely helpful because we only had to look for one gun. We didn’t have to worry about (some teacher) coming around with the weapon,” Hale said.
That’s why he thinks state officials must put more pressure on the school districts to work with law enforcement when they decide to authorize employees to carry guns.
“I think there should be something at the state level that would require that if you have staff members carrying, you must report it to law enforcement,” Hale said, adding that it’s a practice that could save more lives.
“If you have a gun in your hand when then the police come in, there’s a good chance you’re going to get shot because we don’t know who the shooter is,” he said.
Eaton, on the other hand, encourages school districts to notify and work with first responders, but doesn’t think it should be required.
“The decision should stay local with each school and each school board,” he said. "Some communities have attempted to work with their local law enforcement, and the local law enforcement has not been supportive of this concept. Those districts have went ahead and moved forward with authorization.”
Caster, the Ohio School Boards Association consultant, said school leaders should always sit down with the police chief or sheriff to talk about what armed teachers and first responders would do in an emergency.
“I believe that agencies need to know that there are armed people in the building. I believe the police should maybe know who they are, and I highly recommend that the police and those teachers or staff train together consistently,” he said.
Like Eaton, Caster doesn’t think that meeting should be required because some agencies don’t support teachers carrying guns.
“Sitting down with a police agency might be problematic if there’s a philosophical difference between the two,” he said.
Many schools do tell law enforcement when they authorize employees to carry guns.
Scheu, the Sidney City Schools superintendent, said the 40 employees who have access to guns in his school district trained with deputies at the the Shelby County Sheriff's Department.
While Ohio school officials don't have to tell anyone about armed employees, the law requires districts to work with local law enforcement when developing a school safety plan.
The electronic document, which districts must file to the Ohio Board of Education, must include an emergency operations plan, a floor plan of the school building, a site plan and a contact sheet with important administrators and community first responders.
The law doesn't require officials to reveal if they have armed teachers or spell out who is armed. But Scheu said he voluntarily shared that information in his plan — everything but the names of teachers, location of weapons and specific protocol.
School safety plans are exempt from Ohio's public record act, so there's no way for the public to find out who has filed a plan, who hasn't and which districts have included armed teachers in their plans.