'We have to do something': Michigan school district considers arming staff

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News

Addison — Standing on the sidewalk outside his school's K-12 campus, superintendent Steve Guerra sweeps his hand across endless acres of farms, woods and marsh that surround his school and the 810 students inside.

Any direction Guerra stands — north, south, east or west — law enforcement is at least 20 miles away from Addison Community Schools, which sits remotely along the borders of Lenawee, Jackson and Hillsdale counties. 

Addison School's Superintendent Steve Guerra addresses the use of a $48,000 grant from the Michigan State Police to install 3M window film on 192 school windows to make them shatterproof .

Guerra, who spent the summer reinforcing nearly 130 school windows with security film and adding 60 new security cameras, estimates police response time to his main school building from any three county sheriff's departments is between 13 to 38 minutes.

“Both of those numbers are unacceptable," Guerra said. "A school shooting is over in seven minutes. We are looking at other opportunities to keep our kids and staff safe."

That includes arming school staff.

Addison school officials are talking about becoming the first school district in Michigan to allow its educators to carry guns.

The conversation started 18 months ago, Guerra said, when school leaders were searching for new ways to improve school safety, and it led to the creation of a safety committee comprised of three local board of education members to study and research the idea.

Addison School's Superintendent Steve Guerra demonstrates the electronic door opener at the entrance to the high school/middle school office.

Then earlier this month, about 100 people attended a public meeting where students, parents and community members openly spoke of their support of and concerns about having guns inside the school.

Guerra said he has eight staff members who are concealed pistol license holders, including himself, teachers and a custodian, who have already volunteered to carry if the district moves forward with the option.

"I personally think that it would be a good idea," Guerra said. "As the CEO and superintendent of my district, I can’t guarantee 100% safety in my district. Would employees carrying guarantee? No. It would reduce causalities."

From 1999's Columbine to 2018's Parkland, educators across America have been having tough conversations on how to prevent the next mass school shooting.

Arming school personnel is among the last resorts for some districts, and no Michigan school district has made the move, which is opposed by the state's largest teachers union and state superintendent.

This surveillance camera mounted outside Addison High School is one of many inside and outside the Addison School's campus.

Instead, school districts across Michigan have spent $55.8 million in school safety grants to modern security across their school buildings the last four years. Other districts have asked voters to approve bonds to improve security and use district general funds to hire security guards or school resource officers and have vocally opposed arming school staff.

The vast majority of states generally prohibit firearms in K-12 schools, according to the bipartisan National Conference of State Legislatures, with most making some exceptions to their laws.

Nineteen states, including Michigan, allow anyone with permission from school authority to carry firearms in K-12 schools. State law says an individual employed by or contracted by a school "if the possession of that weapon is to provide security services for the school" is permitted.

Addison School's Superintendent Steve Guerra looks at the 3M window film  installed over 192 windows to make them shatterproof on the Addison Schools' campus.  A $48,000 grant from the Michigan State Police paid for the window treatments.

At the same time, Michigan schools can also ban guns from their grounds. Ann Arbor and Clio public schools enacted policies against anyone other than law enforcement carrying guns in schools.

Jeanice K. Swift, superintendent of Ann Arbor Public Schools, said a primary argument of allowing guns in schools is the idea that a ‘good guy with a gun’ can ensure safety in the case of an active shooter situation.

But Swift pointed to two cases in 2015, one in which a parent with a CPL dropped a gun on the ground during a fight at the school and another where a parent left his jacket with a gun inside a school gym for five hours.

"Well-intended people, even those with gun training, are just like everyone else, prone to make mistakes," Swift said. "When a parent forgets a jacket or a gun falls out of a pocket at school, it could cost a child’s life."

Tina Kerr, deputy executive directors of the Michigan Association of Superintendents and Administrators, said the conversation on arming school staff is just getting started in Michigan, despite its prevalence in nearby Ohio.

"It has not come up a lot. It's a small number (of districts) that are taking positions, but that doesn’t mean it's going to stay that way," Kerr said. "The ones I have visited are not in favor of this."

The Lenawee County Undersheriff answers questions during a fact finding meeting at Addison High School on Monday, Sept. 9, 2019 to explore whether staff at the school should be allowed to carry guns. A timeline for a decision on the proposal has not been determined.

Kerr said her association's position is that law enforcement should only be armed in schools, but the group also believes it's a local decision to be made by districts.

State Superintendent Michael Rice opposed arming school staff as superintendent at Kalamazoo Public Schools. Asked of his position now as the state's top education official, Rice said he believes it's a local decision for each district to decide.

"That said, I also believe that guns and children should not be in the same space," Rice said.

Addison Community Schools superintendent Steve Guerra speaks during a fact finding meeting at Addison High School on Monday, Sept. 9, 2019 to explore whether staff at the school should be allowed to carry guns. A timeline for a decision on the proposal has not been determined.

According to the Michigan Education Association, 71% of 1,005 members polled in 2018 opposed arming school employees with guns. The association represents 120,000 members.

"That’s a very strong statement of where our members are on this issue," MEA spokesman David Crim said.

Inside Addison Community Schools

The school boundary lines for Addison Community Schools covers 80 square miles. Students attend school inside one long building, where hallways connect the high school, middle school and elementary school. 

The Addison Panther football team plays Friday nights, and the district is exploring a high school clay target team. Many students come from families where hunting is the norm, and so is owning a firearm.

Thomas Tate, an 11th grader at the high school who says he uses firearms with his family to hunt and shoot clay pigeons and targets, shot his first deer when he was 5.

The 16-year-old, who participated in an early youth hunt in September, said he does support arming school staff.

