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Teachers packing heat: It's one thing to carry a gun. It's another to pull the trigger

Student reporter interviews classmates hiding from gunman in Florida high school

David Hogg, a senior and student reporter at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, recorded interviews with some of his classmates on February 14 as they were hiding from an active shooter in the school.
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David Hogg, a senior and student reporter at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, recorded interviews with some of his classmates on February 14 as they were hiding from an active shooter in the school.

Antonio Orozco, an ordained minister of 30 years, is at peace preparing Texas teachers to carry out violence to stop violence.

"I have no qualms about using firearms to defend a life of a child or another person," the 67-year-old grandfather from Houston said. "It goes contradictory to what I'm doing, but the facts on the ground dictate to take action."

Debate over arming teachers is raging anew in Texas and across America following the murder of 17 students at a Parkland, Fla., high school, bringing the total to at least 21 killed in school shootings in the first 56 days of 2018.

President Donald Trump continued Friday to hard-sell the necessity for "gun-adept teachers and coaches" to carry concealed firearms on their campuses and in their classrooms.

Rightly so, Orazco said, then pausing for a moment when asked the one question that remains unanswerable: Will a teacher confronted by a killer carrying an AR-15 — maybe a former student or current one, someone they know, someone young — shoot "the hell out of him" with a handgun, as Trump suggests, in that cold-blooded split-second awash in adrenaline?

"The question is: Can you do that?" Orazco said. "But you can't ask that first because you'll scare them away."

Orazco is one of about a dozen recent graduates of the School Safety Officer Training program provided by the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement since 2014, in response to the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.

Graduates of the program solicit school districts to train teachers and administrators right down to custodial workers in a 16-hour course on how to take charge of protecting students, including the use of a firearm, in the nightmare scenario of an active shooter.

In school districts where it's approved, those who volunteer to carry on campuses pack their firearm along with their lunch before leaving the house. And not a day goes by on the drive to school when they don't contemplate facing their moment of truth.

"I do, and I think all of us who carry have that discussion," said a Texas educator, who spoke about the responsibility of carrying a gun on condition that their name, school and position not be revealed. "I think we all have to be pretty firm that if we believe that someone is trying to hurt students or staff, we are committed to do what it takes to stop that person — up to shooting them.

"Not all people are cut out for that. You never know until you have to."

At Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., where American's latest nightmare played out, even the armed deputy stationed at the school, proved incapable of rising to the occasion and confronting the accused gunman, a 19-year-old former student.

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Margarita Lasalle, left, a bookkeeper and Joellen Berman, a guidance data specialist, look at a memorial Friday as teachers and school administrators returned to Stoneman Douglas High School for the first time since 17 victims were killed in a mass shooting at the school, in Parkland, Fla. Mike Stocker South Florida Sun-Sentinel via AP

"You can train somebody, get them ready, run drills, but when it comes to the moment of pulling the trigger, it's something we don’t know until we confront it personally," said Johnny Nhan, associate professor of criminal justice at TCU. "Your body naturally goes into Adrenaline mode, fight or flight mode, and it takes a lot of training to control that."

'Searching your heart'

The Argyle school district, about 30 miles north of Fort Worth, is one of 172 districts in Texas whose school boards voted to allow teachers, administration and other staff to carry concealed weapons, according to the Texas Association of School Boards, with two school boards voting to do so after the Florida shootings.

All must have concealed-carry licenses and go through extensive and ongoing training.

About 150 districts have their own police departments, such as Mansfield, and another 250 districts have school resource officers, such as Fort Worth. The Fort Worth Police Department stations one officer at each of the Fort Worth school district's 21 high schools. Smaller school districts in more rural areas seem to outnumber larger ones in terms of concealed-carry policies because of greater concern for response time.

"All of our teachers that carry have [a gun] on them all the time," Argyle ISD Police Chief Paul Cairney said. "So as soon as something happens, they can immediately respond."

