Iberia residents struggle over proposal to arm teachers

Iberia librarian Carolyn Beal speaks to the Board of Education Tuesday, March 6, 2018 about the possibility of arming teachers during a public comment at a meeting in the high school gymnasium.

In a rural Mid-Missouri community, residents are torn over how to locally address an issue of national importance: how to best protect students against an active shooter.

More than 75 people attended a public meeting hosted by the Iberia R-5 School District on Tuesday evening in the high school gymnasium to discuss a consideration to allow teachers to arm themselves against dangers such as active school shooters. If Iberia Grounds Security Policy ECA-1 is revised, district personnel could apply for training and approval to carry concealed weapons such as mace or firearms on campus in an attempt to protect students and staff members from attack.

Superintendent Lyndel Whittle said the meeting went very well, and the board would have to further ponder the issue before making a decision. The BOE does not have a set time limit in which to make a decision.

Iberia R-5 is a rural school district located east of Lake of the Ozarks in Miller County with approximately 725 students and 110 employees. Many residents voiced support on the revision in order to better protect students in a rural district with lengthy officer response times. None of the eight people who offered an official comment were against the revision. About 340 residents responded to an online survey before the meeting in which Whittle said the revision received strong support.

However, almost everyone who spoke also voiced concern about potential problems.

A few attendants questioned whether it would be better for the district to hire a second school security officer or improve other security systems instead of arming teachers. Multiple attendants said students would likely deduce which teachers are secretly armed.

Casey Stack, a former Marine and parent of Iberia students, said he supported the revision, given that the teachers are properly trained and work with area police departments so everyone has the same protocol in an active shooter situation. He thought that would be especially important if the district received training through a private security company rather than law enforcement officials.

Librarian Carolyn Beal said it would be difficult for teachers to work together in the case of a school shooting if they do not know which teachers are armed and expected to confront the shooter. Whittle said the district would have to develop protocol to address that issue.

"I don't frankly know how this could be kept a secret, because the teacher who is armed needs to have the support of those around her to be able to take care of her students," Beal said.

Board member Kyle Nichols said if the revision were approved, a sister program should also be approved to address the emotional wellbeing of the students. "The district needs more mental and emotional wellness programs that answers to the board," he said.

Miller County Sheriff Louie Gregoire echoed Nichols' point, saying preventing the creation of a school shooter should be as much of a focus as responding to one. "I think instead of talking about the reaction of it, we should be talking about prevention," Gregoire said.

The schools' only currently armed resource officer, Andy Long, said he supports the revision because he can't be everywhere in the school at once.

The BOE wanted to hear community members' opinions on the possibility of arming select staff members before making a decision.

"The majority of the board members have not indicated a strong leaning either way, as they want to continue to learn more and consider how they wish to proceed," Whittle said before the meeting. "This is not a decision to be rushed. We are being very deliberative and thoughtful in making any decisions about this. How our community feels is important to us."

Whittle previously said most of the district's teachers surveyed did not feel they would be good at serving in the role of armed campus protector, but a few staff members indicated they would be interested in completing training.

The Board of Education met with representatives from the Law Enforcement Training Institute (LETI) and Shield Solutions LLC at the regular board meeting Feb. 27. Whittle said both agencies gave informative presentations and answered questions from the board and community members about the training, screening and selection process the agencies use before approving a teacher to carry a concealed weapon on campus.

LETI generally trains police officers, but it also offers a School Protection Officer Training program through the Department of Public Safety. SPO applicants would be screened to determine if they are mentally and emotionally capable of serving in the role of protecting students with a concealed firearm. John Warner, emergency planning coordinator of the Missouri School Boards' Association, said Iberia would be the first school district in the state to implement an SPO through DPS, which would track and monitor SPOs throughout the state.

Shield Solutions is a private security company stationed in West Plains that offers a training and insurance program to school staff members. Several schools throughout Missouri are already arming their teachers through its Critical Incident Response course and School Employee Firearms Training program. After 40 hours of training and a mental evaluation - plus annual eight-hour follow-up courses - approved teachers become Shield Solutions employees, simultaneously serving as armed security guards and teachers under the company's liability insurance.

Climax Springs R-4 staff members began working with Shield Solutions in spring 2014 after administrators grew concerned with how long it would take for law enforcement officials to respond to an active school shooter in the building housing pre-kindergarten to high school students, which is located more than 20 miles of winding roads away from the nearest police station in Camdenton.

Superintendent Nathan Barb said the program has been successful in the district so far.

"It's worked out very well," he said. "We are four years into it, and it's quiet. After the initial year, a lot of our community and teachers all know about it. But it's not something that they worry about on a daily basis, and it's not a big deal. Heaven forbid (an active shooter) does ever happen - that's not what any individual wants to hope for - but hopefully we will be prepared in that case the best we can."