Parents who sued Madison schools over the district’s policy on arming teachers and staff members have learned a lot from court documents but are still frightened for the safety of their children, one of those parents said in an interview.
The court challenge came in response to a gun policy that was passed about a year ago in response to a 2016 shooting at Madison Jr./Sr. High School, where a student injured four of his classmates. A group of parents sued the district last September seeking an injunction blocking the district from arming teachers and other staff without the training required of law enforcement officials — 728 hours versus the 26 hours the school has in its policy — and a court order requiring disclosure of policies and procedures for arming staff.
Erin Gabbard, the lead plaintiff, read documents — including depositions taken with the three armed staff and administrators — released recently after the school district won the lawsuit.
“I think we all felt helpless three years ago and we don’t want to feel that way again, no one on either side of this,” Gabbard told the Journal-News. “I think we can’t ignore the real safety risks that come with bringing guns into the classroom with such inadequate training.
“I think our kids, and our staff and the parents in this district deserve a more comprehensive, thorough and thoughtful policy.”
School Board President David French in his deposition said that, given the remote location of the schools, the board needed more protection options. He said officials added another school resource officer after the shooting, but that day proved how vulnerable the staff and students are.
“These teachers put their lives on the line. We had one teacher, didn’t know what was going on, he locked his doors. He didn’t know if it was a group of armed people or what,” French testified. “He’s a coach. He passed out his duffel bags. Said kids, if someone comes through this door, I’ll protect you at all cost. And he gave them baseball bats. That’s all he had in (his) control. That’s it.”
Judge Charles Pater ruled late last month school staffers who carry guns are not required to take law enforcement-level hours of training. He had already decided most of the documents the school board wanted to shield were open records. The psychological examinations of the three staffers — two teachers and an administrator — are still under seal because the judge said they are protected by HIPPA laws.
The parents never wanted identities revealed, and Gabbard said it is very suspicious the district wouldn’t release the evaluations, documents she and her attorney said are not shielded by HIPPA because it is not a private communication between a doctor and a patient but something the employee agrees to release to his or her employer.
They have not decided if they will appeal the lawsuit decision.
“I don’t feel the board has really been transparent about the psychological testing of the armed staff, for reasons that are unclear to us parents,” Gabbard said. “They have worked to hide the results of the testing from public scrutiny. So the question becomes if there’s nothing to hide, why can’t we see them?”
Gabbard said she is grateful the district and all the staff are concerned about the safety of children.
The board has authorized up to 10 armed staff, and three have applied and been approved. Depositions from the those three include explanations about why they wanted to arm themselves.
They were all in the school on Feb. 29, 2016, and they are identified as John Does in their depositions to protect their identities.
“I can remember thinking to myself, you know, here I am, the only thing standing between these kids, and I really just had a textbook in my hands. And I just was, like, this is not a fair fight, “ John Doe No. 3 testified. “All I could think of was that I have 25 other lives behind me, and what am I supposed to do with a book?”
John Doe No. 1’s students were having lunch in the cafeteria where the shooting occurred. He was in his classroom about 200 yards away with one student serving lunch detention.
“We were basically told to hide and hope for the best. That’s the lockdown,” he said. “Teachers are not allowed to do anything except hold a book, throw things.”
The three staffers who are now trained and armed received 27 hours of Faculty/Administrator Safety Training and Emergency Response (FASTER) training last summer. They all said the training gave them experience in hunting down an assailant.
But they also testified they were verbally instructed by the district — this part of the policy is not in writing — not to pursue suspects but instead follow the board’s defensive policy. All staff, including those authorized to carry guns, have been told to follow board’s policy to take the passive ALICE (Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter, Evacuate) approach.
John Doe No. 3 said they had training exercises during which they pursued the gunman, but he knows that’s not allowed.
“In that situation, as a human being, I don’t understand why you wouldn’t want to stop that from happening. But that’s not, obviously, what we’ve been asked to do by the board,” John Doe No. 3 said. “Because in several of the scenarios, we were trained to hunt the bad guy. But that’s not our role at Madison. Now, I know some other districts may take those roles, but that’s not what we’ve been instructed to do at Madison.”
One of the armed staffers said that if someone was visibly shooting 30 to 40 feet away, he would “engage” and would leave his classroom to do it.
“In my opinion, if I am the best option to end that threat, that’s what needs to be done,” one of the staffers said. “What we’re trained to be aware of is you cannot stop a person from bringing a weapon into a school. You can’t stop a person from killing a person, but you can stop them from owning the building for 20 minutes. And the reason they’re going to stop is because somebody is going to engage them.”
However, later in his testimony, when questioned by the district’s lawyer Brodi Conover, the teacher said he would not “pursue a shooter” outside his area.
Gabbard said she is very concerned that there are inconsistencies between the training the staff received and what the board has verbally instructed.
“There is a concern about the lack of real teeth in the policy,” she said. “The board gave a verbal instruction to staff to only act defensively and to stay in place, but it doesn’t exist in written form anywhere. It’s the opposite of how the armed staff are trained. And the John Does, at least one of them has said that’s not something they’d comply with.”
Superintendent Lisa Tuttle-Huff did not respond when asked why the verbal instructions were not made part of the policy. She also would not comment on Gabbard’s criticism of the policy.
The recentlyreleased policy is three pages long and outlines how armed staffers will be selected and removed if necessary. It orders background checks, random drug screenings and mental health screenings and mandates that armed staff disclose anything going forward that might impact their ability to carry arms, including arrests, medication use or “any other life event that impact the employee’s fitness.”
It includes stipulations that the identities of armed staff must be kept a secret and says the Butler County Sheriff’s Office will consult on how those people can be identified in a crisis situation.
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