"I don't feel unsafe, but I also don't feel safe at the same time because if someone in the wrong mindset comes in here, it's 45 minutes before the sheriff can get here," Tate said.

Clayton Hawes, also a junior at the high school, said he thinks arming school staff is a good idea.

Addison High School student Clayton Hawes speaks about having concealed weapons on the Addison Schools campus during an interview on 95.7 FM student radio in Addison on
Friday, September 13, 2019.

"The time it will take the officers to get here, to serve and protect to do their job, that the teachers will be able to be there in that position until law enforcement comes in and does the rest of the job," Hawes said.

But other Addison students say they are against the idea of arming teachers, including one freshman who told The Detroit News there are worries about a gun misfiring.

At dismissal time on a Friday in September, parents stood to wait for their younger children to walk out of school.

Kari Woodcock has two children at the school, in fourth and seventh grades. She says she would prefer a school resource officer to arming staff.

"We're for it if that is what needs to be done," Woodcock said. "Ultimately, it's a small community, and we're out here a ways, and we don't have our own police department.

Concerned parent Kari Woodcock addresses the possibility of concealed weapons on the Addison School's campus in Addison, Mich.

"If a teacher is willing to step up, and they already have a CPL, and they are willing to go through further training just to protect the kids they are already protecting, why not?"

Sue McClung, who taught in Addison Schools for 24 years and is a graduate of the district, supports arming school personnel as long as a staffer wants to carry and is properly trained.

"If people knew that some teachers were carrying, that would be a deterrent," McClung said.

McClung also knows some people at the public meeting spoke against it.

"My fear is it will divide the community. People will be very for it or very against it," McClung said.

What would be the rules?

Any 911 calls from inside Addison Community Schools go directly to the Lenawee County Sheriff's Department. 

Sheriff Troy Bevier said he has spoken to the superintendent about arming school staff, offered his help and expertise to the district and has asked Guerra to keep him informed as the district moves forward.

"I had some concerns," Bevier said, "I didn’t say I was for it or against it. I said I had some concerns."

Bevier said he wants to know what the process will be for vetting and identifying candidates to be armed.

"For example, how will you ID yourself so we know who is armed and not armed?" Bevier said.

Bevier said he wants to talk to the district about other options for school security, from notification systems for law enforcement to special lights in school hallways. He disputes his department's response time, saying it is between "zero" and 35 minutes, depending on the closest sheriff's car is in the 761-square-mile county.

"With response times, concerns were brought up at the meeting," Bevier said. "We're a pretty rural county. We also have school resource officers we share. One of them is at Addison. When you are talking about an active shooter, we would send everybody."

Guerra said he knows he and the sheriff don't agree on response time ranges and said the school resource officer is shared between four school districts and is not at his district often.

Mike Ingels, president of the Addison Education Association, the teachers' union, said views from teachers are mixed on arming the 45-member school staff.

"One said, 'maybe it's time for me to get out of the classroom,'" Ingels said. "More said 'Sign me up.'"

Ingels said Lenawee County and its surrounding area are one of the best hunting spots in the state. People are comfortable with firearms and many parents and some teachers are CPL holders.

"It's part of life here," Ingels said of firearms.

Addison School's Superintendent Steve Guerra shows a sign and addresses the possibility of administrative staff carrying  concealed weapons at school.

Three years ago, a student attacked an Addison staff member inside school and teachers had to take turns holding the student while they waited for law enforcement to come. It took 35 minutes, Ingels said.

"The response time was the worrying thing," Ingels said of Lenawee County and that incident. "That is more the rule than the exception. Thirty-five minutes is a long time. And what could happen in that time?"

Ingels said the union voted to "be open" to what the district is working on.

"We could have said no. We didn’t," Ingels said. "This is not controversial locally."

'We have to do something'

Sheldon Greenberg, a professor at Johns Hopkins University School of Education’s division of public safety leadership, concluded in a research paper that arming teachers would be risky and ineffective.

In a crisis, Greenberg says trained police officers shoot with less than 30% accuracy. Greenberg asks what makes anyone think a teacher is going to do better.

Limited firearms training creates familiarity and, to some degree, comfort, Greenberg says.

"It does not develop or change emotional readiness or needed behavior," his report says. "Despite the training being provided to some teachers, the stress and chaos of the situation combined with a lack of physical, mental, and emotional preparedness to engage in a shooting will inhibit significantly the probability of success."

Ultimately, the Addison Community Schools board of education will decide whether to move forward with a recommendation to arm school staff.

Michael Murphy, president of the Addison school board of education and a member of the safety committee, said the committee is focused on fact-finding.

Murphy, a retired Toledo police officer who worked on SWAT and a former public school teacher, said the safety of students is a huge concern for the board as reports of mass school shootings continue year after year.

"Over the last few years, it has escalated," Murphy said. "We are rural and fairly isolated. So we as a board, we are trying to find the best possible solution for the safety of our students."

Murphy said it is easy for some to say they would take on the task of being armed in a school, but there is no way to prepare someone for the stress of a mass shooting.

"You train as much as possible. When the event happens, you don’t know how people are going to react," he said.

Addison School's Superintendent Steve Guerra holds a fake gun to demonstrate the possibility of administrative staff carrying concealed weapons on school campus in Addison.

Guerra said he has contacted the district's attorney and its insurance company and learned he could arm school staff as long as they are under a separate contract for school security. His staff has completed ALICE, the civilian training for active shooters.

"We need to decide whether we are going to do it or not," Guerra said. "You look at last month. How many mass shootings we've had. In Alabama, there was one at a Friday night football game," Guerra said.

"We have to do something. This is one way for me to try to do something."