Tarrant County Sheriff Bill Waybourn isn't against arming teachers, as Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel said he is during CNN's town hall Wednesday night.

Waybourn said he is an advocate for creating multifaceted plans to better secure schools through restricting access points, improved camera systems and well-trained, armed security officers. However, he said he also realizes it is more cost-effective to arm teachers than to hire professional security or police officers.

Orazco's 16-hour course, he said, costs $10 an hour per trainee if held at the school, and less if a district opts to train more staff.

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When he was police chief in Dalworthington Gardens in 2013, Bill Waybourn taught a course about concealed handgun permits to educators. Waybourn is now the sheriff in Tarrant County. Rodger Mallison Star-Telegram archives

Waybourn said he is concerned that arming teachers only increases their already heavy workloads with the distraction of keeping track of a firearm, and more so, the full-time weight of knowing that one day they might have to brandish it.

"When I teach handgun training or deadly force force training there is a moment in time of searching your heart and searching your mind, can you use deadly force? Can you do it?" Waybourn said. "And by the way, I've had police officers wake up in my career and resign because they realized they couldn't do it. I think that's very commendable."

In 2013, after the Sandy Hook tragedy, Waybourn taught a concealed handgun class for teachers and administrators. Nearly 700 attended.

"I've taught tons of people how to carry weapons and I think there are a larger majority than people know that made a decision, 'I'm glad I took the training, but I can't shoot somebody so I'm not going to carry a gun.'

"It's a spiritual search. If you can't get there, let's not carry a gun."

What is an AR-15? The controversial assault rifle, and other similar firearms, have become the go-to weapon in many of the recent United States mass shootings. Here's how it works and why it concerns some Americans.

'We're not SWAT people'

Schools that allow teachers and staff to carry do not disclose who those are or how many carry on any particular campus.

But signs posted around Argyle schools inform that staff is armed and will take whatever steps necessary to protect students.

"People know the the days of doing nothing, as Chief Cairney said, is past," Argyle Superintendent Telena Wright said. "We believe it is a deterrent, and it does cut down on the response time."

Schools contacted by the Star-Telegram declined interviews with staff that carry, even when assured anonymity for the person and the school.

The Texas educator who did offer a glimpse into the monumental responsibility of carrying and serving as the first line of defense, expressed confidence in being able to pull the trigger.

"Absolutely. I think you have to be of the mindset that you would or else you don’t do any good," the person said. "We’re not SWAT people, we’re not technically trained and ultimately it's the decision of the person if they're comfortable going after someone. I think everyone we have would try to sacrifice themselves to stop someone, but that’s not the expectation."

'Can you do that?'

National Education Association president Lily Eskelsen Garcia issued a statement against arming teachers. Steven Poole, the executive director of the United Educators Association, which represents teachers and public school employees in Dallas-Fort Worth, also expressed skepticism.

"You can see from the incident that occurred in Florida — a trained deputy didn't enter the building — and we expect teachers to react in a stressful situation," Poole said.

With Trump encouraging qualified teachers to carry, and suggesting those who do should receive bonuses, momentum is building for more school districts everywhere to come to difficult decisions. The debate about arming teachers is likely only to grow more intense on both sides.

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President Donald Trump met with high school students, teachers and parents affected by mass shootings at schools in Parkland, Fla., Newton, Conn., and Columbine, Colo., to discuss possible solutions to keep America's school safe. One of Trump's initiatives is to arm teachers. Olivier Couliery Abaca Press

As school boards continue to consider allowing their administrations, teachers and staff to carry guns, Orazco will welcome them to his training course. And he promises it will encompass the full reality of packing heat at school.

"It's definitely something that they're going to have to come face to face with," he said. "We get them to focus on that and come to the understanding that possibly if there's an intruder, you might have to shoot that person, and, number two, that person might be a student in the school.

"The question is: Can you do that?"

Charles Whitman opened fire on the University of Texas campus in 1966. Since then, the images of school shootings across America look eerily similar.

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