Putting guns in schools has struck many as a radical suggestion since the Sandy Hook massacre. But in one rural Michigan township, the police chief has come up with a thoughtful, serious plan to do just that.
During his 33-year-career in law enforcement, Victor Pierce has seen the bodies of murdered children, and he’s struggled to reckon with it. After Sandy Hook, he felt compelled to do something, he says. So he decided to invite teachers and school administrators to participate in the reserve-officer-training program. After they’d completed the class, Pierce would swear them in as volunteer reserve officers, and if the school district gave its blessing, they could carry concealed weapons on campus.
“Edmund Burke said it so well: The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing,” Pierce says. “We are trying to make a difference. . . . Schools are in a weapons-free zone, and typically, that’s why a perpetrator [chooses them, taking] the path of least resistance. If he knows that there’s a soft target, he’ll reach that objective. You can put in all the locks and metal detectors you want. That’s not going to stop him from doing something sadistic or creating carnage. You need force.”
The training program takes place in Barry Township, a community 25 miles northeast of Kalamazoo with fewer than 4,000 inhabitants. Over the course of twelve weeks, enrollees get 60 hours of training about the law, application and use of force, defensive tactics, handgun use and safety, and other basics. The current class has 31 members, including two teachers and an administrator. Pierce plans to provide those who complete the program with ongoing training. Under Michigan state law, schools are gun-free zones, meaning that even residents with concealed-carry permits are not permitted to possess guns on campus. However, the federal Law Enforcement Officer Safety Act, signed by George W. Bush in 2004, exempts qualified law-enforcement officers from local and state prohibitions on the carrying of concealed firearms. The relation between the federal law and state law remains ambiguous, but Pierce has collaborated with the local school district, hoping to get its full blessing. His approach prepares teachers to protect their students, and it also ensures their legal status as law-enforcement officers.
Last week, during practice in the Delton District Library, Pierce taught his enrollees to clear a large room. Armed with plastic decoy pistols, the trainees broke into groups of four, each of which clustered in a diamond formation, which gives them a tactical advantage. Covering each other, they rushed through the door, searching for the “shooter,” played by a young volunteer officer. They learned to disarm and apprehend him while minimizing the risk to themselves and any bystanders. Pierce shouted out commands, running his students through repeated drills. He takes it seriously, and it rubs off on his students, who study hard.
Pierce’s idea has many significant merits. Only the most extreme gun opponents want to see police disarmed. By having school employees serve as reserve officers, Pierce legitimizes their choice to bear weapons to protect their students.
Such training programs could minimize risks, says Bill Page, a senior risk consultant for the Michigan Municipal Risk Management Authority, a public-entity self-insurance pool that covers municipal governments across the state. Indiscriminately allowing all teachers to carry guns could create problems as well as prevent them. However, “if you selectively arm people who are capable of diffusing the situation before police get there, that would be positive,” Page says. His research has led him to “very, very qualified” support of arming trained school workers.
Under Pierce’s plan, the school district would make the ultimate determination about whether to allow its employees to bear arms on campus. And those who might carry weapons would be trained and prepared. That emphasis on skill and education has motivated many parents in the region to support the program, says Steve Scoville, principal of Delton’s Kellogg Elementary School and a participant in the course.
“Teachers [wouldn’t be] walking around with a gun strapped to their hip,” Scoville says. “Having trained people in each building, capable of response if something terrible happened, is way better than waiting around, hiding under our desks. The incidents when we’ve had the shootings in schools, the criminal didn’t adhere to the weapons ban.”
Pierce’s approach is also cheap. By partnering with the school district and the community, he’s gained free access to libraries, schools, and other venues for training drills. An adjunct instructor at Kellogg Community College’s police academy in Battle Creek, Mich., Pierce teaches the reserve-officer program himself, inviting cops, prosecutors, and other experts to help out. He uses teaching equipment the police department already owns. And reserve officers are volunteers, not paid employees. All in all, the reserve-officer-training program costs less than $100 per participant, Pierce says, adding that even cash-strapped cities and districts could use this approach. Barry County waives the registration fee altogether for school employees.
Most important, arming teachers as reserve officers would ensure rapid response in an emergency. And in school shootings, response times matter. At Columbine, law enforcement remained outside the school for three hours before reaching the wounded. At Sandy Hook, there was a 20-minute delay. At Virginia Tech, it took less than ten minutes, but the perpetrator was quicker still. Two of the SWAT-team members who searched Columbine the day of the shooting, Sargeant. A. J. DeAndrea and now-retired Sheriff’s Sargeant Grant Whitus, currently train respondents to assume that in a mass shooting, a person dies every 15 seconds.
Pierce says having an armed reserve officer on campus ensures that help is already on the scene if it’s needed.
“If the school is in lockdown, where is the help?” Pierce asks. “It might be a long way away, so you have to create a firewall, a way to help protect those children until help arrives.” Furthermore, he says, the very idea of teachers doubling as reserve officers might deter violence.
In Barry County and across Michigan, the idea is gaining support. Jim Alden, a Barry Township trustee, says local leaders like what they see in Pierce’s program.
“We’re leaders,” Alden says, adding that the program could easily be replicated across America. “We come from the standpoint that if there’s going to be a gun in schools, we want it in an officer’s hand, and we want trained people. Columbine wasn’t a big place. Sandy Hook wasn’t a big place. In today’s world, it could happen anywhere. Are we prepared?”
Pierce’s idea may be bolstered by a legislative effort to institutionalize similar programs across Michigan. State representative Greg MacMaster has proposed legislation that would grant individual school districts the authority to allow teachers and personnel to carry concealed weapons. The bill is in its infancy, awaiting its hearing before the House Education Committee.
But, like Pierce, MacMaster says he hopes for a program rooted in emergency-response education for teachers and administrators, “which would include shooting training as well as psychological training.” By using a reserve-officer program to equip employees, schools would also limit their liabilities, MacMaster says.
“We do know this: Gun-free zones don’t work,” MacMaster says. “It’s a place of weakness. People who want to do harm know they can go there.”
The program conceived in Michigan could be copied nationwide, MacMaster and Pierce say.
“I foresee that this will resonate all over the United States and will continue to resonate — that people, schools, and parents will say enough is enough,” Pierce says. He adds that “I can’t take every school administrator to every ugly crime scene, but if I did, it would change their tune immediately. People don’t want to see the underbelly of society, and it is ugly. . . . You know that certain things could be in place to protect [children and teens]. People want to focus on [instances] where the weapon is a bad thing. I’ve seen situations where weapons have saved them. If it’s used effectively or properly, it can be a deterrent.”
— Jillian Kay Melchior is a Thomas L. Rhodes Fellow for the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity.